With no shortage of sensationalized news headlines about the so-called refugee “crisis” of 2015 and its aftermath, it is easy to get caught up and lose sight of the individual lives and experiences that news channels are reporting on. It is important to take a moment to listen to local organizations with first-hand knowledge of the hurdles that newcomers face as well as their ideas on what can be done to ensure services and support become more accessible to status holders living in Amsterdam.
Sitting down to a Zoom call with Sanne de Wit, one of the founders of Stichting Warm Welkom, I was able to learn more about this wonderful organization as well as how we can all work towards more positive outcomes for our new-coming neighbours in Amsterdam Noord.
Before diving in, Sanne gave me a brief history of Warm Welkom:
Just before it was founded in spring of 2017, Sanne collaborated with a local community centre in the North of Amsterdam (Huis van de Wijk Waterlandplein) to hold the first meetings with newcomers in the area to listen to their questions. After seeing the need, Sanne wanted to work more with newcomers. Enter the other founder, Marcelle Miles, who wanted to develop this into more regular programs for newcomers in Noord. This led to more meetings and eventually to other organizations, including the Municipality of Amsterdam, seeking Warm Welkom’s advice and involvement on programs involving status holders as they bridged Dutch organizations and newcomers.
However, the successes of Warm Welkom did not come without some resistance. I was interested in finding out more about what Sanne’s work entails, including the obstacles she encounters along the way.
“The challenge is to find the right words,” she said, referring to the many applications that must be written when applying for funding. “What we bring is valuable, but you must describe what happens if we don't bring it anymore. There are lots of newcomers who would then fall into a vacuum. These are people who don't know where to start to connect because the language is still at a low level so, perhaps, they are too shy to go to a community centre and then, they are actually isolated. Nobody knows they exist. They just live in a house. So, you have to help them with the start. This is what we do and what we believe in, but then to convince the people who need to find money for you…. this could really be a challenge…” Once we could show the results and people saw what we contributed and facilitated together with the status holders, we got the support.
I’ve thought long and hard about why this could be the case for Sanne and any local organization reliant on funding. What is different from Sanne and those who delegate the funds she is applying for? Where is the gap in understanding of newcomers’ needs? This can be answered by going back to the very beginnings of Warm Welkom, where Sanne worked with her local Huis van de Wijk to listen to the newcomers’ experiences. This knowledge is not easy to come by nor widely known – which is what makes Warm Welkom unique – but not having this knowledge can lead to the tiring tales that Sanne described to me.
But what can be done with such knowledge? “If you listen, then you can try and find out why something didn’t succeed,” Sanne explained. She talked about how sometimes the case managers newcomers are assigned to have difficulty understanding why newcomers do not open up to them as they would expect. Eritreans, for instance, are typically more modest towards strangers than the Dutch are. This is a cultural gap widened by a lack of understanding. Even in the cases where there is an awareness of the differences in cultures, newcomers are still held to unwavering standards of Dutch culture.
“So, I question and I ask myself, shouldn’t we change ourselves then? And not ask them to change? … Please, let’s use this awareness and be creative and adaptive! With not much effort we could approach them differently and it would make a major difference.”
This approach can be useful beyond case managers and NGO workers. Pick any two humans and there will be a number of differences in experiences, culture, and beliefs. But expecting the other to look through our lens without looking through theirs is not only unequal, but inefficient. As people, we are naturally creative and innovative – and welcoming newcomers is not the time to be rigid and uncompromising.
“Please, trust them. First trust, then listen. We are all people, and we all want to be valuable where we live.” This need not be a call for radical change, but simply for more empathy. The work of Warm Welkom is the perfect example of how initiating a more inclusive discussion that is aimed at understanding those who you wish to support can go a long way in the experiences of those around us.
“Listen and trust, these two words are important.”