The secret of success of Ahmed Mustafa

Be open minded towards your new culture, without giving up your own identity

7 June 2018

Ahmed Mustafa (1987) was twelve years old when he came to The Netherlands from Eritrea. Even though it was difficult to grow up between two cultures, he created a good new life in Europe. He studied business informatics and works as an IT-specialist. His secret to success is simple yet effective: focus on the future.

Q: What was it like to live at an asylum seekers center as a teenager?

“A lot of people have bad experiences in asylum centers, but for me as a kid, it was amazing. There was a lot of funding available for refugees in The Netherlands, many things were possible. My friends and I received free balls, so we could play soccer. I was a very playful child and I’m still friends with a lot of people I met back then.

Because I was young, it was easy to adapt to new environments. It was hard for my mother, she had left her whole life behind. But we were lucky, we got a lot of support from Dutch people and our friends and family. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I started to understand that there was something different and painful about our situation. Up until then I didn’t really understand why we had to leave Eritrea.”

Q: Eritrean and Dutch culture are different from each other. How did you combine the two?

“I lived with my mother and five sisters in Amsterdam. At home we were a typical Eritrean family, living according to our own culture and customs. But when I was outside or at school, I had to live according to Dutch culture, which was confusing.

In Eritrea, teachers are incredibly strict. They would hit you if you didn’t comply. In The Netherlands teachers aren’t allowed to hit children, and my class mates were often rude towards the teachers. Coming home drunk in Eritrea as a teenager is unthinkable, here it is normal.

The Dutch culture is very open. Couples kiss each other on the streets, women wear short skirts and communication is very direct, sometimes even impolite. At home we didn’t talk about cultural differences, so I had to find my own way between the two cultures.

Now that I am older, and I have a child myself, I have found a way to combine the two cultures. The longer you live in a country, the better you understand the culture and (unwritten) rules. I am raising my child with Dutch and Eritrean culture. Her parents are Eritrean, but she is growing up here, so it is important to my wife and I that she is raised with the best of both cultures. My friends have different cultural backgrounds and even though I have a Dutch passport and lived here for most of my life, I know I am different. I am Eritrean, but I carry a large piece of The Netherlands in me.”

The longer you live here, the easier it gets. Learn the language, get an education, focus on the future and set goals. Don’t stay at home and do nothing. Learn your new culture through your interests. Do you like soccer? Join a Dutch team. Do you like cycling? Find Dutch people you can cycle with. Ask questions, show interest.

Ahmed Mustafa

IT specialist

Q: You are part of the first generation of Eritrean refugees that came to Europe in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s. From 2014 a second large wave of refugees came to Europe. What are you doing to help them?

“The circumstances now are very different from when we had to leave the country. They are having a harder time than we did with finding their place in Europe. We saw how the second generation was struggling, so we started Amana, an organization that focuses on solving the challenges Eritrean refugees in The Netherlands deal with.

We wanted to create visibility and reach out to young Eritreans who are having problems adapting to Dutch culture. In Eritrea there is a we-culture. We are one. We always help each other. In Europe, the culture is much more individualistic. Young men get lost here. Because there is no social control, they start misbehaving. Drinking a lot, sitting at home, doing nothing. They don’t have a network, they don’t understand the language and the culture.

With Amana we want to give them perspective. We organize social activities like Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha (sacrifice feast) and activities and lectures focused on culture, skills and sports. We want to give newcomers all the tools they need to succeed. We help them to be truly independent and to take control of their own future.”

Q: How did you become successful?

“I believe your home-situation has a big role in your level of success. My mother was here alone, with six children. She had to be a mother and a father in one. She was very strict and helped me to focus on my future. If I came home late, she was sitting on the couch, waiting for me. There was no room for me to stray from the right path. She stimulated me to finish school, choose a profession and work hard.

When I moved out, I had more freedom. I wasn’t interested in parties, alcohol and drugs. But if my mother hadn’t raised me this strict, I don’t know if I would have finished school and accomplished all my goals.”

Q: What advice can you give newcomers?

“Young Eritreans who are here without their families, have a tough time to stay on the right path. There is hardly any pressure to work hard. The policies from the government aren’t stimulating refugees to create a new life. There are a lot of people who want to work, but they are just sitting at home.

It is important that they receive concrete aid from the government. There need to be programmes focused on the problems of Eritrean refugees, not some generic program. And the refugees themselves need to learn to be open-minded about their new culture. You don’t have to act in a way that doesn’t suit you, but you need to understand the culture of your new country.

The longer you live here, the easier it gets.

Learn the language, get an education, focus on the future and set goals. Don’t stay at home and do nothing. Learn your new culture through your interests. Do you like soccer? Join a Dutch team. Do you like cycling? Find Dutch people you can cycle with. Ask questions, show interest.

In Europe and especially in The Netherlands, you get a lot of opportunities to reach your goals. Grasp these opportunities, focus on the future and don’t waste your time. And if you’re unsure on how to reach your goals, find an organization that can show you the way. There is always a solution for your problem.”

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