In Amsterdam, a young group of Syrian professionals developed a project that focuses on bridging the gap between both Syrian and Dutch residents. The project materialised as Radio Sonono, a platform where refugees can familiarise with their new home country, exchange stories and discuss socio-political personal experiences. During the Urban Stories Festival, at Pakhuis de Zwijger, the 5 Amsterdam-based Syrian entrepreneurs organised a live talkshow with creatives and researchers on the topic of humanising refugees and integration practices which aim to accommodate and not standardise cultures. Social and cultural systems can not change, but they can adapt.
As part of the Dutch agenda, more policies and projects are being developed to tackle the topics of migration and refugee integration. Manifesta Foundation, located in Amsterdam, invited 5 Syrian professionals to work on a storytelling project which would contribute to the refugee integration process. Radio Sonono is the result of the project. ‘Sonono‘ is the Arabic word for swallow birds which migrate from Iraq, Syria, Libya and Iran to Europe. The metaphor is compelling.
The goal of the newly established radio station is to stimulate refugees in participating during local activities and transform their role from passive recipients of practices into actively involved contributors. This role reversal was one of the key aspects discussed during the event held at Pakhuis de Zwijger.
Halleh Ghorashi, Professor at the Sociology Department of Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam (the VU), was the first one to start the conversation, bringing forward the importance of ‘localism’ and historical context in receiving countries. Having a research background in Diversity and Integration practices, he talked about the expectations coming from the Netherlands towards newcomers. Where do these expectations come from? How is this idea of ‘difference’ historically constructed?
According to Halleh, the way people in the Netherland act towards ‘the other’ is a product of their history of ‘pillarization’. This refers to the peculiar nature of the Dutch society, which was divided and organized in certain social and religious segments (pillars) based on ideologies. People did not mix between ‘pillars’ for a long time. This created a situation in which people where amongst themselves, within their own socio-religious blocs. Society was segregated, while at the same time there was respect for this difference, which would offer a more tangible ‘sense of belonging’ in the Dutch context.
Nowadays, Dutch society is ‘depillarized’, yet the historical construction of different social blocks that create a sense of social belonging is still present. With new people, from various cultural and religious backgrounds moving in, the Dutch society appears to be turning back to the old social practices. As Halleh sees it, the growing numbers within the Muslim community account for a new religious segment in the country, forming an implicit ‘pillar’. For a long time there was not much exchange between the Dutch and this new pillar. People where segregated, as before, but the difference was accepted as long as it would not interfere with other social segments. With time, tensions and assumptions about these groups grew and people became more focused on the negative differences. The social ‘walls’ became thicker, bringing along a sentiment of fear.
After this, Halleh turned towards the topic of integration. Considering that the Dutch society is partially constructed on the basis of social and religious segregation, is then the refugee ‘integration’ a viable practice? Taking into account that integration projects focus on ‘adopting’ new social values and cultural norms, it becomes obvious that these stances need to be re-conceptualise. We should break the dichotomous conceptions and move towards human values. Integration projects should be focusing on ‘adapting’ the pre-existent Dutch context to the newcomers and vice-versa.
‘Integration is not a question of adoptation but adaptation.’ Maria Gomez, Lola Lik organisation
Maria Gomez and Sari Akminas follow the same ideas of practice ‘adaptation’. They both work at Lola Lik, a cultural hub situated in the former Bijlmer prison and neighbour to the refugee centre Wenckebachweg. They are using this creative space to make connections between old and new Amsterdammers.
These connections are made through a wide arrange of events for the people of the refugee centre. They are always searching for a balance between people from different backgrounds. How can you program events in which everybody feels at home and can express their cultural practices? From their experience at the refugee centres, the possibility of finding a common ground can exist. Although people which attend their events do not speak the same language and are born in different cultures, these dissimilarities are in fact highlighted to create a sense of togetherness. By organizing events together with the refugees, which focus on both cultural and physical aspects, they create a physical closeness, which in return creates a mental closeness. As Maria stated clearly, the intention is not to standardise beliefs and traditions, but to generate practices tailored to the different cultures, different habits and different people.
For Renée Frissen, founder and CEO of OpenEmbassy, another important part of the process, which is overlooked often, concerns the integration timeframe. There is a lot of support from Dutch society for newcomers, but from the moment people get status all this disappears, which is the beginning of a lonely and difficult time for most people. A lot of people begin this period with a lot of ambition but almost always end up working beneath their potential in jobs that are under payed.
This was the basis for creating OpenEmbassy, an online helpdesk for status holders. The status holders are connected with Dutch volunteers who answer questions about everyday live in the Netherlands. This helps a lot of people continue the steps of fully integrating in the Dutch society, and at the same time adds more information on the complex process of assimilation. According to Renée, it is very important for all receiving countries to understand that refugees are not completely integrated in society once they obtain a piece of paper. Becoming part of a new culture, which has different values and social predicaments is a lengthy process. Thus it is imperative to develop separate programs, which have a longer timeframe, and focus on the status holders.
For now, refugees face a complicated future. The complexities behind integration processes have left many governmental officials, NGOs, and scholars searching for the ‘right’ approach. Initiatives such as Radio Sonono raise a relevant point, which should be taken more into consideration: programs and projects made by refugees for refugees.