"The City government thought Lola was the best organization to transform this former prison into a cultural hub for refugees because of our flexibility."
When the city of Amsterdam invited Simon van Dommelen‘s organisation to transform the former prison ‘Bijlmerbajes’ into a cultural and social spot for refugees, he accepted the challenging transformation project. ‘Lola’ is an organisation that aims to fill up empty or abandoned buildings and create social projects to make those buildings lively again. Together with many partners, and after a series of meetings, conversations, challenges and hard work, ‘Lola’ organisation transformed the prison into ‘Lola Lik’. This reconversion focused on a cultural centre, where refugees can meet opportunities for their labor and social integration. This organization aims to engage refugees and by finding their talents, make them part of the creative industry of this city.
This project goes in line with the ‘Amsterdam approach’ policy that wants to accelerate the integration of refugees in the city through work, education and entrepreneurship. It is an agreement among 40 professionals, from various initiatives, and government bodies in the city that work together to achieve a thorough inclusion for newcomers.
“Lik” doesn’t only refer to the Amsterdam slang for prison, but also to “a stroke of paint”. -Lola Lik
How come you transformed a former prison into a cultural hub for refugees?
“The City of Amsterdam asked Lola organization to make a connection between refugees, start-ups, creative companies and the neighbourhood. The City government thought Lola was the best organization to transform this former prison into a cultural hub for refugees because of our flexibility. This was our task and after lots of meetings, we had to overcome a series of obstacles before we finally launched ‘Lola Lik’. Together with creative manager Maaike Poppegaai, now followed by Maria Gomez, we developed a concept for the building, and made arrangements with COA and the City of Amsterdam. 600 refugees live in the towers where the former prison is located even though the place can potentially host 1000 refugees. The City of Amsterdam invests a lot of money and is in control of the situation to fill up the building. What’s more interesting is what will be more effective. This building with all the creative companies that get refugees to work or the part of the Amsterdam approach that is a top-down policy with assessments and trainings. When refugees come to Lola Lik they are automatically connected to the networks of our users and that makes it easier for them to find jobs”
What does ‘Lola Lik’ stand for?
“What ‘Lola Lik’ does is bring together Amsterdammers and refugees. It achieves that through setting up networks and by involving refugees in the creative industry of Amsterdam. When refugees come to Lola Lik they are automatically connected to the users’ networks. In this place one can find workspaces that offer refugees work and at the same time lots of trainings and assessments for them to find jobs. The Amsterdam Approach is a top-down approach since it was conceived by Amsterdam government. Our personal challenge is to combine those top-down and bottom-up models and form the initiative. This is the meeting point between professionals, asylum-seekers, talents and entrepreneurs that create and develop arts and crafts workshops, educational projects and entrepreneurial activities. One of ‘Lola Lik’s partners is COA, the responsible body for asylum seekers’ welcoming, supervision and departure after their entry to the Netherlands. They are running the asylum centre on the same side and welcoming Lola Lik as a place where asylum seekers can be part of the creative aspect of the country.”
What are the principles and identity that Lola Lik brings to the city?
“Lola Lik aims to make refugees part of the creative Amsterdam. Lola wants also to help immigrants establish themselves in the city not as refugees this time, but make them feel like home. It is the linking pin that wants to offer the immigrant community opportunities for trainings or jobs. Not only Lola Lik shapes Amsterdam’s identity but it also works the other way around. Refugees themselves shape that identity by contributing to the human and social aspect of the city. This building owes a part of it to refugees since they belong to ‘Lola Lik’ and make it up. Lots of refugees are talented in Syrian cuisine and they can teach and introduce to local people their own culture. Consequently, the refugee community helps enrich the Dutch perception of the other* and broaden even more their horizons with regards to integrating foreigners on the move towards a better future in Holland.”
What are your personal drivers to contribute to the so-called ‘Amsterdamse aanpak’?
“My personal ambition is to get the bottom-up movement more effective and sustainable. In our democratic system, there is no logic that people are in the bottom while the government is at the top. So, why government and policy makers are above citizens? Civil servants are themselves servants to the people, why are they then above citizens? So, my opinion is that we have to change this order and apply horizontal policies where everyone has equal responsibilities and rights. We have to give more space to initiatives from the bottom-up movement that represent all the people. It is also striking that all initiators are highly educated and are more powerful due to their skills and networks. Therefore, it is them who have more responsibilities and abilities to deal with ordinary people that belong to the city and help them rise by bringing them to the top. ‘Amsterdam approach’ is a policy that puts emphasis to refugee’s faster integration and gives space for related initiatives to rise and develop. It is an agreement among 40 professionals of various initiatives and government bodies in the city that work together so as to achieve a faster inclusion for newcomers. ‘Amsterdam approach’ is a joint collaboration among many partners in Amsterdam that underpin and encourage activities for refugees’ inclusion and ‘Lola’ wants to contribute to this attitude.”
Do you have any future transformations?
“We have 6 buildings in total. Even though ‘Lola Lik’ is our biggest project that mainly focuses on the financial support of refugees we also have other ones. ‘Lola Boost’ aims to foster refugees’ integration through cultural and social activities. Brings together local citizens and volunteers together with the immigrant community and it is placed in an old school building in the East side of the city. People living there set up the organization for volunteers to welcome immigrants into the society. The place offers many opportunities for refugees to feel like home by volunteers’ help. For example, through language classes, voluntary projects, sports and training programs. It is run by four refugees that live there, amongst which one is cook at the canteen of ‘Lola Boost’.
In the New-West side of the city we helped a neighbourhood initiative to take over an abandoned, for nine years, kiosk in Eendrachts park and they transformed it into a small community project. This project is a really small scale one but it is a social scheme since it gives life again to the neighbourhood. People from all over that area come for ice-creams or join local activities or children’s parties.”
Simon van Dommelen gave us this opportunity to get to know what ‘Lola Lik’ stands for. In Amsterdam, this cultural hub is the result when both top-down and bottom-up approaches come together for the common good. The Dutch style of accelerating social inclusion has pioneered creative ways and promises to incise more innovative paths according to the “Amsterdamse Aanpak”.