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In her early twenties Roya Nair, a Hindu from Chennai, married a Persian and went to live in Shiraz, a city in southern Iran. She learned to speak Farsi fluently, had two children, sheltered in bunkers during the Iran-Iraq war, and became an English lecturer at the prestigious Iran Language Institute.
In her thirties, Roya and her family immigrated to the Netherlands. Twenty some years later, she is fluent in Dutch, has watched guilders give way to euros and her children become integrated EU citizens, and, she works as a top executive at a leading training and development company in Amsterdam.
Roya is an example of a successful immigrant – someone who has bucked the odds and flourished in a new country and culture, not once, but twice!
As America celebrates Labor Day and how immigrants have helped shape the American workforce, we look at what it takes for immigrants to find their feet and thrive in a new country and a new career.
An Immigrant in Iran
What struck her first when Roya moved to Iran, aside from the spectacular scenic beauty and the warmth of the people, were the restrictions imposed on women. There was implicit discrimination based on gender – religious practices prohibited women from certain careers – for example, a woman could not be a judge. Religion was an integral part of everything – even when interviewing for a job, says Roya, the interview, would include questions on her knowledge of Islam.
A bigger hurdle when she started looking for work, was her inability to read or write Farsi.
“Despite the restrictions,” she says, “ I decided I wanted to work.” The challenge was to find a career that accommodated her limitations, so she took formal courses in teaching and trained to become an English lecturer.
“It suited me because they needed people like me, and I wanted to work in a place I felt safe.” Her fluency in Farsi grew as she interacted with young Iranian women who were eager to learn from an ‘outsider’ in their environment. And with that came several promotions to a senior lecturer position.
“I learned that observing and a willingness to learn helped me to adapt and be successful in a new job” says Roya. “ What remained with me from this experience was that in order to be accepted in an alien culture, you have to make active and positive contributions, and be open to stepping out of your comfort zone.”
Some years later when her daughter was born, Roya very quickly realized that she would be raising a girl in a society that offered fewer freedoms and opportunities for women compared to her own upbringing in India. She could not fathom sending her daughter to school in a headscarf at the tender age of six. It was a cultural norm that precipitated the family’s move to the Netherlands.
An Immigrant in the Netherlands
As asylum seekers in the Netherlands, Roya and her family faced a tough path to immigration and citizenship. This time round, there was no supportive extended family to cushion the transition. Instead, they were housed in a detention camp, sharing crowded facilities with other asylum seekers including refugees and even foreign national criminals.
“Our biggest fear,” says Roya, “was the ordeal we were exposing our young children to.”
“Every time I entered a courtroom with my young children in tow, for hearings on our case, I agonized over whether we were traumatizing them forever.”
And yet, once the family were granted asylum and became ‘newcomers’, as the Dutch call new immigrants, the second time around was different, says Roya.
“I was older and compared to my first immigrant experience, felt more confident about understanding what it might take to make the transition and find my footing in my new life.”
“The difference was that I had point of reference – I was better equipped to deal with the new situation. I’d done it before. I already knew what I had to do.”
Roya tackled the first of her hurdles head on. The most difficult was learning Dutch, a Germanic language that was totally alien to her. “I completely invested in learning the language and mastering it the best I could, studying the nuances, the colloquialisms. I saw it as a tool to further myself.”
She also took management courses and worked as a volunteer to practice her Dutch and learn about traits unique to Dutch culture and society.
“Volunteering was a great way to learn about people. It’s a no pressure situation – it improved my self-confidence, and, you know you are already on the path to contributing to society.”
Most immigrants gravitate towards international companies, but Roya made it a personal challenge to develop skills she needed in order to compete with Dutch nationals in her job search.
“I was the first immigrant hired by my company,” says Roya, after she sailed through a personality and language test to determine her fit into a very Dutch work environment. From the company’s point of view she knew the assessment was necessary because they felt they were taking a risk with a new immigrant.
A personal perspective
Looking back at how she learned to stake her claim on a career in the Dutch workforce, Roya asserts that the first step was to take personal responsibility for being included. Diversity and inclusion weren’t the buzzwords they are, in the years leading up to the millennium.
“So, the responsibility was mine. As a new immigrant I had to take the initiative to be more accepted and integrated. I personally feel that inclusion is not just the responsibility of a new society you enter. I was conscious of the fact that I had to make it work.”
One way to open the door to acceptance was to learn how language was used in her new country, and to observe the nuances of communication – “what am I allowed to say” – and to try to communicate clearly. She paid attention to her workplace culture on “how to dress to stand out less”, because dressing wrong was one way of being excluded.
She also knew she had to battle cultural differences that were inherent to her Indian upbringing.
“We Indians are careful about expressing what we really think and sometimes do not dare to say what’s on our minds. We are so conditioned to take into account what other people feel. It felt alien to my nature to be direct and being direct is a very Dutch trait! I had to learn to be direct but not abrasive.”
Like any new immigrant, Roya found it could be easy to experience self-doubt, misinterpret feedback and feel like a victim.
“I was so aware of being different and like everyone else, I wanted appreciation and recognition. Dutch culture is direct. I had to understand that criticism during feedback is an objective assessment of situations, not failure. I learned to de-personalize things. I realized I was not inferior or a victim. And later, as a manager, I learned to give feedback in a direct, open way.”
As she navigated her way through life in the Netherlands, Roya learned to hold fast to some truths that let her add value and contribute in a positive way to her community and her workplace.
“I’m aware that I am different, but difference can be a strength – the best teams have different kinds of people have who complement each other.”
“Being open comes with vulnerability and risks because you are exposing parts of you that come from within; unless you throw yourself into the equation you’re not going to learn”
Daring to dream
“Take opportunities provided and turn them into something positive by showing a different point of view or your unique strength. Not everything will find traction but people will see you have ideas, you‘re contributing.”
On her desk at work stands a small plaque engraved ‘No Worries’, a gift from her Dutch colleagues to recognize her ability to problem solve “…because that’s how they see me. I have an ability to put things into perspective in especially challenging situations, and it may be because of my background. One of my strengths is not being overwhelmed when things go pear-shaped.”
It’s a strength that has served her family well and paved the way for second generation success. The last time they stood in a courtroom was in July of this year, to mark a milestone; Roya watched her husband’s eyes fill as his daughter was sworn in as a lawyer to the Dutch bar some 21 years after arriving in the Netherlands as a young immigrant.
Assimilating into a new country and culture is not just about the degrees you earn, the car you drive, or the titles you hold – it really is about the grit and determination of learning to integrate at a very basic level and creating roots that will let you flourish in the new place you call home.
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.