At the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, the Netherlands took around 60,0000 refugees. Now the country is looking at how to integrate those who claimed asylum.
In a former sports ground in southwest Amsterdam, the “Startblok” housing complex accommodates refugees and Dutch people aged between 18 and 28.
It is partly run by the municipality of Amsterdam and features 565 units – studios and shared apartments – and communal living spaces.
As well as an integration platform, it is an important addition in a city where demand for housing often outstrips supply.
The block opened in 2016 and many of its residents have lived there from the beginning.
|The Startblok accomodates both young refugees and Dutch people in a bid to foster inter-cultural understanding [Katy Fallon/Al Jazeera]|
Al Jazeera spoke to refugees in the Startblok about Dutch culture.
‘The Dutch are direct’
Razan, 23, Syria:
“In the beginning when I moved here, I really hated it. I felt like I was in a new refugee camp but at some point, you make your room yours.
I’ve made it my personal space so I feel better about the place now. The nice thing is that every year we have a festival, so we get to know each other better.
From my perspective, however, it didn’t really help cultures mix. You still see the same nationalities hanging around with each other.
Sometimes [directness] could be considered rude in other cultures, but at some point, you’re done with the fake sweetness they have in Arab cultures.
Razan, 23-year-old Syrian refugee
I’m on the ground floor and when I first moved here, there was someone at my window looking in a lot.
You don’t know if it’s OK in this person’s culture but I didn’t feel safe. It’s not perfect but it’s not horrible.
I don’t really like Dutch food but what I do like about the Dutch is that they are very direct and honest.
Sometimes it could be considered rude in other cultures, but at some point, you’re done with the fake sweetness they have in Arab cultures.
When I came here I thought that’s something I like, they say what they mean.”
‘They plan things so far ahead there isn’t room for spontaneity’
Noh, 26, Eritrea:
“I’ve lived in Holland for three years and in the Starblok for two. I now work in Rotterdam and I’m helping to digitise the Eritrean language.
In the beginning the Startblok wasn’t somewhere I wanted to live because it was just a placement for the municipality, but later on, when I met people I started to realise the importance of it.
At the start, there were some misunderstandings but now it’s a common culture of everyone: you kind of create your own culture here.
I used to work here too. There’s a foundation which is a part of the block and that opened up a lot of ways for me to meet people.
I’ve met a lot of Dutch people by living here.
When I first arrived in Holland, there were a lot of differences I had to get used to.
Dutch people are very direct which I like and they are also always on time.
However, they plan things so far ahead all the time there isn’t much room for spontaneity. I don’t see myself leaving Holland though. I’m now about to start a degree in cultural anthropology and the future seems brighter here.”
‘The lifestyle is regimented’
Syreez, 23, Syria
“I’ve been living in the Startblok for two years.
When I first came to Amsterdam I didn’t like it, I know that for many people it’s the craziest city but I felt it was a bit boring and the lifestyle was very regimented: everyone just works five days a week and looks forward to their next holiday.
What I do like about the Dutch is their directness, I actually like that so much. In Syrian culture, the people aren’t really direct at all.
|Syreez, 23, says she found the Dutch lifestyle boring at first [Katy Fallon/Al Jazeera]|
The Startblok is nice but I’m not really connecting to the other people there. This is probably because I’m studying a lot so I really just go there to sleep.
The idea of it is really nice and it’s good that they wanted us to integrate in this way.
I met one of my best friends who is Dutch at the Startblok.
I don’t always think that they are successful in bringing everyone together. Sometimes they have workshops that not many people go to. I do like the point of it: After all, it is teaching people from both cultures about each other.”
‘It’s difficult trying to learn Dutch’
Nasr, 24, Syria:
“Integration is not an easy word. When I first moved to the Netherlands I had no idea what Dutch people were like.
I think it can be hard to get them to trust you but in general, I’ve found that the people I’ve met here have been very friendly and welcoming.
Sometimes it’s difficult trying to learn Dutch as you speak to people in Dutch but they will just speak back to you in English because they speak it so well. You have to be strong and insist that they speak to you in Dutch.
It was difficult to integrate, but I started going out and learning, speaking to people and finding a job. Now most of my friends are Dutch
Nasr, 24-year-old Syrian refugee
Living in the Startblok has been amazing. I wouldn’t have made the amount of friends I’ve made in two years if I’d been living alone.
There are so many different cultures here and I have made friends from many different places.
I don’t see myself moving away for at least another two years.
|Nasr, a 24-year-old Syrian refugee, is trying to learn Dutch but finds people prefer speaking to him in English [Katy Fallon/Al Jazeera]|
It was difficult at the beginning, it was difficult to integrate, but I started going out and learning, speaking to people and finding a job.
Now, most of my friends are Dutch.”
‘I don’t think that there is enough care for the people’
Fares, 28, Palestine:
“I think I come from a different perspective as I’m actually working in integration so I’m a bit critical of Startblok.
The concept of it is really amazing; it’s one of the biggest integration concepts as people are actually living together not just taking language courses.
I do think that there needs to be more done to look after some of the people living there who have certain needs that aren’t being met.
|Fares is 28 years old and from Palestine. He says more effort needs to be made to support integration [Katy Fallon/Al Jazeera]|
The Startblok should be a model for further integration projects like this but the people running it aren’t integration experts. From my perspective, I don’t think it’s going very well in the sense that I don’t think that there is enough care for the people living there.
It was good for meeting people though and in general, I like Holland: it’s got one of the highest qualities of life in the world. Dutch people are really nice but they are different too and I think that what we need to do is find the bridges between us.”