A Life On the Move | From the Ravages of War to Culture Shock in Europe

Lucia Kula was only eight when war came to her doorstep and upended her life. A civil war had raged for years in her birthplace of Angola and her father was held political prisoner. To save her two daughters, Lucia’s mother picked up the family and fled for safer ground.

They made their way to the cold and rainy city of Leystad in Netherlands. “It saved us from the conflicts in Angola,” Ms Kula recalls. “It was a complete culture shock, coming from a conflict environment to a country where you don’t speak the language; you don’t know the culture and customs.” The new environment felt strange and unfamiliar and she often felt confused and lost.

“Imagine moving to a country when you are eight years of age, and for 12 years you don’t have a permanent resident permit. It means any day you could be deported,” Ms Kula told Africa Renewal. “It meant years of insecurity and having your life on hold, mental exhaustion and legal battles. It meant years of not knowing where home was. School was my escape. I dreamt about all the things I could do, all places I could go and the freedom it would give me,” she wrote in an article published by I am a Migrant, IOM’s platform for promoting diversity and inclusion of migrants in the society.

She added: “I was always active with youth issues, migrant issues and student political activism. I organised debates and conferences, was Vice president of the student union, secretary for an international youth fund, but not a resident.”

The family lived in asylum centres on the outskirts of town, and Lucia struggled to develop close relationship with others. “We moved about nine times and most of the centres were far from the city.” Although people were generally not hostile toward her, that did not mitigate the stigma of being a refugee. “There is the stigma and the ignorance attached to a refugee or asylum seeker. Local communities did not understand anything refugees, and as a child it was very difficult for me to explain,” said Lucia, inferring that refugees are seen as beggars.

“When that resident permit was finally issued, followed by the Dutch nationality a few years later, I finally felt like I could exhale,” she wrote. “I received a partial scholarship in 2013 to do my master’s in London, UK. I completed my master’s and continued to pursue a PhD in law. Now, three years later in London is home. I miss it when I’m away; I feel comfortable and challenged to do more.”

Ms Kula also researches and teaches refugee and migrant studies at the school of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. She has travelled many times to Angola to conduct research and says she might even settle there one day. While her mother and sisters plan to remain in the Netherlands, a place they now consider home, Lucia prefers London, thrilled by the city’s multiculturalism and diversity. Despite the allure of Western life, Ms Kula has not forgotten her motherland or her identity. “I always call myself an Angola-Dutch researcher. I do identify as Angolan first, and then Dutch. The culture and customs that I grew up with are African. It’s the best of both worlds, so to say,” she enthused.   

Her mother made a conscious decision to move to a safer place because they wanted their children to live in a safe environment and have a future, she said. Her father was later released but died years later. A refugee who is now a researcher can credibly speak on refugee matters. She would like conversations to focus more on how migrants and refugees can contribute to enriching a society rather than on how to protect borders and count populations.

Lucia Kalu’s refugee case is encouraging to Africans, who are going through similar experiences, as a result of conflict. There is a great need to promote peaceful coexistence among communities in Africa and peaceful resolution of conflicts. This will be crucial in minimizing conflicts and disputes that can lead to displacement of persons. Such displacement causes immense psychological trauma, physical and health challenges. Also families do separate in such circumstances, which is a major problem preceding conflicts.

This article is republished by The Youth Café courtesy of Pavithra Rao, and UN Africa Renewal. Additional input added by Martin Mutai.