Caught in a net of lagging behind

VU Professor of Diversity and Integration Halleh Ghorashi (1962) arrived in the Netherlands as a political refugee from Iran. She opposes persistent stereotypes about refugees and migrants and advocates for diversity and inclusion in both society and the business world. Her own story plays a significant role in the research she has undertaken.

“Let us – policymakers, community initiatives, NGOs, scientists – do our work better.”

Ghorashi: “When I arrived in the Netherlands in the late 1980s, I was struck by how refugees and migrants were talked about. They were primarily depicted using figures and percentages that highlighted their lagging behind compared to native or other groups: higher unemployment, less language proficiency, lack of work experience, inadequate education, and so on.”

“Due to this one-sided approach, I wondered: where is the other side of the story? What about the resilience, perseverance, ambitions, and talents of refugees? I also encountered this issue during the undoubtedly well-intentioned assistance I received during my first year in the Netherlands. People already knew what I needed without bothering to understand my background. I had a history, I knew what my problems were, and I could contribute ideas for potential solutions.”

“As an asylum seeker, but also later as a professor when I was appointed by Minister Ter Horst as a member of the Supervisory Committee for Diversity in Police Leadership, I went to the police to report theft and threats. In both cases, the officers at the front desk immediately asked, ‘Domestic violence?’ before I could even speak. I was reduced to being the pitiable, helpless refugee or the oppressed Iranian woman. Even as an advisor to the police at the highest level, I still encountered the same prejudice. I realized how little personal achievement matters if the system itself doesn’t change.”

“That’s what I call ‘backward thinking.’ The dominant perception is that refugees and migrants are disadvantaged. This idea is repeatedly reproduced, usually with good intentions, by people who do not have a refugee background themselves or do not interact closely with refugees. As a welfare state, our focus is on providing care. We want to help. They need to be helped. And if things go wrong, it’s primarily their problem. After all, we did our best.”

“This perspective is historically shaped, and we can’t easily discard it. The self-image is that we’re doing well. But look at the policies of recent years. Like the intention to accelerate integration. I simply cannot imagine that everyone involved had ill intentions. But let’s be honest, that policy has created a mess.”

“If you don’t ask questions and don’t listen, you invent things that don’t work. The issues are real. During the time of Corona, children in vulnerable neighborhoods are falling further behind. Crises make inequalities visible that we might not have wanted to acknowledge earlier. This also helps us stop saying that everything is fine. No, it’s not fine.”

“However, by solely focusing on that, refugees and migrants become trapped in a ‘web of disadvantage.’ This way, they can never progress. Nothing is done about how we as a society view refugees and what societal structures hinder their integration.”

“This time should actually make us more aware of these structural sources of inequality and exclusion instead of blaming the victim. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought a certain awareness about this: don’t label refugees and migrants as categories of disadvantage, but start by listening and observing their experiences, how they perceive integration into Dutch society, and how they shape their lives. These stories are important for reflecting on subtle and invisible images, processes, and structures of exclusion, questioning them, and making progress.”


“That’s why in my research, I choose to focus on the stories and experiences of refugees and migrants. In this process, I’ve undergone a development. I started by collecting biographical stories to understand the lives of migrants and refugees. I also continuously analyzed my own story.”

“Individual stories, shortcomings, failures, and problems are never isolated. There are always contextual elements. Structural sources of inequality are at play. We don’t all have the same privileges and resources. Along the way, I wondered how we could work towards change. How can we disrupt societal structures that perpetuate exclusion, even if done with good intentions?”

“I realized that we can utilize these stories. When we bring together the stories of societal actors – policymakers, community initiatives, NGOs – scientists, and refugees, we create a repository of different types of knowledge. Through dialogue among these stories, we bring different worlds and perspectives closer together. Solutions that emerge from the connection of multiple perspectives can be generated, leading to new forms of knowledge. This co-creation of professional, academic, and experiential knowledge, that’s what engaged science means to me.”

“All individuals who think and act from different perspectives on the same issue within society become more aware of their own blind spots. This multifaceted perspective broadens our horizons. We force ourselves to challenge our own images and engage in a perspective shift with each other. I call it ‘forced reflexivity.’ Because if we work too much from our own perspectives, we repeatedly fall into the trap of backward thinking.”

“We need to develop additional competencies, not so much in refugees and migrants, but primarily within ourselves – all individuals who work with refugees and migrants. To see more and listen better, so that we can uncover hidden talents rather than focusing solely on visible disadvantages. Because it concerns all of us. Our problems are shared problems. Our perceptions are shared perceptions. We all need to play a role in finding solutions.”


“So, it starts with people who want to achieve something positive at local and national levels. If we can establish connections and create inclusive spaces, perhaps that could be appealing to others who express negativity about refugees and migrants. I used to believe that polarization would decrease if I could win over the other side. But connection starts with ourselves. Let’s do our work better. Then we can be more convincing, and others might start listening as well. Because with empty stories lacking substance about diversity and inclusion, we can’t offer a valuable alternative to negative narratives.”

“As a sociologist and anthropologist, I’m concerned with power dynamics. In democratic societies, you see that power is no longer the power of dictatorship but the power of normalization. What Foucault calls ‘discourse.’ There are normative forces that repeatedly confirm and reproduce images about yourself and others in your thinking and actions. Media and the digital world nurture and amplify those images.”

“Fear and discontent in society are substantial. When you fear others, when you believe refugees come here to benefit from social benefits, when you think others aren’t trying hard enough when you believe refugees are taking away your opportunities – if you’re not in close proximity to refugees, unaware of their lives and the challenges they face, if there’s no connection, those negative images are constantly reinforced. That becomes the truth. Our world and our perception of others keep shrinking. I call this the ‘mould of normalization.'”

“At times, all the negativity about refugees and migrants might personally affect me, but not predominantly. As a scientist analyzing societal issues, I can also put my own position and problems into perspective and consider them in a broader context.”

Halleh Ghorashi

“Through my doctoral research, I learned that you don’t have to feel at home everywhere. My research revealed that many Iranian women felt uprooted in the Netherlands. They were constantly seen as the ‘other’ and not accepted as true Dutch citizens. The feeling of home was often linked to identity – being Dutch or Iranian – and the entire country – Netherlands or Iran. This led me to further reflect on the concept of ‘feeling at home.’ It became clear to me that this can also happen in smaller spaces, in the city, in the neighbourhood, or when surrounded by good company.”

“As for myself, that certainly applied: no matter how out of place I sometimes felt in society, it was different at the university. I felt at home there, first as a student and later as a colleague. I was seen, heard, and taken seriously. I could develop there. And now, at the pinnacle of my academic career, I am surrounded by young researchers in my research groups who inspire me.”

“Of course, I’ve also experienced in my work what it means not to be seen. But I didn’t give up. Through all the hardship in my childhood and during the Iranian Revolution – I’ve talked about that a lot in ‘Trouw’ – I learned to see possibilities within a structure of impossibility, to look from darkness to light.”

“For instance, during the 1990s, there was little appreciation for my qualitative research method, both in academia and migration policy. Quantitative scientists dominated that field. I realized that as a researcher, I was entering a marginal position, but I held onto my narrative approach.”

“And, for example, when I became an endowed professor just four years after obtaining my doctorate. That was extraordinary recognition. But not everyone was pleased. Many considered it a ‘token position’ that would quickly pass. Some even openly expressed their surprise at my success to me. I had to prove myself. I realized that you don’t need all of humanity to believe in you, just a few people who do. Leaders who see your talent and want to help you develop further. Colleagues who value you as a valuable colleague. And young talent that sees you as a source of inspiration.”


“I’ve been having more conversations with companies lately. The higher you go in organizations, the whiter and more male it becomes. I always ask CEOs what would have happened to them if they had encountered only people who saw their weaknesses in their careers, not their talents. Diversity has been optional for a long time. Again, with the best intentions: we give them opportunities, we’ll help them. But again, it comes from a deficit perspective.”

“As a crown member of the SER, I contributed to the advisory report ‘Diversity at the Top, Time for Acceleration.’ I’m really glad that this report stands out from all the other reports on diversity and migration because it abandons the deficit perspective and presents a more layered story about sources of exclusion and opportunities for inclusion in diversity. This has an impact from the SER. It’s an extra nudge for the (semi-)public sector and the business world not to give up and to structurally address the issue.”

“When someone is far from us, let’s try not to immediately place them in a category and reduce them to an image, but instead, create an image of their life. We tend to first see the otherness of someone: they talk differently, have a different body language, ask different questions, look different, have an accent. For connection, it’s important to temporarily suspend our judgment about the other to be able to see their diversity. To force ourselves to ask different questions and give space to the story behind someone’s appearance. To turn off what we see at first glance to see more.”

“Then you look at a CV differently. You’re not fixated on the gaps but imagine the story behind them. Then you might see strength instead of deficit. For example, between my high school in Iran and my degree in the Netherlands, I have a gap of over ten years. That’s because I was politically active in Iran, had to go into hiding and flee, and then had to start anew in the Netherlands.”

“I heard a CEO give a lecture about a traineeship they had set up. Beautiful young people, he said. So diverse, in terms of skin color, hairstyles, clothing, appearance. After a year, he met them again. Everyone had become the same. Uniform, hairstyle… they even spoke the same. That can’t be the intention of bringing in diversity: to put everyone in the same mold. That’s destined to fail. People deny their background to be seen and appreciated. But their otherness always remains a point. Always. You’re always seen as the other.”

“Therefore, diversity must be linked to inclusion. It means not only allowing people into your organization but also incorporating their perspectives into the organizational process. Letting them participate and valuing them for what they bring from their background.”

“It means allowing disruption. Challenging routine, status quo, entrenched patterns, and normalizing practices from time to time. Allowing the other to be the other and using their otherness for a ‘dance of perspectives’ within the organization. To merge horizons, effect change, create something new, so that inclusion becomes possible.”

This interview by Jessica Brouwer, with photos by Peter Valckx and Yvonne Compier, originally appeared in VU Magazine, January 18, 2021.”