Editor’s note: The people in this story have requested anonymity for fear of retribution by former partners. They are referred to by first names only, and in some cases fictitious names. The authors were therefore unable to corroborate claims made about former partners, and the personal stories provide only a singular perspective on what happened in their partnership.
For this article, the authors conducted a Facebook survey on Syrians living in the Netherlands, posted in groups of Arabic-speaking immigrants in November 2020. All the graphs shown are based on this survey, which was completed by 480 Syrians (184 men, 296 women).
When Samer, 47, joined his wife and children in Germany in 2016, a year after sending them away from the war that ravaged Syria, he did not receive the warm welcome he had longed for during their time apart. “She suddenly behaved very differently. And she made it clear that she no longer had any respect for me,” he said.
Back home in Syria, Samer, who worked as an engineer, had always been the breadwinner for the family and the one who made all the decisions. Now it was his wife who brought in the money. “When she went out, I asked her where she was going. She replied that it was none of my business. She continuously emphasized that it was her house, where we lived.” After two years in Germany the couple decided to break up.
Aiham Abo Hameda hears these kinds of stories almost every week. He doesn’t understand what’s going on with his fellow countrymen, he sighs. He is constantly called by Syrians who ask him for advice on getting a divorce. “They argue with each other about the children, the house, the money. They want to know how to arrange all that when they split up.”
Abo Hameda fled to the Netherlands in 2014, three years after the start of the civil war in Syria. There were not so many Syrians in the Netherlands then, compared to the more than 100,000 that live there now. “There was no one to show us the way,” says Abo Hameda. “We had no idea where to start looking for work and what our rights were.” He now gives the people who came after him the support he would have liked to receive himself in his first years in the Netherlands. Even when they call him about their marital problems. “I always hope they will make it up. I tell them there are solutions to be found. But most of them have already made their decision.”
One year after arriving in the Netherlands, less than 2% of Syrian couples are divorced, according to Statistics Netherlands, the national statistics agency gathering data in the field. That percentage does, however, increase over time, and relatively quickly. After eight years in the Netherlands, 26% of Syrian couples have parted ways. That is remarkably close to the Dutch average of 1 in 3 marriages ending in divorce, indicating that over time the numbers are likely to be on par.
“Many of their marital problems already existed in Syria,” said Reem Alhafez, a former lawyer. “The difference is that there, women did not have a way out. And here, they have.” Alhafez arrived in the Netherlands 7 years ago and founded Sawa (meaning “equality” in Arabic), an organization aimed at empowering women both legally and politically.
“Syrian women are delighted with the freedom in Western-Europe,” said Nour Saadi, a doctor and haematologist who arrived in the Netherlands from Syria in 2013. “In Syria they are always controlled: by their husbands, by their families, by the rules and laws of society. In Europe, they can make their own choices for the first time.”
It’s a compelling story of women’s emancipation and empowerment, but there’s another side to the cultural shifts taking place within partnerships and families. It’s the story of men struggling to integrate in a country that is in the most fundamental ways different from their home, from the social and professional roles to the familial, a reality laden with new expectations of them as husbands and fathers. They are faced with the challenge of casting off the ideas on masculinity that they were raised with, adapting to new gender norms and rebuilding their closest relationships, while simultaneously struggling with their loss of social status and income, navigating a new language as well as Dutch culture and society.
While his wife flourished, Samer was feeling more and more depressed, sitting on the couch for hours doing nothing. If only they hadn’t moved to Europe, they would still have been together, he’s sure. “Then she would have needed me financially and she would never have behaved the way she did.” He still hopes that they can revive their relationship. “My family has always been my only purpose in life. Who am I still living for now? Who do I work so hard for? I feel redundant and my life has lost all its meaning.”
“It’s harder for men to adjust than for women,” said Alhafez. “Female refugees are more flexible, they adapt easier. That makes sense, because they have a lot to gain. Men, on the other hand, have much more to lose.” But while many organizations are focusing on the empowerment of women, very few initiatives are set up for Syrian men. “Organizations that support refugees should take the needs of men more into consideration”, said Alhafez.
Making the transition from one culture to another is not an easy process, according to Kees van den Bos, professor of psychology and law at Utrecht University. “People have to adapt in many ways and that can take a long time. If we don’t take the difficulties and frustrations of these men seriously,” he warns, ”it can lead to a lot of pent up anger and even rejection of Dutch society.”
Where governmental and social support fail, migrants who arrived earlier like Aiham Abo Hameda, step in to fill the gaps. “Syrian men can change, adapt. There is a lot to be saved if you get there in time, before the situation escalates,” Abdullah Yehia Omar said, a pharmaceutical assistant who has been living in the Netherlands for more than twenty years now. Understanding the struggles of newcomers better than anyone else, having gone through it all before themselves, Omar and Abo Hameda are among many “oldcomers” reaching out with guidance and support.
Though still culturally taboo, the number of divorces is also increasing in Syria because of the war, said Insaf Hamad, the chairwoman of the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs, in a 2013 interview with Al Monitor. Women pay an especially high price for it, risking social isolation and the custody of their children, deterring many. In the Netherlands, these obstacles are removed.
“In our culture, divorce is the very, very last option,” says Ghassan Al Hariri, who crossed the Libyian desert on foot to arrive in the Netherlands six years ago. In his work as a cultural “bridge builder” for Saam, a Dutch welfare organization, he heard many stories of people struggling with their marriage and is concerned about the increasing rate of divorce among Syrian refugees in the Netherlands.
According to a poll of Syrians living in the Netherlands (GroundTruth Project, 2020), 81% of divorces are initiated by the wife, while 15% are decided together. Only 4% of divorces are requested by the husband. “Why should they,” asked Clara, 56, an assistant engineer from a big city in Syria who joined her now ex-husband in the Netherlands four years ago. “They have the power, and can do whatever they want. They have someone at home who does everything for them, and they can go their own way in the meantime. ”
Back in Syria, Clara was told to be patient whenever she complained about her husband.
“He treated me like a little child. I couldn’t say anything; he was the boss. He slept on the couch like a king all day long. I worked full time and when I got home I also had to cook, clean, wash and do the shopping. And take care of the children too.” In the bathroom she would often find stuff other women left in there, women he invited to the house when she was not at home. “Even my neighbours knew about it, they told me he is not a good husband to me,” she recalled.
A lot of Syrian men are like that, Clara said. “We are like slaves to them.”
Still, she never thought about divorce. “I am a Christian, and in Syria divorce is prohibited by the church.” For fear of her children being called names at school, Clara was patient, for 32 years. But after two years in the Netherlands, she filed for divorce. “Here I feel a little stronger, because men and women are equal before the law.”
While navigating these layered legal and cultural standards, it can be difficult for Syrian men to understand why their marriages fail, said lawyer Jamal el Hannouche, who specializes in family and criminal law. His parents are originally from Morocco, and many of the clients he represents are from an Arab background. Men are less likely to want a divorce, he said. “’I’m still the same as I was in Syria,’ they say, ‘so why does my wife suddenly want to divorce me?’”
However, divorces are rarely sudden. Often, an accumulation of small arguments causes marriages to crack, said Kawa Rashid, a Syrian changemaker and moderator at Refugee Organizations Netherlands (VON), an advocacy platform representing more than 400 refugee organizations. Rashid has lived in the Netherlands for over twenty years.
“I once saw a man not approve of his wife shaking hands with an employee of the municipality,” he recalled. “I discussed it with him, tried to explain that this is very normal in the Netherlands. But he was adamant. A few days later his wife called me. She was so fed up that she saw no other way out than divorce.”
Rashid is one of many “oudkomers,” Dutch for “oldcomers,” who try to function as bridges between Dutch society and Syrian newcomers. Research centre Pharos set up a special training program for what they call “key agents”. Abdullah Yehia Omar and Aiham Abo Hameda were both trained by Pharos to provide information about Syrian culture to teachers, general practitioners, nurses, and others regularly interacting with Syrian refugees in Dutch society. They conduct individual discussions with both male and female Syrian newcomers about the problems they encounter here, including relational problems, sexuality and divorce.
“Because I am a Syrian myself, they take a lot more from me than from a Dutchman,” said Omar by phone, while tending to his three children on his dedicated day off – “papadag,” as the Dutch call it. Through personal counseling, divorce can sometimes be prevented, he believes.
He once spoke to a man, for example, who had a lot of trouble coming to terms with the decision of his wife to work. “I have been to him three times. I explained to him that women in the Netherlands have more rights, that it is normal here for them to work. In the end, he understood. They decided not to separate and are still together.”
Because of the financial independence women have in the Netherlands, they are no longer forced to remain in a bad marriage. That can be a source of insecurity for their husbands.
Masculinity and social status are often linked to work, confirmed researcher Rik Huizinga from University of Groningen. “They used to be the breadwinner for their family. In the Netherlands they fall down on the social ladder, people look at them in a less positive way: unemployed, uneducated, not being able to express themselves properly in Dutch language.”
On top of that, they are perceived as socially conservative. “They are confronted with stereotypes against the kind of Middle-Eastern men they never associated themselves with.
That frustrates them,” Huizinga noted. “Especially Syrian men from the higher social classes, who usually lived in big cities like Damascus and Aleppo and have a university degree, always looked upon themselves as liberal and progressive.”
When Ali and his wife fled to the Netherlands, he was sure he would get hired by the Hague-based international organization he had worked for in Syria. But to his disappointment they turned him down. “I thought it would be easy to find another job, with my American university degree and all my years of working experience with international companies. But it was hard. I was in my forties and did not speak Dutch. I had no chance competing with young people who were born here.”
Ali and his wife got assigned a house in a small village, far away from other job opportunities. They were both unemployed and dependent on financial aid from the government. “I lost all hope for a better life,” Ali recalls. “And took it out on her. Sometimes we were shouting the worst things at each other. We ended up arguing about everything. ”
After two years in the Netherlands, Ali and his wife decided to split up. “I don’t regret it,” he said, “I feel better now. And so does she. But it’s the war that destroyed our relationship. If we could have stayed in Syria, our relationship would be just as beautiful as it was in the beginning.”
According to a 2010 survey by the Syrian Commission For Family Affairs, 45% of women in the country reported being victims of domestic violence. Although intentionally beating or injuring another person is prohibited by law, there are no explicit laws protecting women against their husbands. Women rarely turn to the police or court, as these institutions are mainly run by men and they are sure to meet with cynicism, mockery and insults, writes Iman Ahmad Wanoes on the website of the Syrian Women’s Network.
Despite all the arguments, insults and violence she endured, Nour, 32, never considered divorce in Syria. Her parents would support her, but she knew it would not be accepted by the rest of her family, neighbors and other acquaintances, and she was afraid of their negative reactions. Her first marriage had been arranged by her family when she was 23 years old. “During our engagement, I already knew it wasn’t going to work, but I went through with it anyway. Nobody forced me to. That’s why it was my own fault, I thought.”
When the situation in Syria became too dangerous because of the war, she traveled ahead of her husband to Germany. “We lived apart for a year, and in that year our relationship deteriorated,” she said. “I was struggling on my own here, which I blamed him for.”
When he finally joined her in Germany, she no longer accepted the violence that she had considered normal in Syria. “I tolerated him around me for another six months. But when he wanted to hit me here, I immediately opened the door and kicked him out.”
In the survey for GroundTruth, 51% of divorced women cite as reason for the divorce that their ex-partner used violence against her or the children. Clara’s husband did not hit her, she said, because he didn’t dare. “But he did push me once so hard that I couldn’t move my neck for a month. And if he slept with me I was often bleeding afterwards.” He was also verbally aggressive. “‘I’ll destroy the body of your mother’ he told my daughter. And he told me on the phone that I should stay in Syria and die there.”
Given those threats, Clara is afraid of what her husband could do to her if he found out she told her story to journalists, which makes it impossible to ask him for a reaction to these allegations.
Because of the lack of domestic violence laws in Syria, men do not always understand why they are punished for it in the Netherlands. “What we call domestic violence here is not the same as in Syria,” says lawyer Jamal el Hannouche. “I just held her for a while and now she has some bruises,” they say. “Yes, and that is domestic violence, I explain, and that is not allowed here. If you had held her gently, she wouldn’t have bruises. But some men will always deny that they have used violence. ”
According to the survey of Syrians living in the Netherlands, a majority of men (56%, versus 22% of women) think that women in the Netherlands in general have more rights than men.
“Men find it difficult to understand why the children in the Netherlands after a divorce usually get to live with the mother,” says El Hannouche, the family lawyer. “In Syria, parental authority went automatically to them. And then the woman is usually also assigned the joint home here, because she is the primary caretaker of the children. ”
There are many Dutch men, who also feel unfairly treated after a divorce, said van den Bos, the professor at Utrecht University. “But Syrian men are in a cultural transition at the same time.”
“It can lead to an enormous pent-up anger, which can focus on the ex-partner, but also on society,” he writes in his book “Why People Radicalize.” “Sometimes that leads a person to actively want to correct that injustice. You see this with fathers who kidnap their children, or men who threaten or violate their ex-partners.”
Clara has seen that anger up close in her ex-husband. They live in the same small town, and sometimes she sees him walking in the distance. She then quickly takes a different route to avoid him. “He is really dangerous. I heard him say on the phone that he wants to kill me, even if he has to go to prison for that,” she claimed.
In popular Facebook groups where many Syrians discuss life in the Netherlands, the name of Abu Marwan is regularly mentioned. Marwan is a Syrian refugee who, in 2018, stabbed his ex-wife–who had been given custody of their three children after their divorce–to death in Germany in the presence of their 12-year-old son. Immediately afterwards, he went live on Facebook, bloody and all, to warn other women to stop angering their husbands. “Otherwise you will also end up like this,” he said.
Whenever women inquire on Facebook about the possibilities of a divorce, Marwan’s name appears. “Abu Marwan should come by here,” is written, mainly by men, in response to their posts on divorce, or “Where are you, Abu Marwan?”
A feeling of injustice can also lead to men turning away from society and sticking to their own subculture.
“They tell others what has happened to them and hear from them stories that reinforce the sense of injustice, on Facebook for instance. People can wallow in that, then they cannot get out and become isolated. That is dangerous and makes their integration more difficult,” said Van den Bos.
It does not matter whether the situation is really unjust or is only perceived as such, he explains. “It’s a subjective feeling, but it can have real consequences.”
According to El Hannouche, the family lawyer, prejudices about Arab and Muslim men certainly play a role in court and in the police. “Including myself, by the way,” he admits. “In some cases, I am happy to represent the woman and not the man, because there is often more understanding for the woman. Then such a man is excited and talking loudly, with many busy hand gestures. Meanwhile, the woman looks shyly at the floor. That’s a cultural difference, that’s how Arab men talk. But it makes sense that a judge can see the man as an aggressor and the woman as a victim.” A judge should of course be capable of putting these prejudices aside, El Hannouche stresses, as he himself also does. “That’s why I sometimes point it out to them”, he said.
It also happens that women falsely accuse their husbands of domestic violence, he noticed. “They know they will be more likely to be assigned the children or the house in that case,” he explains. “As a lawyer or a judge, it is sometimes difficult to know which of the two is telling the truth.”
Ultimately, equal rights are in everyone’s interest, emphasizes Araa Al Jaramani, a researcher at Leiden University who also founded the Syrian Woman Foundation in 2016. “Not only for women, but also for men, for children, for society as a whole. As long as men have more rights than women, you will never have a stable home. Gender equality is not a threat to men, but is the foundation of a strong country.” That is what the integration course should be about, argues Al Jaramani.
“But don’t try to impose gender equality from above”, Ahmet Azdural warns. He is the coordinator of the Consortium Self-determination, a network of seven migrant organizations including a Turkish, Somali and Moroccan organization. “That won’t work, and certainly not with people who feel excluded or discriminated against anyway. These kinds of changes only come about from within the group.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, “oudkomer” Kawa Rashid moderated more than twenty meetings for Syrian refugees that were organized by the consortium, on topics such as sexual violence and women’s rights. But he is not entirely enthusiastic. “Syrian men listen carefully to what I say, and they will always confirm that equal rights for women are important. But in practice they will never accept it.”
Over time they will, social counseling manager Yukio Oosterling from the Nieuw Thuis Rotterdam Foundation believes. “You should not expect that you can give someone a manual and that they will behave exactly like that. You have to keep talking about this continuously for the first years,” she said.
Syrians have a bit more to worry about in the first year in the Netherlands, Ghassan al Hariri warns. “I cannot describe what I experienced in Syria. How do you think it feels when your kids are scared? If you try to protect them with bombs falling around you and corpses all over the street? Here everyone immediately starts talking about our integration. But we need doctors first to heal us from our trauma.”
He did try to integrate quickly. After three years in the Netherlands he applied for a job as a ‘bridge builder’ at the Dutch welfare organization, Saam. To get newcomers and Dutch people to meet each other, he organized dinners, excursions and information evenings.
While helping others integrate, he was still struggling with his own integration and understanding of Dutch society. And after seeing so many Syrian marriages break down, he eventually had to face the crisis in his own marriage.
He had never been in love with his wife, but his family had left him no choice and forced him to marry his cousin, Al Hariri recalled. Al Hariri worked in Dubai as a hotel manager and came home every three months. “We were both satisfied with that agreement, many people did it like this,” he said.
In the Netherlands, they lived together for the first time in their marriage, but the pressure of everything they had been through during the war, and of trying to find their way in Dutch society, put a heavy strain on their relationship. “With that, the distance between us became bigger and bigger.” In the end, they decided to break up.
Al Hariri lost his job when the municipality cut the funding for the project after three years. His marriage failed and his job ended. But he is trying to look forward now. He and his ex-wife managed to reach an agreement about the children, a five year-old daughter and two sons, 11 and 13 years old. He’s even thinking about starting a new relationship.
“But never again with a woman that I did not choose myself,” he laughs. “Next time I will marry a woman that I love.” He would also try to do his fair share of tasks at home, he says. “Because of course men and women should be equal. But adaptation takes time. It has also taken your society hundreds of years to realize this equality. Don’t expect us to be as far along within a year.”