The Small Dutch Town That Offered Refugees a Permanent Home

It was an odd sight for residents of Zaandam, a quaint Dutch town 15 minutes by train from Amsterdam. A public park in a village known for 18th-century windmills and wooden clogs had suddenly filled with rows of white tents. Five hundred refugees, mainly from Syria and Iraq, mostly men, had arrived by bus in October 2015.

sonja pic
Sonja and Mahmoud at one of their first meetings.

Most left behind homes, families, livelihoods, and any semblance of a normal lifeThis group was just a fraction of the millions of refugees who had risked their lives fleeing to Europe as part of the largest migration since World War II, and it triggered both acts of altruism toward the survivors of the dangerous crossings and a wave of xenophobia and fear.

The victory of Brexit, recent right-wing candidacies in Europe, and the election of Donald Trump have all been attributed at least in part to the fear that accompanied this mass migration.

In Zaandam, residents who attended a town meeting with the mayor raised questions about the refugees. Who would pay for their upkeep? Would town residents be safe?

Still, a church across the street from the park opened its doors to the refugees every day for coffee, tea, Dutch lessons, or just talk.

Sonja Ortmans, a writer and former lawyer, lives with her husband and two children near the park in this town where she has lived most of her life. She worried about the new arrivals, but didn’t know how to help.

Then she read in the local newspaper about one of the Syrian men in the camp, Mahmoud, a lawyer, who wanted to learn about Dutch law and customs and to work in the legal field in the Netherlands. Ortmans decided to reach out to Mahmoud to see if she could help him find a way back to practicing his profession. They met and contacted other attorneys—among the refugees and the Dutch—and eventually formed a network of legal professionals. Together, they visited international courts in The Hague and attended lectures. This was the start of what became a deep friendship.

First, though, they had to see to some immediate needs. Ortmans involved parents at her children’s school in collecting clothes and other necessities, and some joined the volunteers at the church in offering Dutch lessons. More and more residents got involved.

“When you open up to people, you find treasures that can’t be explained.”

Meanwhile, the newcomers were doing what they needed to do to get by. One who found a job as a dishwasher told Ortmans he felt mocked by the other restaurant staff who teased him for speaking Arabic. Ortmans pointed out that these coworkers knew little of his culture—and it dawned on her that she too had little knowledge of Iraq and Syria.

So she began studying Arabic. “When you open up to people, you find treasures that can’t be explained,” she told me when I visited her during a recent visit to Amsterdam.

“If you don’t do this, you will view another culture from a place of superiority,” she said. “We are proud of our wealth, but didn’t we in the Western world get much of our wealth from colonization and extraction?”

By the time the refugees could apply for residency status in Europe, the people of the town had bonded with them and didn’t want them to leave. They lobbied the city council, asking that the refugees be invited to make Zaandam their permanent home.

“To me, the solution is a society where we can live together as equals.”

Many in the United States have resisted anti-immigrant rhetoric. Thousands showed up at airports to welcome immigrants following President Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. Faith leaders spoke out for the families they were prepared to host, who were prevented by the ban from traveling to the United States. Others turned their churches into sanctuaries to protect undocumented residents from deportation. In the nation’s sanctuary cities, many elected officials remain undeterred by pressure from the Trump administration to drop policies that protect undocumented residents.

Like the people of Zaandam, many American communities are extending a hand of friendship. Instead of believing that these newcomers threaten some outdated notions of European-American superiority, they celebrate the energy, entrepreneurial spirit, and cultural treasures immigrants bring, which deepen and enliven their communities.

“To me, the solution is a society where we can live together as equals,” Ortmans told me. “That means really opening to the other cultures, at the same time taking a very clear and honest look inside about our own past. From this place, a true connection can evolve and healing can occur.”

————

Sarah van Gelder met Sonja when she visited Amsterdam in the fall of 2016. Sarah is cofounder of YES! Magazine and the author of “The Revolution Where You Life: Stories from a 12,000 Mile Journey Through a New America.”

 

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