Low Country

My sister lives in Holland, and has done so for fifteen years. She arrived there as a refugee, married another refugee (from Sudan) and they have four children that describe themselves as “half Sudanese, half Somali and half Dutch.” Last week when Holland played Brazil, my nephew Nasir supported Brazil while the rest of his family rooted for Holland.

Nasir is seven and is probably not the only Dutch-born child having second thoughts about his loyalties. Watching the morning news a few weeks ago, when the far-right anti-immigration and especially anti-Islam party scored its best ever result at the polls, Nasir turned to his mother and asked, “are they going to kick us out of the country?”

Twenty years ago, Holland was a welcoming place to be, whoever you were. Not now. God help you if you are Muslim and black.

Since 1989, I have been going to Holland regularly and my pilgrimage to Sudan will take me through the Low Countries once more. I had promised myself the last trip would be my last but here I am once again booking a ticket through Holland on my way to Sudan.

I will get in with my British passport. But will we get out as a family? Last time I visited Holland, I was refused permission to leave the country with my son because the immigration officer told me I needed written consent from my husband to travel with him. I had thought this sort of thing happened only in Saudi Arabia. But it was not a joke despite the fact that I was returning to my husband’s native land and we all had passports for that country.

This is not exceptional. The Dutch police randomly stop black or Arab looking people and my brother in law Khalid and I were hauled over on the motorway for no reason on our way to the port. The policemen were visibly disappointed when they found nothing in the car and couldn’t handcuff us and put us in the back of their car. Khalid has learned the kind of patience necessary for dealing with harassment and stupid questions. “Who is the owner of the car?” “Whose name is the car registered in?” They ran out of questions and reluctantly let us go.

My sister and I were kicked out from a maternity shop on the grounds that I had committed a public indecency by breastfeeding a hungry baby. I was verbally abused on the street and forced to wear clothes I ordinarily wouldn’t and I now think twice before going to Holland because I know that over the course of two weeks there I will suffer more racist abuse than in the other 50 weeks of the year in Britain or America.

“The good ones left for South Africa!” jokes my sister Hodan. South Africa became non-racist just as the original Boers were headed in the opposite direction. Nelson Mandela’s greatest act of leadership was to convince the black South Africans to overcome three centuries of anger and reach out to the whites with the message, “this is your country too.” I dream of the day when no seven year old boy, in Holland, South Africa or anywhere needs to ask whether the place he lives is his country too.

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