A conversation with the Pauluskerk: taking care of undocumented people

The motto “Conquering evil by doing good” graces the façade of the Pauluskerk in Rotterdam, and inside, these words are put into action. The homeless, refugees and undocumented people have been welcome here since the early 1980s. According to current estimates, there are around 4,000 homeless people in Rotterdam, and the city is struggling to provide them with shelter. Some of them sleep on simple mats in the sanctuary of the church.

A group of people are drinking coffee in the main hall of the Pauluskerk, and a few meters further on, a couple of men are playing cards. This is where we meet pastor Dick Couvée and Hanny de Kruijf. They have been dedicated to helping vulnerable residents of Rotterdam for decades now and play a prominent role at the Pauluskerk.

Motivation

Hanny has been involved with the Pauluskerk since the early 1980s, having started out as a socially engaged volunteer. “I wanted to learn more about what goes on at this church. As a 22-year-old at the time, I ended up working here more than full-time.” She had already had some experience with refugees during that period. “I had taken someone in after renovation work started on a building where many refugees were living at the time.”

In addition to being a theologian, Dick is also a lawyer. He started out as a civil servant for one of the Dutch ministries because he “wanted to work in service of the public.” The growing free-market thinking in that sector didn’t suit him. “I would often get angry about the people who had spent too long on the wrong side of the social divide. I never could stand that. I guess this is because of my faith and how I translate this into my work as a pastor. I wanted to turn this anger into something constructive for society and the church.”

“We provide shelter to these people, but also try to remind the government of its responsibilities.”

Who the Pauluskerk helps The Pauluskerk’s work is rooted in practice and keeps up with the times. In the 1980s and 1990s, this work mostly involved providing shelter to the homeless and addicts. In the years that followed Dick’s appointment in 2012, there was a group of around 20,000 undocumented people in Rotterdam who were left to fend for themselves. Many of them came to the Pauluskerk. The church’s first contact with Adessium dates back to this period. Dick points out the link between providing practical assistance and lobbying efforts. “We provide shelter to these people, but also try to remind the government of its responsibilities.”

Adessium has been supporting the Pauluskerk since 2013. Dick and Hanny have observed that the more the government withdraws and closes the borders for migrants and refugees, the more important the Pauluskerk’s work becomes. “Just letting everyone in isn’t good for the country or for the people themselves, but there are so many restrictions now.” New problems also arise, such as an ineffective return policy and a detention policy that is at odds with the principles of the rule of law. We are even hearing that people in urgent need of medical attention are being deported. As far as this goes, the government and bureaucrats are allowing themselves to be influenced by a broader social sentiment which involves less tolerance for refugees and migrants. As Dick says, “We can’t just look the other way when we see that laws and regulations continue to create problems for the same groups of people.”

Results

Thanks in part to the Pauluskerk’s advocacy, the ‘Bed-Bath-Bread’ regulation (a facility for people on the move) was implemented in 2015, followed by the LVV (national service for incomers). This is a basic shelter facility for asylum seekers who have exhausted all of their appeals, and for undocumented people. They are given a place to sleep, clothing, access to toilets and showers, breakfast and an evening meal. Based on the local practical situation, solutions are sought for the most vulnerable group of people without documentation. In spite of justified hesitation, the Pauluskerk has decided to take a constructive approach to participating in this system.

“When you’ve got your nose to the grindstone, you have the right and the duty to say how things can and should be done.”
Lobbying

Dick and Hanny firmly believe that lobbying and political influence can only be truly effective when they are based on a shelter’s specific situation. “When you’ve got your nose to the grindstone, you have the right and the duty to say how things can and should be done. After all, you’re the one with a clear picture of the problems people at the shelter face, and you get all sorts of ideas about social and legal solutions that could transcend individual problems.”

Our question about any ray of hope is met with a brief silence. Hanny: “In the past, some people would be able to get a residence permit, but this rarely happens anymore. We can’t offer them much in the way of prospects, and this is really hard for the people themselves and for first responders. It’s not just about being able to stay in the Netherlands, we also always look at the options for return. After all, sometimes being able to return to your country with your head held high is better than living here as a marginalized person. This often isn’t possible for these people, however.”

Partnership with Adessium

Dick and Hanny are happy to be able to work with Adessium and are very grateful that Adessium has formed a long-term alliance with the Pauluskerk. There aren’t that many funds that focus on this theme and church income has been declining. Adessium’s considerable substantive involvement is also greatly appreciated, particularly since the church never gets the feeling that Adessium wants to start calling the shots. Dick: “I feel a real sense of engagement with and personal commitment to the problems we are trying to help solve. Adessium has started taking an increasingly more systemic approach to how they want to go about this as a fund.”

Retirement

Dick will be retiring soon and saying goodbye will be very hard for everyone involved after everything he has done up to now. When we ask Dick how he wants to be remembered after he leaves, he pauses for a moment before responding. “It’s not about me. I wanted to be of service to the entire community here. I would like to use the occasion of my departure to make very clear to the city of Rotterdam what is going on in the margins of society, why this is happening, what it means for these people and what we can do about it.”

About this partner

The Pauluskerk helps people without a residence permit. It provides support to refugees in Rotterdam in the form of counseling, legal advice, temporary housing and medical assistance. It also organizes meaningful daytime activities and protects the interests of refugees without valid documentation in their interaction with local and national government and tells their stories to the city.

Dick Couvée is the director and diaconal pastor of the Pauluskerk. After 12 years at the Pauluskerk, he will be retiring soon. Hanny de Kruijf is the treasurer of Stichting Omzo, the Pauluskerk’s foundation that helps undocumented people, and provides support for the work the Pauluskerk does. She is also the director of Samen010, an organization in which churches and volunteers actively work together on projects involving health care, poverty and social isolation in Rotterdam, as well as being the chairwoman of ROS (Rotterdam organization supporting undocumented persons).

05/07/2019
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