VU professor of Diversity and Integration Halleh Ghorashi (1962) fled from Iran as a political refugee and settled down in The Netherlands. She takes a stand against the negative portrayal of refugees and migrants and fights for diversity and inclusion, at both a societal and corporate level. Her own experiences have always played a big part in the research she eventually went on to conduct.

“Let’s make sure that we — policymakers, citizens’ initiatives, NGOs, scholars — do a better job.”

Ghorashi: „When I arrived in The Netherlands in the late 1980s, I was surprised by how people talked and wrote about refugees and migrants. The main focus was always on numbers and percentages that showed how much they were lagging behind in comparison to native Dutch and other groups of people: more unemployment, poorer language skills, a lack of work experience, the wrong education, and so on.”

„That one-dimensional approach made me think: what about the other side of the story? What about the resilience, perseverance, ambitions and talents of these refugees? That was one of the issues I had to deal with during my first year in The Netherlands, even though the help that was being offered to me was undoubtedly well-meant. People had already determined the kind of help that I apparently needed and didn’t bother looking into my background a bit further and listening to my perspective. I had a history, I was aware of what my problems were, I was capable of thinking along about possible solutions.”

„As an asylum seeker, I went to the police to file a theft report. Later on — by that time I was a professor — I went to file another report, this time because I was being threatened. In both cases, the police officers helping me just assumed that I was a victim of domestic violence, without me having even said a word. I was being reduced to the pitiful, needy refugee, or the oppressed, Iranian woman. Even when I was advising the police at the highest possible level, I was still being confronted with the same stereotypes. That made me realise that it doesn’t really matter what you achieve on a personal level, as long as the system around you remains unchanged.”

„It’s what I call the ‘deficit approach’. The dominant view is that refugees and migrants are inherently disadvantaged. That idea is constantly being reproduced — usually with the best of intentions — by people without any kind of refugee background, or people that have never even come into contact with refugees. As a welfare state, we tend to be focused on taking care of each other. We want to help one another. These are people that need help. And if things don’t work out as planned, that’s mostly their problem. After all, we did our best to help them.”

„It’s an image that was formed over time and it’s hard to unsettle this way of thinking. We like to tell ourselves that we’re doing a good job, but just look at the policy that has been pursued in recent years, such as the integration policy intended to accelerate the integration process. I just can’t imagine that the people that were involved had any bad intentions. But to be fair, that policy has really caused great damage.”

„If you don’t ask any questions and refuse to listen, you’ll come up with things that have an effect contrary to what was originally intended. And I’m not saying that these issues are non-existent. During COVID, children in vulnerable neighbourhoods were falling behind schedule more than other children. Crises like this one lay bare inequalities that might be uncomfortable to acknowledge. That can help refrain us from saying things like: it’s not all that bad. It actually is that bad.”

„But by solely focusing on problems like these, refugees and migrants get caught in a ‘web of disadvantage’. It makes it impossible for them to move forward. Nothing is done about the way in which our society looks at refugees and which societal structures stand between these people and their integration process.”

„The era we find ourselves in now should make us more aware of these structural sources of inequality and exclusion, instead of resorting to blaming the victim. Black Lives Matter has created a certain kind of awareness: don’t reduce refugees and migrants to categories of disadvantage, but start paying attention, listen to their experiences, how they experience integration into Dutch society, how they give shape to their lives. These stories are important to reflect back on subtle and invisible images, processes and structures of exclusion, to call them into question and be able to move forward.”

ENGAGED SCIENCE

„That’s why I choose to focus on the stories and experiences of refugees and migrants in my research. It’s been a process for me. I started out with collecting biographical stories to get a better understanding of the lives of migrants and refugees. Also, I continuously analysed my own story.”

„Individual stories, shortcomings, failures and problems never stand on their own. There always are contextual elements that need to be taken into consideration. There are structural sources of inequality at play. Not all of us have access to the same privileges and resources. I gradually started asking myself how we can start working towards change. How can we disrupt societal structures that sustain exclusion, even when these structures are the result of good intentions?”

„I came to the realisation that we can use those stories. When we bring together stories told by social actors — policy makers, citizens’ initiatives, NGOs —, scholars and refugees, we can create a space containing different kinds of knowledge. By creating a dialogue between these stories, we will be able to bring different worlds and perspectives together. Connecting multiple perspectives can give room to new solutions, generating new types of knowledge. This co-creation of professional, academic and experience-based knowledge, to me that’s exactly what engaged scholarship entails.”

„People that are actively thinking about the same issue from different perspectives will become more aware of their own blind spots. That multilevel perspective broadens our horizons. Not only do we force ourselves to question our own views, we also force each other to exchange perspectives. I call it ‘forced reflexivity’. When we depend too heavily on our own set of ideas, we’ll keep falling into the trap that, in this specific context, I call the deficit approach.”

„We should figure out a way to continue developing our own competencies towards inclusion. I’m not necessarily talking about refugees and migrants, but mostly for ourselves, among all people that work with refugees and migrants. To be able to see more clearly and hear better, so that we’ll notice hidden talents instead of solely focusing on the visible deficits. This concerns all of us. Our problems are societal problems. Our ideas are societal ideas. We should all play a role in finding solutions to these issues.”

 

UNITY STARTS WITH US

„It all starts with people that want to achieve something positive on a local and international level. If we can establish a better connection and therefore create inclusive spaces, that can be appealing to people with negative ideas about refugees and migrants. I used to think that I could combat polarisation by convincing people on the other side. But unity starts with us. Let’s make sure that we do a better job. It will make our case more convincing and it might make other people pay better attention. Empty tales about diversity and inclusion without any real substance won’t offer a valuable alternative to that negative narrative.”

„As a sociologist and anthropologist, I’m interested in power relations. In democratic societies, power no longer lies in the power of dictatorship, but in the power of normalisation. It is what Foucault calls ‘discourse’. There are normalising powers at play that confirm the ideas that you have about yourself and others over and over again, reproducing those same ideas in your thinking and doing. The media and digital world mainly nourish and strengthen those ideas.”

„There is a lot of fear and dissatisfaction in our society. When you’re afraid of others. When you believe that refugees come here to take advantage of social benefits. When you think that others aren’t trying their hardest. When you think that refugees are taking away opportunities from you. When you never come into contact with refugees, don’t know anything about their lives and the challenges they’re facing, when there is no connection whatsoever, that will constantly nourish those negative images. That will then become our new truth. Our world and our image of others will shrink. That’s what I call the ‘mould of normalisation’.”

„Sometimes I take all the negativity about refugees and migrants personally, but generally speaking, I don’t. As a scholar I analyse different social issues, which allows me to relativize my own position and put it into a broader context.”

„My dissertation taught me that you don’t need to feel at home everywhere. It showed that many Iranian women that live in The Netherlands feel uprooted. They were constantly being seen as ‘the other’ and were not being accepted as ‘real’ Dutch citizens. Also, the sense of belonging was often linked to identity — being either Dutch or Iranian — and the entire country — The Netherlands or Iran. It prompted me to further reflect on the concept of ‘belonging’. It became clear to me that you can also find that sense of belonging elsewhere: in smaller spaces, in the city or closer to home when you surround yourself with good company.”

„That was definitely true for me personally: no matter how much I would sometimes not feel at home in society, I never experienced that same feeling at university. I felt at home there, first as a student and later on as a colleague. I felt seen, heard and taken seriously. I was able to work on myself. And now, while I’m at the top of my academic career, I’m being surrounded by young researchers in my research groups that inspire me.”

„Of course, I’ve also experienced what it feels like to not be seen on a professional level. But I refused to give up. Due to all of the misery I experienced in my childhood and during the Iranian Revolution, I’ve learned to look for possibilities in structures of impossibility, to look for the light in the darkness.”

„For example, there was barely any appreciation for my qualitative research method in the 1990s — in both the academic field as well as in policies on migration. Our field was being dominated by quantitative researchers. I realised that I was in a marginal position as a researcher, but having experienced the value of collecting biographical stories, I decided to stick to my narrative approach regardless.”

„And again when I became an endowed professor, just four years after having finished my doctoral thesis. It was very remarkable to get that kind of recognition, but not everybody was as thrilled as I was. Many people thought of my appointment as a symptom of ‘tokenism’, which would quickly pass. Some people even expressed how surprised they were out loud. I’d have to prove myself along the way. I realised that you don’t need all of humanity to have faith in you — you just need a few people. Executives that recognise your talent and are willing to help you move forward. Colleagues that consider you to be a valued colleague. And young talent that feels inspired by you.”

 

DANCE OF PERSPECTIVES

„I often sit down to have conversations with various companies. The further you go up in these organisations, the less diverse the work environment becomes. I always ask CEOs what would have happened to them if they had only run into people that noticed their weaknesses instead of their talents in their own careers. Diversity has been regarded as optional for a long time. Again, with the best of intentions: we’ll offer them opportunities, we’ll help them. But again, based on the concept of the deficit approach.”

„As crown-appointed member of the Dutch Social-Economic Council (SER), I contributed to the advisory report Diversity in the boardroom: time to accelerate. I’m really pleased about how this report distinguishes itself from all the other reports on diversity and migration, as it doesn’t focus solely on how disadvantaged refugees and migrants are. Instead, it provides a multi-layered perspective about causes of exclusion and opportunities to be more inclusive. A SER report like this can make change happen. It’s an extra push for the (semi-)public sector and the world of business to not give up and give shape to this issue in a structural and comprehensive manner.” 

„When we don’t know much about a person and their background, let’s try to not put that person into a category and reduce them to an image. Instead, let’s try to imagine what their life looks like. We tend to focus on how different people are from who we are and what we know: he or she speaks differently, uses another type of body language, asks different questions, looks different, has an accent. In order to achieve a sense of connection, it’s important to temporarily set aside our judgement of the other person, to be able to see their versatility. To force ourselves to ask different questions and give space to the story behind that person’s appearance. To turn away from what we might see at first sight in order to see more.”

„It will make you look at someone’s resume differently. Instead of being fixated on what a person is lacking, you try to imagine the story behind it. It can make you see a person’s strength. To give you an example: for me, there was a gap of ten years between finishing secondary school in Iran and eventually obtaining my master’s degree in The Netherlands: I was politically active in Iran, which forced me to go into hiding and flee the country. I had to start over once I arrived here.”

„I was listening to a lecture by some CEO about a traineeship his company had set up. Wonderful young people, according to him. Very diverse in terms of skin colour, hairdos, clothing, appearance. After one year, he met all of them again. At that point, they all looked alike. Uniform, hairstyle… they even spoke in a similar manner. That cannot be the purpose of bringing in a more diverse crowd: to have everyone end up looking and acting the same. It’s doomed to fail. People denying their backgrounds in order to be seen and valued. But their otherness will always be a thing. Always. You’ll always be looked at as different.”

„That’s why diversity needs to be linked to inclusion: people shouldn’t just be let into your organisation, their perspectives should play an active role in the organisational process. Having them take part, appreciating them for what they bring to the table.”

„That means letting in disruption. Having the courage to call into question routine, the status quo, old patterns and standard-setting practices. Letting the other person be the other person, while at the same time putting their otherness to use within the organisation, to create a ‘dance of perspectives’. To merge horizons together, bring about change, create something new — so that inclusivity will truly become possible.”

 

This interview by Jessica Brouwer, with photographs by Peter Valckx en Yvonne Compier, was published in VU Magazine, 18 January 2021