Arts | Politics | Economy | Education & Sciences29 Jul 2014
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Surprising Europe is Surprising Audiences
Politics, 5 Aug 2011


The first day of filming in Amsterdam, the crew left their camera equipment on a tram by accident. On the last day of filming, they were racing against the clock to finish and catch a 6:30pm train to Cologne. What emerged between the chaotic first and last days is a fascinating 9-part series on African immigrants living in Europe, airing on Al Jazeera from August 8.
 
Presented by K-Nel, himself an African immigrant from Kenya now living in Germany, Surprising Europe, looks at the different experiences of those seeking what they believe to be a better life in Europe. The dream though, is often not the reality and this series aims to educate and communicate about what life in the “promise land” is really like.

The series (click here for the trailer on YouTube) is the main part of the Surprising Europe project that started with the documentary 'Surprising Europe, The Life and Times of Ssuuna Golooba' and ends with the online community at www.surprisingeurope.com. The documentary, which premiered at the Movies That Matter film festival in The Hague, Netherlands in March, is based on the life of Ssuuna Golooba, a photo-journalist from Uganda who moved to Amsterdam, in search of better professional opportunities. The Surprising Europe project started when Ssuuna began to realize that the Amsterdam he arrived in, was not the one he believed he was coming to: work opportunities and housing were not as grand or as accessible as he thought they would be. He wanted to share his story with other Africans and share his message of be informed before you go. The owner of a car he was cleaning in Amsterdam turned out to be a filmmaker. Following discussions and a pitch, the Surprising Europe project was started. The documentary would focus on Ssuuna - his story of arriving in Europe, the challenges he faced and him joining the production of the television series to take back to Uganda and show his fellow Africans. With the idea to just give information about moving to Europe, not to discourage others from leaving Africa like he had done, Ssuuna first showed the pilot of the television series in Uganda. The challenge Ssuuna faced was that often, even if he was open about his experience in Europe, people did not believe him and felt that he was lying about Europe in order to keep others from going there to seek their own fortunes.Fortunately though with the pilot of the series and the documentary, initial feedback was good –people seemed to be starting to listen. But Ssuuna’s story is only one of many and so from the documentary on one story, the 9-part series of other people’s stories was further developed and produced.

The presenter of the series is K-Nel, a man whose own story also fits within the Surprising Europe theme. He himself left Kenya to come to Europe for opportunities that were not available to him in Africa. But while leaving Africa is the common thread with other immigrants, K-Nel’s story has taken a different path. While he has been able to secure opportunities and create a solid professional base for himself in Germany, many immigrants coming to Europe have very different experiences. K-Nel credits his education and knowing the language of his new adopted home for his success. “My studies made everything easy for me,” said K-Nel of the path his life in Europe has taken.

He now uses his success to create opportunities in Kenya, in the hopes of showing people in Africa that they do not need to leave the continent to find their opportunities - that there are opportunities on their home soil.

The challenge K-Nel has found, and that the series Surprising Europe is trying to address, is that many immigrants come to Europe and find that not all their dreams are met. Work opportunities are more difficult to come across, cultural differences are greater than expected, language differences raise barriers, etc. Rather than admit to their families that all the opportunities they were coming to embrace are non-existent, African immigrants relay to their families that Europe really is all that they had hoped for. A mix of pride and disappointment helps encourage false stories, rather than the truth, as the stories that travel back home. In asking why immigrants do not go back to Africa after they get to Europe and find that it is not all they thought it would, K-Nel said that “They are scared to go back and say they failed.” K-Nel spoke in an interview on location in Amsterdam, filming the last episode of Surprising Europe.

Another challenge comes in when people’s families become dependent on them. Even if they are not “succeeding” by European standards, the money they are able to save and send back to Africa is far more than they would possibly have earned in Africa over the same period of time. Families left behind in Africa come to rely on their relatives overseas to send money and goods back to their home countries.

An interesting point that the series, documentary and K-Nel highlight are that Europeans' views of Africans in Africa are very different from the European view of Africans in Europe. Also, it is the difference between the image of Europeans that Africans have in Africa and that Africans have in Europe. Because European tourists in Africa show interest in the people and culture, many Africans in Africa assume that they will be warmly welcomed and embraced when they move to Europe. More often than not, this is not the case.

K-Nel points out that many people don’t realize how hard they have to work to secure any long-term opportunity and therefore give up easily. Often if someone does decide to return back to Africa, it is the “system” that failed them and not their own actions. Also the support networks vary greatly geographically, as well as how African immigrants are received abroad. An example K-Nel uses is in a difference between the U.K. and Germany, “seeing a black person working in a bank in the UK is not uncommon" but he points out that this is not as common in Germany.

K-Nel says that how people get to Europe also dictates their experience there. If someone arrives in Europe on a fake passport or by smuggling transport on a boat, then their life in Europe is hard “from the word go”. Entering Europe illegally means conflict along an already difficult path – securing papers, bank accounts, leases, etc., all becomes much more difficult.

K-Nel has now been in Germany for 11 years and still it is hard work for him everyday. Like a superhero, K-Nel has a regular day job but has his evenings and weekends to pursue his real dream - for K-Nel this is his hip-hop music and his site, Anglohili. Anglohili, a name combining Swahili and English which K-Nel first started rapping in, is now a website for K-Nel’s hip hop music, blog and clothing line.
Despite finding professional success and stability in Europe, he sees Kenya as his land of opportunity and still thinks of it as home. He uses the security of his work in Germany (as a team leader for a financial services company) to support his dream. K-Nel points out that pursuing his dream is difficult and he is only able to do so since he has the financial security that comes from his day job.

The television series Surprising Europe aims to make people pay attention. Produced by Jongens van de Wit and directed by Jean Hellwig and Rogier Kappers, the series that shows various portaits of Africans all over Europe in a television magazine style, will be aired on Al Jazeera beginning August 8.

The project also has its own website, surprisingeurope.com, which is much more than a support act for the series. The site is also a platform and an online community for Africans in Europe, providing a forum for their own surprising stories.

Watching the documentary, series, and visiting the website – you may even find yourself, well, surprised. But the work of all who have been involved in this project will slowly make the arrival in Europe a little less surprising for those who next take the journey from Africa.
 
Sarah Taylor
 



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http://www.surprisingeurope.com/

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