Habesha refers to people of Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage. “Migrants and asylum seekers from Ethiopia and Eritrea comprise a substantial proportion of the recent influx of East African migrants to the Netherlands,” Zemzem Shigute Shuka, assistant professor in Global Health and Development at the International Institute of Social Studies explains. Over 15,000 people of Ethiopian descent and over 20,000 people of Eritrean descent are reported to live in the Netherlands. “There are different reasons for why they are coming here but it mainly has to do with disputes between bordering nations in Ethiopia and escaping recruitment in Eritrea’s military service. Of course, we don’t have to forget about the economic reasons: searching for a better life.”

Vulnerable

The measures for the lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic affected different segments of society in different ways. At the beginning of the pandemic, Shuka and her team were having informal conversations with community members from Ethiopia and Eritrea that live in The Hague. “During these conversations, we learned about the specific vulnerabilities that these community members were facing concerning the lack of access to information and understanding the language. We also learned that some community members lost their jobs and didn’t know how to go about that. You can also imagine how panic-inducing it must be for a family with no computer or only one computer for three kids with online education.”

After these conversations, they felt the need to do systematic research. “Of course we were having these conversations, but the situation also needed to be studied systematically to make policy recommendations or draw lessons for the future.”

Lack of communication

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The research is based on a mixed-method approach that started with eighteen in-depth interviews with people from the Ethiopian-Eritrean community. The stories that Shuka and her team heard were alarming. “At the beginning of the pandemic when the schools were closed, some parents were still taking their kids to school, two or three days after the schools had shut down. They didn’t even understand what was communicated regarding the shift to online communication. When they couldn’t figure out what was happening, they started calling people they thought could help, including two of our team members, who have experience working with recent migrants at the Dutch Council of Refugees (Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland).” Motivated by filling the gaps, four migrant-led NGOs came together and formed a helpdesk to support vulnerable migrants who were suffering from a lack of understanding the language and communication.

Another shocking finding has to do with the lack of information for low-income family members. “There is support that these vulnerable families could get from the municipalities, but they didn’t know about it. Once again, the helpdesk stepped in on behalf of such community members.”

The ABCs of living in this country

Also, at the beginning of the pandemic, health facilities were discouraging people from visiting the way they used to. “Even for serious cases, you had to explain the severity of your case to your doctor on the telephone. There was no way that these recent migrant communities could communicate the seriousness of their problems. Again, they had to call volunteers at the helpdesk, who then called the health facility to let them know that the case was severe and that they had to book an appointment.”

Shuka believes that initiatives like the helpdesk should be appreciated. “It is an initiative by settled migrants to help recent migrants. You could see how these settled migrants understood the problem.” In her eyes, the local government could have done better in dealing with vulnerable communities. “They have to be aware that there are communities who don’t know the ABCs of living in this country. Expecting everybody to follow the regulations should be reconsidered. An initiative like the helpdesk is something that the local government should have considered.”

Personal involvement

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Shuka has been part of the International Institute of Social Studies for nine years, but she was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “I am based in the Netherlands, and I should be worried about what is happening here. But that is not the case. When you are a migrant, hearts and thoughts are torn apart between two different places. I worry about how the virus is developing in the Netherlands but at the same time I worry about what is happening in Addis Ababa. My family lives there and I want them to be safe. I constantly call and talk to them.” It is a challenge not having the possibility to go there when something happens, especially when her mum passed away in September 2020. “You can imagine how horrible it is not to mourn her death with my loved ones. And my situation is just one example.”

In relation to their research, she sees the team’s background as a benefit. “When the research participants are talking about their experiences, they know that we somehow relate to their stories. It is more an advantage than a disadvantage because they can express themselves openly and know that we can understand their experiences.”

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