The secret of success of Jamal Husni

Opportunity doesn't knock on your door. You need to show people what you want and what you can do.

18 august 2018

I first met Jamal Husni (1987, Syria) when he gave a training about raising children in two cultures. His Dutch was nearly perfect, and the fire in his voice and his views on cultural differences and integration impressed me. He keeps himself busy; he has a part-time job as a functional manager, is getting his master’s degree, volunteers and still takes language training. His secret to success is simple; think strategically.

Q: What does thinking strategically has to do with successful integration?  

“When you arrive in your new country, it can be difficult to get to know the language and the culture. I made the conscious decision to immerse myself in the Dutch society. Even though it was easier for me to make friends with Arabs, I decided to make an effort and find Dutch friends.

Not just because you need friends, but also because Dutch friends can open doors for you in The Netherlands, that other refugees can’t. You need a gatekeeper. Someone who will show other locals that you are not some scary refugee, but a person who is worth knowing.

For a lot of my friends and other people I have contact with, I am the only refugee they know. Dutch people don’t know you. They don’t trust you. By using people who do know and trust you as a reference, it is easier to open doors that normally stay closed for refugees.”

Q: What strategy did you use to learn the language? 

“I was working on my master thesis when I had to leave Syria. When I came to The Netherlands, I wanted to get my master’s and start working as soon as possible. To achieve these goals, I had to learn the language.

Dutch language schools for refugees offer only nine hours of classes a week, and progress goes slowly. Many things you learn, aren’t relevant for where you are. I didn’t want to learn all the names of the Dutch cities by heart, I needed a vocabulary that could help me to go to the university.

That is why I set up a personal strategy to learn Dutch faster and better. My Dutch friends introduced me to other people, so I could practice my conversational skills. I started volunteering with senior citizens, which forced me to work even harder on my Dutch. During work it was important that people understood me, so I was struggling to find the right words and use my grammar properly. I even took the menus from the retirement home with me, so I could look up words like ‘broccoli’ and ‘Brussel sprouts’. I used every opportunity I got to expand my vocabulary.

I wanted to study six days a week. When I wasn’t taking lessons or volunteering, I practiced at home. There is a lot of free material on YouTube that can help you learn a new language.

After I got a job, I used my salary for private language lessons and I found someone who wanted to help me practice in his free time. I’ve been here since 2014 and I’m still taking private lessons. I am taking my master’s in Business Administration in Dutch, so I know my language skills are good, but I want them to be even better.”

Q: What strategy did you use to keep moving? Didn’t you just want to stay home, recover from all you’ve been through? 

“Sitting at home is unhealthy. I stayed at home for three months. I didn’t have friends, a job, or school. All I did was watch TV, call family who only had bad news to share and everything felt insecure. I didn’t want that. To get out of that situation, it is important that you stay busy, so you don’t have the time to worry.

Negative ideas have triple the impact of positive ones. So, I decided to fill my life with positive activities. That is when I decided to strategize. And it worked. I started by going to the gym, not only to get healthy, but also to meet Dutch people. Through these contacts I started volunteering, and through those new contacts I managed to get a job.

Opportunity doesn’t knock on your door. You need to go out, talk to people. Show them what you can do, tell them what you want. I gave a lot of workshops as a volunteer, not because it helped me achieve my goals, but because I wanted to help. There are so many refugees who are struggling with integration and cultural differences. I helped everybody who asked me to.”

Q: Why are so many people struggling with integration and cultural differences? How can this be solved? 

“What a lot of people are forgetting, is that successful integration goes two ways. Refugees understand that the government wants something from them, but what does successful integration actually mean? What do we have to do? Give up our culture? Our traditions? Our beliefs? A lot of times governments talk about refugees, but not to refugees. If you want people to successfully integrate into society, you must work together.

There are a lot of rules in The Netherlands. Living here requires a lot of obligatory paperwork. Insurance, taxes, school, drivers license, even for native Dutch people it can be a challenge to get all their paperwork done. How are you going to figure all this stuff out if you don’t speak the language? There are some organizations who help newcomers with these things, but their help is limited.

Most people have the same questions when they try to figure out the cultural differences between their old country and their new one. But you all have to figure it out yourself. What are the unwritten rules about personal space, eye contact, how do you greet someone? These basic things differ from country to country. Do I shake your hand when I meet you, or do I kiss you? If you want to make a good impression on native people, you need to know these things. But how?

Expectations are unclear, that is why people are struggling. What does the government want from newcomers? What do we need to feel like we are part of society?”


Newcomers need to create a future. When you are new and still finding your way, you are not living, you are surviving. I don’t want to be “Jamal, the refugee”. I want to be Jamal. Create a strategy for yourself to reach your goals, talk to people, be helpful, be respectful. You don’t have to change your identity to be a valuable member of Dutch society

Jamal Husni

Functional manager & Msc student

Q: Is successful integration possible? 

“No. Because no one knows what that means. I work, pay taxes, I go to the university, have Dutch friends, so you could say I am successfully integrated. But because I am Muslim, I don’t go to the bar with them to drink a beer. Does that mean that I am not integrated? When a woman has a job, speaks the language, has Dutch friends, volunteers but wears a hijab, people don’t think she is integrated.

Integration is a myth. You can’t integrate 100%. That is assimilation. You don’t have to give up your identity to become a member of society. Being a refugee, you have already lost so much and then you get told that you need to give up even more.

I think we should stop looking at unclear terminology like integration and focus on participation. When you speak the language, go to school, work, have friends, a network, you participate in society. But this goes both ways too. If you look at refugees and you see pitiful, poor and stupid creatures, you are not creating opportunities to help them participate in society.

Newcomers need to get information and training about their new country. Native people need to get reliable information about newcomers. People are getting judged by damaging negative stereotypes, which really sabotages successful participation. You can explain to a newcomer that it is custom to shake hands when you meet someone, but how is that useful if their neighbour doesn’t even acknowledge their existence?

Employees from municipalities and other organizations that work with refugees, need to get proper training. How can someone from the municipality help me, if they don’t have a clue about how to talk to me?”

Q: Changing policy is hard. What can we do today to make a difference? 

“I am accessible for Dutch people. For most of them I am the only refugee they know. They treat me like I am an ambassador or spokesperson for my religion, culture and people. Sometimes I get the same ignorant question 10 or 15 times. What happened to Google? In these days it is so easy to get reliable information.  Participation would be easier if Dutch people saw newcomers as people. Just treat each other with respect, regardless of our differences.

Newcomers need to create a future. When you are new and still finding your way, you are not living, you are surviving. I don’t want to be “Jamal, the refugee”. I want to be Jamal. Create a strategy for yourself to reach your goals, talk to people, be helpful, be respectful. You don’t have to change your identity to be a valuable member of Dutch society.”



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