Utrecht is home to many nationalities. Every week, DUIC features an Utrechter with a different background. The concept was inspired by ‘180 amsterdammers’.
“I always thought I’d marry a Dutchman“
At the age of fifteen, Mekdes’ parents sent her to the Netherlands to start a new life on her own. She can’t imagine sending her own daughter Melody (1) away at that age, but understands her parents’ decision; they wanted her to have a safe, successful future. Ethiopia was a dangerous place for women and girls – threats, sexual aggression and kidnapping were commonplace.
1997: she spent the first six weeks in an asylum seekers’ centre for minors in Nunspeet. “People talk about ‘a culture shock’, but I didn’t have that. Sure, everything was different, but in a positive way.” The thing that most surprised was that young people were allowed to talk to older people: “In Ethiopia, older people have a much higher status and young people are expected to keep their distance.” After Nunspeet, Mekdes went to a centre in Bolsward, where she made friends with other refugees and locals: people of her own age. They went out together in the evenings this tiny Frisian town.
But like most teenagers, Mekdes felt the pull of the larger cities. In 1999, the student housing organisation SSH found her a room in Utrecht on Ina Boudier Bakkerlaan. It was the start of eight great years of student life. Mekdes began a course in Administration at the ROC in Amersfoort, enjoying the freedom with her new friends at home and hitting the town. On Saturday mornings, she and her housemate Mandy (still a close friend) went to the flower market to clear their heads – Mandy bought flowers and Mekdes just soaked up the atmosphere. “I fell in love with Utrecht.”
After a year, Mekdes dropped out of her course and switched to Care and Welfare. This suited her better. She completed level 2 in the city, and levels 3 and 4 at Vondellaan in the years that followed. She was proud: ‘I can study!’ But as time went by, she still hadn’t been given a residence permit. The authorities weren’t convinced that she was really in danger in Ethiopia – after all, there was no war. The fact that she couldn’t work gnawed away at her: ‘What if I have to go back?’ It was unimaginable. She was finally put out of her misery nine years after arriving in Nunspeet: she could stay. This was also the year she met her future husband. “Things have only got better since 2006.” Mekdes met Girum through friends at a party. He just happened to come from Ethiopia too. “I knew immediately: this is the one. Funny really, I always thought I’d marry a Dutchman.” Coming from the same country gives them a special bond, although having said this, Girum is fairly Dutchified. “We’re both familiar with the two worlds. We have a good life, but we also know how different things could have been. It means that we enjoy the small things in life.”
They might retire to Ethiopia, partly because Mekdes agrees with something that Tomek from Poland said about the Netherlands. “Life is so busy! The system doesn’t leave you much time to go out with friends, for example. People in Ethiopia have a job and kids too, but somehow it’s more relaxed. I can’t explain why.”
But for the time being, Mekdes is living life to the full in Utrecht. From walks with her family in the Bilthoven forest, to afternoons on the Parade and all the opportunities that the Netherlands has to offer. She hopes that Melody and Jaydon (6) will realise what a good life they have here.
Name: Mekdes Belachew
Date of birth: 23 July 1982
Place of birth: Harer, Ethiopia
Motto: ‘Enjoy nature, including the cool air against your skin’
Allemaal Utrechters is a series of interviews with people who moved to Utrecht from another country. We ask them about their background and their impression of Utrecht, revealing the true diversity of our city. The ‘Allemaal Utrechters’ series is a collaboration between DUIC and Culturele Zondagen, and has been made possible with help from Stichting Dialoog and the Municipality of Utrecht. We hope to showcase every nationality in Utrecht.