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May 13, 2012, Sunday

Being proud of your roots

When I was asked to deliver one of the keynote addresses at the opening of the European Weekend School (EWS) last Thursday, I had to think twice.

The EWS is an international certificate program that is organized annually by the Center for European Studies Students Forum at Boğaziçi University. It is an occasion for students from Turkey and other European countries to meet and discuss issues that are related to European integration. This year’s topic was “EU’s Chronic Dilemma: Migration.” A whole range of knowledgeable academics and policy makers had been asked to present their views. Which point should I make in my kick-off speech?

It was not difficult to find lots of interesting, often repulsive, articles on the scapegoating of migrants by right-wing populists in Europe. With pleasure I read a book called “Who says it’s a failure?” on the gap between the perception of a failed integration of migrants in the Netherlands and the reality of thousands of successful new Dutch citizens of Turkish and Moroccan descent.

After a while, I decided that what I wanted to communicate to the students at Boğaziçi should not be based solely on articles and books or my experiences as a member of the European Parliament. Of course, over the years these had helped to deepen and nuance my views. But the fundamentals were shaped much earlier, during my years at primary school in a small city in the south of the Netherlands.

A few years before I was born, my parents moved from one part of the Netherlands to another. No big deal except for the fact that all of a sudden they found themselves being a religious minority. Both of my parents were born and raised as Protestants in a small village. They spoke with a very particular Dutch accent that was not understood in other parts of the country. Because my father could get a job there, they moved to a city where the majority was Catholic and could only smile about their strange dialect.

It is hard to imagine now but in those days, the mid 1950s, Protestants and Catholics lived their own separate lives within well-defined borders. Each had their own schools, trade union and political party. Shopping was done at a grocery store of a co-religionist, marriages between people of different beliefs hardly happened. From cradle to grave, the life of all believers was organized in such a way that they never had to mix with fellow countrymen who went to another church.

It was therefore logical that my parents send me to the only Protestant school on the other side of town despite the fact that there were plenty of other, Catholic schools closer to our house. From day one, my father, a pious but practical man, made it clear what the basics were: My education would be within the Protestant pillar of society, but my future would most probably be in the wider world. For that reason, I was allowed to cross the sectarian line and make friends with everybody, Protestant and Catholic. At home I could speak my parents’ dialect, but on the street and at school I should speak impeccable Dutch because that would make it easier to climb the social ladder.

There was one thing my father kept reminding me and my sister of: Go out in the big world, but never forget where you came from. Be proud of your roots and never be afraid to speak out your opinion even if you are in a minority position. Mind you, this was long before social scientists started the debate on integration and assimilation. My parents clearly pushed the first, but strongly objected to the second.

In many ways, my private experiences cannot be compared with the often-traumatic migration of millions to a far away country they don’t know. Still, I am sure that, later in life, the basics of my youth made me understand better the preference of migrants, while trying to integrate in Dutch society, to stick to their national traditions and their language. I have never understood the growing obsession among native Dutch with giving up one’s cultural and linguistic heritage as the only way for migrants to become “real” citizens.

Trying to cope with migration has never been easy. Not in Turkey, not in Europe. Neither for the ones who moved, nor for the ones who were forced to live with the newcomers. But it helps if early on someone tells you about the importance of sticking to your roots.

I hope the students got the message.

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