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Not my son

Margalith Kleijwegt talked to immigrant parents in the Amsterdam neighbourhood of Mohammed B., and found them in deep denial about their children.

Hüseyin P. was fourteen when he killed his sixteen-year-old classmate Youssef Mokhtari. He stabbed him in the neck with a butterfly knife. The tragedy took place outside their school, the Technical College in the Amsterdam district of Slotervaart. Fourteen-year-old Hüseyin is said to have been bullied because of his name; his classmates allegedly had trouble pronouncing it correctly. Hüseyin was offended, took it as an injury to his honour. That's the story so far.

Margalith Kleijwegt's book "Invisible parents, the neighbourhood of Mohammed B."

Before starting their training at the Technical College to become car mechanics, both students attended Calvijn Junior College, a pre-vocational secondary ('vmbo') school also located in the Slotervaart district. Four years ago, I started talking to the parents of every student in class 2K of this school for my book 'Invisible parents, the neighbourhood of Mohammed B.', which I started writing before the murder in 2004 of film director Theo van Gogh by Mohammed Bouyeri. All but one of the boys and girls in the class 2K had non-Dutch backgrounds.

Students and teachers at Calvijn Junior College were deeply shocked by the catastrophe at Tec College. Both schools fall under the same board of governors and have similar student populations. They knew from experience that these two boys were no angels. Hüseyin had also been difficult and aggressive at Calvijn Junior College. He had even molested a girl there; she reported it to the police, but later withdrew her complaint. A very unsatisfactory state of affairs, according to the teachers.

So young and already so violent. Why? Where does this frustration and blind rage come from?
Hüseyin's story reminded me of Bekir Erdogan from class 2K, who was also a victim of bullying. Bekir apparently felt so offended, that one day a battalion of friends armed with knives showed up at the hall of the school. Ready for a fight. Teachers and security personnel managed to step in just in time. A serious talk with Bekir's parents followed. Good people who wanted what was best for their son. Because they were afraid he was heading into the wrong direction they had sent him to a special boarding school for Turkish adolescents. 'I couldn't help him,' Mr. Erdogan said helplessly when I asked him why. 'Especially with his homework.'

For many immigrant parents bringing up their children seems to mean averting catastrophe rather than something good and enjoyable. The parents lack confidence in themselves, the world and their children. They frequently have enough problems of their own to worry about, they don't speak Dutch, have no jobs, or are depressed. There is always a reason why the upbringing of their children slips through their fingers.
Some mothers don't even know the location of their children's school, let alone what happens inside its walls. When the children reassure their parents that they are doing fine in school, parents are only too happy to believe them. They don't ask more questions, they are simply unable to stay 'on top of things.'

In their perception the outside world is a big bad place. So when there is a problem, when the school informs them that their child is misbehaving, parents often place the blame elsewhere. They prefer not to face up to the truth. This denial can be extreme. When Ali's behaviour in class 2K had deteriorated to a completely unmanageable level, when he was threatening fellow students and verbally abusing teachers, his father bragged to me about his role as First Neighbourhood Father (Buurtvader) in Amsterdam-West. To my astonishment he totally denied that there were problems with his children - his other son had belonged to the inner core of a gang of young criminals for years. The school would not and could not keep Ali as a student there any longer, but the father did not want to hear this and refused to cooperate to have him transferred to a special needs school. His son, he insisted, was fine.

The same mechanism of denial came into play in recent weeks when Ahmed Marcouch, chairman of the district council of Slotervaart, called on parents to keep their children in at night. To prevent them torching any cars (news story). Instead of district-wide support, he was branded a traitor. Who was he to interfere in their business, the parents protested. And anyway, each and every one of their children were little angels who would never even touch a match.

In past weeks teachers have also witnessed a re-emergence of the powerful taboo on self-criticism. Many Moroccan students in Amsterdam-West were outraged after Bilal B. was shot and killed by a police woman. Discrimination!! they shouted in unison. A disgrace. Surely the severely wounded (black) police officer would have aimed at his legs had he not been Moroccan, they argued. The teachers tried to convince their students that the shooting had been in self-defence, but they were not having any of it. The step towards seeing oneself in a different perspective, taking oneself a little less seriously, or practising self-mockery of the kind so beautifully present in the film "Shouf Shouf Habibi" (Hush Hush Baby), is apparently too much for many families. However, only when parents of youths like Ali are ready to confront their children; when they are ready to see that it is not society or school that has it in for their sons; when they can acknowledge that their children do cause problems, only then can we start to make some progress.


Margalith Kleijwegt is a Dutch journalist. The book she refers to in the article ('Onzichtbare ouders. De buurt van Mohammed B.') will appear in German in February 2008 under the title 'Die Wegschau-Eltern. Wie Gewalt entsteht' (Herder-Verlag).

This article originally appeared in Trouw on the 27th of October, 2007.

Translation: Maggie Oattes

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