Don Melvin, Cox News Service, May 21
THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS — Safia Wijte is a 10-year-old girl with light brown skin and curly hair. It is clear that part of her heritage is African.
But ask whether she is Dutch or Sudanese, and she hesitates not a moment.
“Dutch,” she says.
With migration changing the continent, the future face of Europe might well look like hers.
At the end of 2002, the Dutch government estimated that 18.4 percent of the country’s 16 million people were of non-Dutch origin.
That percentage is increasing. As with many countries in Europe, the Netherlands’ birthrate is so low that, were it not for immigration, the population would be in decline. Instead, it is growing by 329 people a day.
Many newcomers, including Safia’s mother, Amna Nagi, have arrived from Africa. Between 1996 and 2003, the number of African-born residents of the Netherlands rose from about 220,000 to 302,000.
Nagi is from southern Sudan, an area that has been laid waste by war. Safia’s father, Nico Wijte, is a native Dutchman.
Changes in the population may necessitate changes in thinking: Native-born residents may have to broaden their concept of what it means to be Dutch. Newcomers must adapt to their adopted home.
About 6,500 Sudanese, perhaps a third of them from southern Sudan, live in the Netherlands. Their efforts to integrate into Dutch society while retaining something of their original culture typifies the struggle of many groups.
“I look at it as finding a balance between who you are, who you used to be and who you are expected to be,” Nagi said.
She was speaking at an event that reflected that search for balance. A few dozen people had gathered in a church annex in The Hague to expose their children to other Sudanese people. The rationale: Mother’s Day, a celebration not observed in Sudan at all.
To the chagrin of organizers, some cultural differences were too much on display. The proceedings began two hours late because no one showed up on time.
“We’re in a country that follows time,” admonished the emcee, Francis Mustafa, when the meeting finally began. “If you don’t follow time, you will find yourself out.”
Adjusting to the Dutch way of life can be difficult for Africans. Mothers accustomed to relying on an entire village to watch their children discover that they must care for their children alone. Men are learning, sometimes reluctantly, to help with child-rearing.
Some even have attended the birth of their children. “It’s really a very shocking experience for them,” said Florence Aate Andrew, chairwoman of the Southern Sudanese Women’s Association in the Netherlands.
Most Sudanese want to avoid what they see as the errors of other groups who have failed to assimilate into European society and sometimes have produced a generation of young people who feel rootless and alienated.
“We are living in Holland,” said Wieu Diange, a single father. “We cannot reject the Dutch culture. But we do not want to be completely changed.”
Preserving African culture in children who go to Dutch schools and play with Dutch friends is difficult.
“They know little about Sudan,” said Samira Thomas-Lado, referring to her two children, the youngest of whom she had with her Dutch husband. “All they know of Africa is the war and poverty they see on television.”
Although Nagi wants Safia to fit in, she also wants her to absorb the best of Sudanese culture, in particular the easy socializing common to those who do not live shut up in apartments.
And Nagi is uneasy about the future. Europe’s demographic changes have provoked opposition. The Netherlands has long seen itself as a welcoming society. But anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn was on the verge of gaining significant power when he was assassinated two years ago.
In Austria and France, anti-immigration parties have drawn larger-than-expected support in recent years. In Britain, establishment politicians fear the far-right British National Party will make big gains in next month’s elections to the European Parliament.
“There is a lot of aggression building itself up,” Nagi said. “Ten years ago, you would not have heard any of these things. I don’t know what will happen 10 years from now.”