ON IMMIGRANT BURNOUT: PART ONE
From the inside of non-EU to EU migration and the traumatic Dutch immigration system, towards space-holding practices for prevention.
- Nov 17 2021
- Jess Hendersonis a writer, researcher, author and artist from New Zealand. She is the author of Offline Matters (Amsterdam: BIS Publishers, 2020) and founder of No Fun magazine (nofunmag.substack.com). She is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Network Cultures and is currently running a transdisciplinary research lab on burnout with the School of Commons titled Band of Burnouts (schoolofcommons.org/labs/burnout).
This is a text that I am not ready to write. It is the same text that I will never be ready to write. It is the story of an immigrant coming to the EU from a non-EU country and experiencing the Dutch immigration system (the process specific to non-EU citizens). The story begins in 2009, and remains unfinished. It may have no ending. The 2021 update is that I am burnt out, sick, and traumatised—in ways that feel irreversible; Chronic.They have successfully broken me and I write through tears only because when this story is orally told (on rare occasions), the EU-citizen listener cannot believe it. Perhaps, resists to believe it. They do not know the inner workings of their systems and are not privy to their violences without being shown. Without the invisible being made visible.
Today’s horoscope says „Allow yourself to feel the pain without identifying with it.“ How does that go when it has been hammered into you for over a decade
that your identity is an issue, is unwanted, unwelcome, impure, and in need of ‚naturalising‘ in order to be allowed to stay? The answer to this question, I am
only beginning to grasp. Grasping while burnt out is not ideal. It takes energy and stamina that one no longer has to give. Grasping is a kind of pain difficult to not identify with when that same pain is the bare result of who you are, stemming from the root of where you come from.
PAINFUL FLASHBACKS INCLUDE:
● Being told to “go back to where you come from” on the streets of Amsterdam (the place attempting to be accepted as a home away from home) several times a year over the past decade.
● Calling the Immigration and Naturalisation Department (IND) and anticipating their intimidating tone, which belittles and breaks every time you dial the number (asking oneself if they are trained to speak like this—surely it isn’t a coincidence that they all communicate and act the same?).
● Developing triggered anxiety towards the blue envelopes that the IND’s letters come in. It flicks on whenever one arrives through the post slot.
● Being gaslit by the casual racism of Dutch colleagues in the office whilst going through the inburgeringscursus and inburgeringsexamen  (Dutch for ‚integration courses’ and ‘integration exams’)—‟You have to do those exams? Aren’t they just for Turks and Moroccans? I don’t think you really have to do them.”
● Crying on my bike, cycling 45 minutes out of town to the integration courses, trying to get there by 6:30pm after leaving work at 6pm. Exhausted. Stressed. Lost. Hating myself for being of a ‚difficult‘ nationality that makes every turn in life in the Netherlands 95% harder than it feels life ought to be. Rushing and brain-foggy—Did I do my homework?—only to be turned away by the compassionate teacher “You’re too tired to be here today. Go home and rest. Come back tomorrow night.” Cycling another 45 minutes home, defeated. Still crying.
● The stress of accumulating debt to pay one‘s way through the courses, the exams, the visa costs, ongoing ongoing ongoing. I’m underpaid and exploited. My employer makes me feel like a star for having English as my mother tongue and tells me I’m not really an immigrant and shouldn’t worry about it because my skin is white.
● Years and years into the process, a first sense of regret for leaving my island to begin with. Had I known this is what I would be subjected to, would 17-year old me have made these decisions so unknowing of what entailed? I am sorry to her for signing her up for this life. She was not a forced migrant. She made a choice thinking it was for the betterment of her life, for opportunities that her home could never provide. For ‘making something of herself’ (an imposed rhetoric) which that remote island at the end of the world appeared to remove her from, rather than providing space and opportunity to explore and flourish. Newfound regret might be one of the most painful aspects of it all. Too far down the line to turn back. Too late to realise what only hindsight and experience
● Working alongside ‘expats’ and learning the difference between them and you. Immigrants are not expats. No amount of white skin, freckles, exotic accents and English-first-language proficiency will ever make up for the 30% tax ruling  that expat colleagues receive from the Dutch government. Will never change the amount of their pay cheque that ends up on their bank account at the end of the month, compared to yours. It took me a long time to realise why they could afford to go out for dinner so regularly and had nice, stable apartments, when I was still eating student food in an (unbeknownst to me at the time) illegal flat behind a fake Lebara mobile storefront in an uncool part of town.
● Being in the firing line of both ‘expats are ruining the city’ and ‘immigrants are ruining the country’— flippant, ignorant comments and overheard conversations— when in fact you fit into only one category.
● Feeling guilty for knowing that other nationalities going through the same process have it harder than you—even when your version feels unfathomably hard. The shame of not coping with being 22 years old, homesick and sick-sick. Too scared to go to the doctor since they treat you weirdly if you’re foreign. Knowing it shouldn’t feel like this, but also being sick and tired of being sick and tired. What’s wrong with me for being unable to cope under the weight of it?
DESIGNED TO DETER
Today I know that the immigration system for non-EU citizens is designed to be deterring. They do not want more immigrants. It is made to break you, to make you give up and leave. They want you to give up and go home. As Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in an open public statement in 2017, “You don’t have to be here.” The Greek artist Antonis Pittas turned this into an installation, a huge sign on top of a building on the outskirts of town for De Appel Institute. Right by the highway, where public transport passes by. Friends and I went to the exhibition opening and I smiled in performance when we looked at it, as if it didn‘t hurt. But it did hurt. It was too close to home. I hated seeing that sign day after day on my commute. It stung and rubbed fresh alcohol into the wound every time I saw it. It never got easier to observe. I heard his voice and I knew a large portion of the population agreed with him. What hurt the most was that he wasn‘t wrong. I didn‘t have to be there.
Grasping that the events in my health over the past decade correlate directly with the milestones I was put through during the Dutch immigration process has not been an easy realisation. I drew two lines and saw their disturbing symmetry emerge into my face, and felt even sicker. Felt sick for feeling sick. For being sick. For being the antithesis of what a good immigrant ought to be and become—functional, resilient, self-sustaining, without needs, a bringer not a burden. I felt guilty that I have been crushed and bruised into somebody who cannot fit the prescription of what is insinuated as fulfilling ‚my side of the deal.‘ I think I was supposed to give over everything about myself in exchange for being allowed as an EU-resident. That is more certain if one seeks EU-citizen status. The gap between resident and citizen is defined by the final stage of the process, that of ‚naturalisation.‘ Having survived ‚integration,‘ one may be allowed to ‚naturalise‘ into society—also known as ‚becoming Dutch.‘ It is confusing, disorienting, and hard to find rationality within the idea that giving up your home nationality and renouncing your culture for theirs is the only way to be allowed to ‘become Dutch.’ This includes not only the paperwork of renouncing your home citizenship, but with it turning over all rights to visit your family, to take care of them if they become sick, to return home at any eventual turn, to let your home national identity breathe in harmony with the new home you‘ve worked so hard to be allowed to live in with resources of time, energy, money and emotions.
The Dutch do not allow dual citizenship. Their saying is, „if you want to be Dutch, you can only be Dutch.“ Their colonial past is anything but in the past. Read one ‘integration’ document and you will find it living on, strong, today. On telling a small segment of my tale to a political philosopher from Austria, he told me, ‘You know the Latin root word of “integration” is integer meaning pure, whole, and intact. It‘s a process of purification— which is entirely facist.’ I wish he had never told me that. I‘ll never forget it; it rings in my head every day. They want me pure, I was and am impure. Ironically, it is the same process that has rendered me as anything but intact.
BURNOUT AND BREAK
Immigrant burnout is not uncommon, though it is under examined and little understood. There are no preventive measures taken for it during the course of the Dutch immigration process. Like everything else, if you‘re not able to cope, it is your fault. Everything that can and does go wrong in this system is your fault. The system is equally one of shame, guilt and fear, as it is one of changing your status on paper. Nobody wants you there, and you‘re made to know it every step of the way. In retrospect, I understand what that does to a person.
I am what that does to a person. A large consensus of the Netherlands’ population consider themselves as open, progressive, and tolerant. International PR might say that this reputation has been installed outside the country with success. Many minority groups and different communities within the country might attest to this being a facade. Queer friends are dismayed when people from around the world roll into town for Amsterdam‘s annual Pride celebrations, watching the tourists rejoice in how ‚liberal‘ Dutch society is as they play tolerant on standby for the weekend. These same friends express how they don‘t feel comfortable holding hands with their partners on the street in their day-to-day life. They rarely kiss in public and are careful about which parts of town they frequent.
Expats survive Amsterdam‘s idiosyncrasies from the comfort of an expat bubble—a strategy to be observed in many expat communities around most of the world. When you‘re an expat, the company who has relocated you takes care of all the immigration paperwork. You don‘t have to navigate the documents in complicated local vernacular and don’t come into contact with any friction in this new residence. All realities of the difference between immigrant and expat are minimised by the corporation and their HR departments.
This story takes its turns and side paths in the way that any nonlinear and complex, layered, entangled situation does. Writing from a place of pain, depletion, and confusion only adds to the voice of scrambled-brain burnout and psychosomatic exhaustion—the kind of storyteller more closely associated with madness than traditional ‚reliability.‘ That I‘ve got this far is a miracle. Most days, the trauma that is crystallised in this body makes taking on tasks—especially those related to Antonis Pittas, Untitled (You Don‘t Have To Be Here) 2018 the experience—unbearable, if not impossible. To this point, this entire text is one that I thought I would never be strong enough (mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically) to write. If you can relate to these experiences, I feel you. If these are new words, new tales, new anecdotes, I am in grateful awe of you for staying with the sentences so far.
WHAT WOULD AN IMMIGRATION DOULA DO?
Over the past six months, my work on burnout has repeatedly held itself up as a mirror to my own experience, through hearing the experiences of others. So many burnouts, from so many circumstances. Such a wide array, you would not believe. Refugee burnout is real. Unemployment burnout is real. Parental burnout is real. Precarious worker burnout is real (to name but a few). From my perspective, the World Health Organisation has it wrong when they classify burnout as an ‚occupational syndrome.‘ You do not have to have a traditional occupation to have a burnout. The widespread occurrence of burnout is a testimony to how labour shows no bounds, and the old-school notion of overwork in an office is but one (small) part of the puzzle. For those who have a workplace-related burnout, actual workload or working hours are usually only one facet of a complex array of demands, happenings, events, and overwhelms. From my research I have learnt that heavy workloads can often be managed until another factor gets thrown into the mix, like a stressful change in living circumstances, the loss of a loved one, a divorce or unforeseen need to find a new house, other health conditions arising (often themselves result of chronic, long term stress)—and then, the unstable but maintained card tower, falls.
When it comes to immigrant burnout, I did not have answers, but I did have a longing for somebody to hold my hand through the process. I needed a guide. Somebody who knew the system that was foreign to me.
Somebody to cradle me through the intimidating crossroads, communications, and confrontations. Somebody to tell me there was nothing wrong with me and that I wasn‘t doing anything wrong. I wasn‘t to feel guilty, ashamed, and even that I needn‘t feel scared. I needed somebody who was there for me. Months ago, in preparation for a course that I was teaching on “Illness Narratives; the Politics and Poetics of Sickness and Suffering”, I came across the work of What Would an HIV Doula Do? (WWAHIVDD) via the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art’s podcast For All I Care. Listening to Ted Kerr discuss the WWAHIVDD collective’s work brought me to a standstill. This was a point in a potential direction. Though I do not have HIV, the project cut straight to my heart with a model and framework which seemed relevant and applicable to the immigrant experience. Listening along with my chest pounding, I found myself repeating the words “What would an immigrant doula do? What would an immigrant doula do?”. It was a mantra-like questioning directed at myself, contemplating what could have prevented me from burnout and trauma during the process. What (or who) might have held space for the trauma? What could have minimised or even lifted me over the residual, lasting trauma that has now set itself deep in my body and psyche?
CHANGING DEFINITIONS OF PSYCHIATRIC TRAUMA & CULTURAL PRODUCTION
In the arena of immigration, psychiatric trauma is attributed to situations where there is fear of death. For instance, when somebody has fled a situation in their home country that has traumatised them for fear of being killed if they were to return there. It is more complex and nuanced (and potentially more advanced and forward-thinking) if we consider the fear of death as being the suicidal ideations developed and experienced by many immigrants as generated by the embedded violence of many EU immigration processes, which take a long-term siege on the incoming person‘s mind and body, or mindbody. This trauma is the fear of death developed at your own hands, though not through any fault of your own. An immigrant cannot be blamed for not coping well enough if their depression and anxieties result in considerations of taking one‘s life.
*A note to readers with legal experience: the writer is seeking assistance with EU-policy regarding the practice of denying dual citizenship. If you are a lawyer or know of somebody with experience in this field, please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org
TO PART II HERE
- Footnotes I have the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME) community to thank for their ongoing work and teachings on rest, broken batteries, spoon theory, and how adrenal fatigue manifests and intersects with mental illness. Not only do communities like this provide resources and understanding that help with coping, they open one up to a world of dialogue that one may not have in their immediate surroundings. They affirm lived experience in ways that systemic crushing does not provide. Disability studies, crip, and queer theory do the same. They open doors and are making ground in places that feel like absolute wonders to discover. When I was creating the course on Illness Narratives, BIPOC artists, writers, thinkers and researchers helped provide a framework to a syllabus that could incorporate plurality, intersectionality, and multiplicities of voices that transferred personal experiences of marginalisation and being silenced into different spaces for contemplation of narrative as being equally worthy when it’s messy, in/coherent, hard to articulate, complex, entangled, and without a miraculous heroic ending. I only have the strength (albeit tough, pained and struggling) to put these experiences to paper after a long time of feeling unworthy and insignificant of sharing, thanks to coming into contact with all of the pained work that has come before, and will come after.
 The inburgersingcurses and inburgeringsexamen are a series of courses leading up to five exams that non-EU immigrants must pass in ord er to be allowed to stay in the Netherlands (and in the Dutch words Nederlands te worder, meaning ‘to become Dutch’) particularly to secure statuses such as ‘temporary resident’ and ‘permanent resident.’ During the courses, one is prepared for the five exams—four of which are about the D utch language to an A2 or B1 language level. The four are reading, writing, speaking and listening. The fifth exam is the most controversial, called kennis van de Nederlandse samenleving (knowledge of Dutch society—or directly translated as knowledge of ‘living together’). This latter test contains topics and questions that range from how many seats are in the various government chambers and which years Dutch colonies became independent, to how frequently one should paint their external window frames or go to the dentist. The arbitrariness of some of the questions within this test have become somewhat of a national joke, to the point that game shows have been made where Dutch people take the test and fail to much hilarity.
 The non-EU country I come from is Aotearoa/New Zealand. The much-idealised (particularly today) and exoticised former British-colony in the South Pacific. When I left New Zealand as a teenager, I had just finished high school and was presented with the unforeseen opportunity of studying in ‘Europe’ (New Zealanders commonly speak of Europe the way Americans do, as though it is one big homogenous country) via a family member who was temporarily working in the East of the Netherlands near the German border (expat). This meant I would be privy to paying the university fees at the Dutch rate, rather than the non-EU costs that are far higher and would have been unaffordable. At the time, Dutch students received a monthly living allowance and free public transport card, all of which were a gift if one graduated. In Aotearoa, post-high school opportunities are scant compared to many other countries. A young person has but a handful of options: heading into manual labour, a diploma/apprenticeship programme in something like hairdressing or a beauty-related profession (usually run by private training operations with high costs), working in a family business, or undertaking a cer tificate or university degree, which is extortionately expensive. The cost of going to university in New Zealand can be seen as comparable to the US. Most graduates come away with crippling student debt that inhibits their life for many years, typically decades, to follow. How Aotearoa is perceived by the rest of the world is without doubt problematic. Post-COVID and since the election of Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister, Aotearoa has become the utopian poster-child for the (Western?) world on crisis-management, human rights, and progressive bills towards better living conditions and equality. What does not make it to the Reddit front page are statistics and events such as Aotearoa being ranked in a 2020 UNICEF report as one of the most unsafe countries to be a child (where youth commit suicide at more than twice the average, reading and math skills are poor compared to other ‘wealthy’ countries, and health conditions such as diabetes and obesity are described as being at “terrifying” rates), or the recent vote by the entirety of the oppositional National Party against banning LGBTQ+ conversion therapy. When you are a Kiwi living outside of Aotearoa, one is regularly met with reactions like “You’re from New Zealand! Why are you here?” or “Wow it looks so beautiful, it’s on my bucket list to go there.” In discussions with other Kiwis living away from home, the most common overlaps in motivation is how we come from a small island at the end of the world with limited opportunities, an insane cost of living (one quick search of ‘cost of food new zealand’ will show what that’s about), and a cultivated, shared desire for experiencing connection to the rest of the world. Our country sure is gorgeous, and I sure miss my family every single day. The pandemic has shed new light onto what it means to live so far from home, now that the option of return has been virtually taken away. Now, if one wants to go home, it’s more complicated than it was—previously just a matter of time and money (getting to New Zealand and expensive and time consuming), while if I want to go home today, I would have to enter a government mandated and run quarantine facility on arrival for two weeks, which costs an additional couple thousand euros. This is assuming that you can get a place in the system via the online calendar that is generally full (you’re hitting refresh like an early 2000s teen trying to get concert tickets), and virtually impossible to crack since people have figured out how to run scripts to nab spots that become open. Unless you’re a midlevel hacker or can pay somebody to run a script for you to get a place (yes, this has become a business, costing about the same as the quarantine itself)—going home has become a battle of the richest. It has been a stark wake-up call to have the option of going home removed entirely. It’s no longer a matter of when, but a matter of if. My grandfather passed away and I couldn’t go to his funeral. My mother needs surgery and lives alone, and our plan for me to come home and take care of her has been put on hold indefinitely. Having English as my first language has opened many doors and co ntinues to provide a privilege that I am aware is fortunate to have. It’s also confusing to be both a non-EU immigrant, and to fit into the sup erficial standards of what most European societies appear to valorize. Liked, but unwanted. Valuable, but unwelcome. It’s tiring to explain to friends with European passports that when you’re not from the EU, you’re NOT FROM THE EU. It doesn’t matter which continent or country, we are all the same.
 The 30% ruling is a Dutch tax exemption for employees who were hired abroad to work in the Netherlands. If various conditions are met, the employer can pay you 30% of your salary as a tax-free allowance . The 30% ruling in the Netherlands is seen as a way of enticing skil led expat workers to the country. “The Dutch 30% Ruling Explained.” Expat Guide to the Netherlands | Expatica. Last modified April 9, 2021. https://www.expatica.com/nl/ finance/taxes/the-dutch-30-ruling-explained-101641/#whatisit.
Antonis Pittas, Untitled (You Don‘t Have To Be Here), 2018