Recently, Majd Mshaty publicly commented on a debate he participated in. It was based on a short film that examined discrimination in the Netherlands nowadays. Sitting there, listening to people discussing discrimination in one of the world’s most open-minded countries, made him feel shocked. Majd is 21 years old and has been living in Amsterdam for almost two years now. He came from his hometown Aleppo, where he personally never faced or even thought about discrimination. I talked to him about different perceptions of culture, media, and labelling.
Majd grew up in an impartial neighbourhood in Aleppo, Syria. The neighbourhood in general and especially Majd’s family were extraordinarily open-minded compared to Aleppo’s average, which was a determining basis for not facing any discrimination in Syria. In his own words: “Everybody told me you and me are the same, and that’s what I told others.” He did not spot any differences between Syrians, Armenians, Turks, or Iraqis — they were all just people, living in the same place, exchanging stories, sharing laughs.
“Everybody told me you and me are the same, and that’s what I told others.”
However, Majd also knows that he was living in a bubble that could not be equated with Aleppo’s or, even less, Syrian’s population. He concludes that there are lots of smart and educated, but close-minded people. Many of the societal issues simply reflect political ones, Majd reasons: “In Syria, people are always divided by politics.” The differentiation between ethnicities is being propagandised and enforced by the regime. Still, Majd did not feel any regulation of judging people acted out on him, especially not before the war started in 2011.
Majd left Syria at the age of 19. After finishing school and studying Dentistry in Aleppo for a year, he arrived in the Netherlands in January 2015. Initially wanting to obtain his degree in Dentistry, Majd quickly changed his mind and is now aiming to study either Sociology or Anthropology; his recent experiences made him keen of studying social behaviour and cultural developments. He already managed to participate in a taster session for Sociology and is currently completing a course to subsequently master the Dutch language state exam.
Back in Syria, Majd and his friends used to dream about studying in Europe and then going back to Syria. Today, he is close to studying in the Netherlands, but far away from his dream’s seeming reality; Europe was the paragon of an open-minded society and charity. But for all that, Majd did not even see that many differences compared to how he has been living before. He already had the impression of living like in Europe before. In fact, people here were differentiating themselves from others to an extent Majd was not used to in the environment he grew up in.
“I was interested in all events, I felt responsible to give an image, to inform people about who we are.”
Regardless, he needed to make himself accepted. Protesting at “Refugees welcome” marches, participating in debates, hosting events in which he talked about how life in Aleppo looked like during the war. In the beginning, Majd was okay with that: “I was interested in all events, I felt responsible to give an image, to inform people about who we are.” But things are different now. Majd speaks Dutch flawlessly, lives and works in the Netherlands, built up his social circle here. Even so, he is still being labelled as “refugee”. He wants to get rid of it, not only because it is a cumbering attribution. From #refugeeswelcome tagged selfies taken with Majd to weird Europeans interviewing him (that would be me, then), it influences the way Majd is being treated. “I don’t want that anymore. I don’t want someone to pay for me or to help me because I am a refugee. In Syria, I was different. I had a good life, I was about to be a dentist. Now I have this label ‘refugee’.”
And that is not least due to the way media cover the Syrian war and the subsequent refugee movement. A look at Google Trends’ results for the search term ‘refugee’ in a time frame ranging from 2013 to 2015 shows that the term’s significance score increased from 17 to 95 within just weeks in August and September 2015. Despite the issue becoming more important over the last few years, Majd does not see a real improvement in the conflict’s media coverage. “Of course they cannot cover everything, they can only cover the most superficial things, and they only cover the most tragic things. They don’t cover everything, because it’s not possible.”
He almost completely stopped consuming mass media covering Syria’s situation. In Majd’s opinion, the only trustworthy source is information from relatives and friends who still remain in Syria. Facebook and WhatsApp group chats keep him updated, whereas all of the other channels are too politically biased. In the beginning of the Arab Spring, many oppositional media channels occurred, but couldn’t keep their credibility up. Majd comments on Orient TV, the most popular one, and concludes: “It lies so much. The local Syrian regime media lie as well. Syrian media is lies. It’s always biased, they exaggerate. The media in general cannot know what’s happening inside.”
As for Western media, they mostly rely on what gets delivered to them. While it is hard to assess individual sources’ reliability, it is even harder to gather first-hand information out of the conflict zone: The situation is hazardous and beyond that, it is almost impossible for journalists to enter. Above all, what would a successful coverage’s reward even be? “The people would know more, but it would not help solving the problems.”
“Do you want to give any concluding message?” “I don’t know. No, I don’t want to give any message. Let’s live.”
To conclude, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Initially discussing forms of discrimination, we also talked about how to end discrimination. Despite discussion and confrontation being crucial components of terminating existing discrimination, Majd had an interesting thought: “As long as you keep talking about discrimination, you feed it, you remind people of its existence.” It might sound modest, but the simplest ideas are often the best ones. To incorporate it right away, I’ll end with the last question I asked Majd to answer: “Do you want to give any concluding message?” “I don’t know. No, I don’t want to give any message. Let’s live.”
Cover: Majd Mshaty