Breaking barriers through connections – How newcomers participate in society
Newcomers and people who have lived here for a while – it is not always easy to bring these two groups closer together. We talk to three partners, who know from experience how to make this connection. They talk about magical moments, impossibilities and the importance of a cup of coffee. “If we look at newcomers as pitiful, how can they ever participate fully in society?”
“The people you meet in a new country determine your future. My life could have been very different. For years, I lived a schizophrenic life: during the day I spent my time among artists, outside of reality, and when I got home I was among friends who were dealing drugs, a dark world. In the end, I started spending more time in the acting world, but things could have gone very differently.” Bright Richards, founder and director of New Dutch Connections (NDC), is a master at making connections. He fled Liberia in 1993, where he was a well-known TV personality. “My connection with the Netherlands started with Gre. I wish everybody could meet someone like Gre. At the asylum seekers’ center, she found out that I was a professional entertainer. She asked if I wanted to volunteer during a world music festival. The first year, I checked tickets at the door. The second year, I was on stage, presenting the festival. It restored my confidence because even with my broken Dutch I was able to do my old job again. It was a magical moment, up on that stage.”
Finding their own way
Technology can also lend a helping hand in building a network. It helped create the Welcome App, a tool to connect people. It has a chat feature, which newcomers and people from the neighborhood can use to talk to each other. The underlying idea of the app is that it is impossible to make meaningful connections if Dutch people who were born and raised here think: I know what you need. I am going to help you, and you should be thankful. Newcomers are extremely capable of finding their own way. Director Julius Weise of the Welcome App: “If we look at newcomers to the Netherlands as pitiful, how could they ever participate fully in society? Bright’s experience underlines this: a newcomer is a person in their own right, each with their own qualities.”
A small step or chance
Lizebeth Melse is coordinator at the Wereldhuis, a project by Stek (the Foundation for City & Church) in The Hague. It is an information and advisory center for people without a residence permit. She has noticed how important it is for undocumented people to be able to apply their skills: “We offer activities, such as baking cookies or cooking. During these activities, the participants also help each other within their own networks. A participant will announce to everyone in the kitchen: ‘I know someone who is looking for a babysitter for her kids’.
The Wereldhuis also runs consultation hours for undocumented migrants. The group we see during the consultation hours has a very diverse background, from North African men who have lived here for more than 30 years to minors. We talk to them: what is your goal, what do you want to achieve? Reality can be harsh sometimes when they find out they won’t make it in the Netherlands. But I have also had encouraging experiences, for instance with young women who had to flee honor killing. I’m so happy for them when after years of despair and problems they get their residence permits and get to start their lives.”
What is the picture you want to paint?
NDC’s Bright also likes to talk to young people: “I’ll ask them things like: the world has formed a picture of you. But what picture do you want to paint? The same applies to adults. For instance, a man who participated in one of our projects told us that he was a successful lawyer in his country of origin. ‘Here, my neighbor won’t even greet me,’ he exclaimed sadly. He was not seen as a person. Social services would keep calling him to say that they had found him a cleaning job at the station. They didn’t see him for who he was and he didn’t show himself either. That is why we at NDC put a refugee on the stage. The audience has no choice but to look at that person. Whether they like it or not, they have to look at you. If that person wants to work in healthcare, we invite our healthcare network. Or a former refugee invites work colleagues. Colleagues who sometimes have no idea about their backstory. This way, connections also create opportunities for people who are looking for a network in that particular sector. Even if it’s a small step or chance, much like Gre did for me when she arranged a volunteer job for me.”
‘Go back to your own country’
It is more challenging to establish connections if you do not feel welcome as a newcomer. Lizebeth of Wereldhuis has noticed that people are sometimes bothered by the harsh stance in society and politics. “The persistent idea of ‘the migrant as gold digger’ needs to be adjusted. Once they have arrived in the Netherlands, it’s hard to get a work permit, while undocumented people want to work and ‘just’ pay taxes. They want to belong, just like everybody else. Imagine you’ve been trying to get a residence permit for years, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service doesn’t believe your refugee claim. All this while it is impossible to return, or you’re afraid to go back. Or, you’ve been working here illegally for 30 years and have no rights. It is difficult to hear people say things like ‘you can return, go back to your own country’. If you don’t speak the language yet and don’t know the social codes, people who have lived here longer are not always easy to approach.
Dozens of friends
Hani Al Duias, who fled Yemen, remembers this well from his days at the asylum seekers’ center. “I was so lonely. At the bus station, I tried to strike up a conversation with people, but they often looked at me funny. The Welcome App saved me. I could start conversations with people from the neighborhood on this platform. I could ask them questions about Dutch culture and I could see where I could go to meet people. The people I met through the app helped me find my way in the Netherlands. I ended up with dozens of friends thanks to the app, including my best friend. But I also found my current job as a coordinator at a university of applied sciences through the app.”
Language of a carpenter
Newcomers struggle with prejudices, but also with impossibilities. NDC’s Bright: “Forget about the impossibilities. I always think about the 55-year-old carpenter who only spoke Arabic. Even I caught myself being prejudiced: how can we help him create a network if he only speaks that language? But I was wrong. During one of our meetings, he was seen for who he was by the right people. The people who also spoke the language of a carpenter. After a safety instruction in Arabic, he soon started working for a housing corporation. He successfully made a connection as a good carpenter.” Lizebeth of Wereldhuis agrees that people do well if they make connections from their source of strength: “If you’re just sitting in your room, as some undocumented people do, your mental health declines rapidly. We are moving to a new location in The Hague this year. We will be able to organize even more activities, such as working with computers, repairing bikes, and information meetings and training by other organizations such as a first aid training of the Red Cross. It’s so important for people to stay busy and talk to other people from The Hague. They have had little to do with them in their daily lives. There are groups of people that find each other and help each other out, such as the Filipino domestic worker who joined a union. The people who come to our consultation hours are struggling, as they don’t have such a network and are more likely to not have a job.”
Done with being pitiful
Julius, of the Welcome App, used to volunteer at an emergency shelter in Amsterdam, where he noticed how difficult it is for asylum seekers to really establish contact with Dutch people. “I was one of the few volunteers who would play videogames with young men in their room or drink a cup of coffee with them. Young people in particular were done with being thought of as pitiful, with being a refugee. They wanted to get a job and go. That’s how I came up with the idea for an app, to give them a tool to make contact on their own and thereby get ahead.” The app has been revamped over the past few years, incorporating the newcomers’ experiences Julius: “Now, the app is the best portal for integration and citizenship education. We provide users access to useful information, such as organizations that offer language and citizenship lessons as well as activities and workshops in their neighborhood. We have been working on the app with city councils. In short, we have given them tools to find their way in society and make connections.” Newcomers crave connection and a network. Word artist Bright sums it up nicely: “It is important to respect the dignity of new Dutch citizens, to see their value and make a real connection with them. Through connections walls crumble down.”
Partners of Adessium Foundation
Adessium Foundation believes that everyone in the Netherlands should be able to participate equally in society. That requires mutual involvement and for help for people who need it. We therefore support organizations that assist people in precarious situations, such as New Dutch Connections, Stek (the Foundation for City & Church) and Welcome App. These organizations not only offer people direct support and relief, but also give them perspective.