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I hope you’re doing well. The days in my part of the world are getting short and dark. Normally, this would be a time for warm chocolate and churros in well-lit streets. Now, it’s quiet. And I know this will be a challenging time for many of us.
This week, I facilitated a couple of workshops and sessions. In-person, for a change. And fortunately so, as these sessions were aimed at those people whose voices are typically not heard. I spoke with recent migrants and youngsters about their future and the challenges they experienced. The conversations were part of our efforts to develop a broadly shared future vision for the Netherlands. But they were more than that. For me, at least.
“Are you really writing this down?” Rania, a teenage participant, asked today when I made notes of the advice I had asked the youngsters for. I showed her my notes. “That’s a first,” she said.
Here’s part of what I wrote down over the last week. As always, thanks for reading!
On Monday, Esther had invited me to do a session at SOZA in The Hague. SOZA is housed in the old building of the Ministry of Social Affairs (“SOciale ZAken”) and a combination of an office complex, social housing, and various social services. SOZA is home to newcomers to the Netherlands, people with a temporary residence permit who are in the process of jumping through endless hoops to be allowed to stay.
Five newcomers joined me to talk about their vision for the future of the Netherlands. Of course, we started with the absolute best, homemade hummus and falafel. And then we spoke for a good two hours about the future and the challenges that it held. A few observations:
Language is an unfair barrier. All newcomers to the Netherlands have to learn Dutch, and they need to be able to speak it fluently before they can do almost anything else. Samal, who had a finished university degree from Syria, wasn’t allowed into an (English language!) course at university because his Dutch wasn’t at C2.
I say unfair because if you’re a foreign exchange student (or ex-pat), you’re not required to speak Dutch at all. The Dutch are so good at English that I know ex-pats who’ve lived here for over twenty years without ever bothering to learn the language. Most Dutch people will also switch to English (or another language) the second they understand you’re not a native speaker. This makes it very hard to practice Dutch.
Language, furthermore, is an unnecessary barrier. Why, Dalya asked, do I need to write a Dutch cover letter for a job filling shelves in a supermarket? (Dalya had two years of university in Syria but now had to start again with her education at the Netherland’s lowest vocational level.)
In addition to these barriers, ‘the system’ almost seems to bully people who have to learn the language. For example, while you get a government scholarship and travel expenses as a student, as a language student, you don’t. Instead, you’re on ‘benefits.’ One of the disadvantages of being on benefits is that you’re not really allowed to work.
What struck me is how the newcomers struggled with many of the same issues other minorities struggle with. In the white paper we wrote at Everyday Heroes about people with a distance to the labour market, we identified many of the same challenges. Specifically:
Perception: For both newcomers and people with a distance to the labour market, there is a considerable gap between their potential, ambitions, and ability and what people think they are capable of.
System: The system (laws, rules, regulations) looks at groups, not individuals. As a consequence, Salam cannot study at university and Dutch at the same time, even though this makes perfect sense for him as an individual.
Institutions: Most institutions do not really care about people. Their clients are a resource they need to stay operational, not human beings that need support.
Individuals: The incentives for people working in the systems and institutions are wrong. A case in point is the coaching both newcomers and jobseekers get. This coaching aims not to provide them with a future but at getting them to pick a job or study as quickly as possible. This is unsustainable and destroys people’s self-esteem and wellbeing.
This may sound like my participants were sour or cynical. On the contrary! They were hopeful for their future and grateful for the chances they were given. Also, they gave some apparent solutions:
Enable more conversations between migrants and host people.
Strengthen the feeling of being together by having Dutch people and newcomers take on shared (environmental, social) challenges.
Ask retired people to act as life coaches to all young people who want to make something of their lives.
All participants also were able to articulate their own role in shaping a better future. And given their talents and attitude, I’m sure they will make invaluable contributions to our country and the planet’s wellbeing if we allow them.
The second session was with the youngsters of the weekend class of JES Rijnland. In their words:
“The WeekendKlas offers curious and ambitious children the opportunity to increase their self-confidence, discover their talents and broaden their prospects for the future. Through additional education on Sundays, children are introduced to different disciplines and professional groups, from architect to pastry chef and from cardiologist to independent entrepreneurs. They learn what they are good at and what they like.”
The kids were from all walks of life. Alas for them, instead of learning how to make delicious pastry or design a wonderful building, I invited them to discuss children’s rights and their future.
Two things stood out to me in our session. First, a direct question from one of the participants to tell positive stories about migrant children. All they hear, all day, is how their background and religion are evil. The kids were full of stories of being called out in the streets for how they look and behave by grown-ups. It appals me.
Two fundamental rights of children are their right to their own identity and a right to voice their opinion. Even when grown-ups have to decide about children, they need to ask for and listen to their opinion. By extension, I feel very strongly that children can never be held accountable for whatever is wrong in society. They have the right to help shape the future but cannot and should not be held responsible or accountable for the past.
The second thing that stood out for me was a wonderful exploration we did about acceptable behaviour in various situations. In summary, according to this group:
If you have to sell legal but harmful substances (nitrous oxide or laughing gas, to be specific) to be able to afford food, that’s fine.
Illegal substances (e.g. cocaine), however, are never acceptable.
But then, if you work in a chemical plant and you know it is polluting its environment, this is wrong. You do need to say something about it, but only after you have found another job. Your livelihood comes first.
And it really got tricky when we broached the subject of whether or not it was acceptable to work for an oil company, knowing that they cause global warming. Some forcefully rejected the idea, while others liked the prospect of earning a lot of money.
There is a lesson here, I’m sure. It probably has to do with agency and whether or not an idea is abstract. A recurrent theme in the close to 1,000 perspectives we’ve gathered so far is that there is much more consensus (across the political spectrum) for action on visible topics (biodiversity, protection of nature, poverty) than the more abstract ones (climate, human rights).
I did some other sessions this week — a workshop about the SDGs with the master students at the Reinwardt and a speech about our work in Leiden at a UCLG event — but they’re for later. Also, What Art Can Do is starting to get filled, and we’re making progress with most of the other things on our plates. It’s been a hectic week, and the coming ones will be busier still, but I hope to keep this week’s conversations in mind.
If we are to come out of all this stronger, we may need to slow down and spend some more time getting to know strangers. As another participant said, “We’re in this together, so we may just as well do it together.”
And I also thought that if The Netherlands is a business (as is often said), our HR department needs real help getting its act together.
Until next week, take care!