• Ellen Barnes

Newbees at Work: Bakri, The Bridge Builder

“We are a guest here. We must respect the culture because, in our culture, if you are a guest in someone’s home, you respect everything."

In his three and a half years in the Netherlands, Syrian native Bakri has accomplished more than most do in a decade. As one of the earliest Syrians to arrive to the Netherlands in 2014, Bakri was eager to give back to Dutch society from the start — and he's made a monumental impact on the lives of both Dutch locals and other newcomers ever since.

The Aleppo native arrived with no shortage of experience — in Syria, he studied sociology in university, and after working for six years at a telecom corporation, he spent six more years as a social worker for the international organization SOS Children’s Villages International.

As soon as he received his status, he immediately wanted to begin giving back to the Dutch people. He started by volunteering with the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) and VluchtelingenWerk Nederland (VWN) as a translator, and while taking Dutch classes at the Vrije Universiteit (VU), he met a fellow Syrian with a similar desire to give back.

“I talked with my friends here and said, ‘Let’s do something here in the Netherlands to help people.’” With the goal of creating a way for other new Syrians to come together to give back, the Syrian Volunteers Netherlands (SYVNL) was born.

As a co-founder and volunteer, Bakri spent the next three years pouring himself into the growing organization, creating volunteer programs in both Amsterdam and Utrecht.

Bakri (far right) with other SYVNL volunteers

Finding rewarding work

After three years of volunteering with SYVNL, Bakri began the process of pursuing a paid position suited to his skills and experiences. It was nothing short of challenging: “I’d applied and sent out 150 CVs to organizations, but I didn’t find anything,” he said. “Here, everything is different. I have 12 years of experience in Syria, and for the last two years I worked as a manager with 50 employees under me. But when I came here, it was so hard.”

“I don’t like to do a job just to have a job,” he continued. “I started with a different job as a bar man — it was so different from my studies and background.”

But when he saw NewBees’ vacancy for a volunteer coordinator in Zaandam, he was hopeful: “I found this vacancy at NewBees and applied, and after two weeks they called to interview me.”

As a coordinator for NewBees, Bakri helps make valuable matches between other newcomers and Dutch organizations seeking their skills and expertise. Whether he’s keeping up with the database, conducting interviews with organizations or communicating with refugees, he’s busy with work he loves.

“When I started work with NewBees, everything changed. I can do what I like in this position. I can help people. After three years, I felt like it was the first time I was happy in the Netherlands.”

The people in NewBees are so friendly,” he continued. “I feel like I work with my friends — we work as a team. It’s very nice. It’s a healthy team.”

“I want to stay with NewBees. I don’t feel that I am at work. Sometimes it’s 5:00 and I think, ‘Ok no problem, I can stay,’ because I like what I do — helping people. I feel free after three years.”

A native advantage

For Bakri, it’s an honor to help fellow newcomers who are on the difficult journey to making a new life in the Netherlands. He takes pride in helping other refugees see the possibilities available to them, and his Arabic background is a key asset to communication.

“When we come from the same culture, it’s easier to communicate because we understand each other,” he said. “I explain to them, ‘I’ve been here for a few years, and you are new here; I’m here to help you.’ When Dutch people explain things, sometimes it creates misunderstandings — sometimes I need just ten minutes with Arab people to explain the voluntary job. It’s easier.”

He’s also able to explain the benefits of volunteering in the Netherlands and how it looks very different from volunteering in Syria.

“In our culture, a lot of people don’t have any idea about voluntary jobs,” he said. “So in the beginning, I start by explaining to them, ‘Here, it’s different.’ In Syria, we like to help all the people. It’s kind of a voluntary job in itself. But here, I try to explain, we need the voluntary job. It’s very important for integration and for the language.”

“When you do a voluntary job here, it’s for you. It’s not for the government, not for the Dutch people. It’s for you. It’s a way of helping you find your life here. If you want to stay here, you must go outside — to learn their culture. To go try to find a job.”

“When people have many years of professional experience back home, I explain to them that it’s very hard to find the same position here in the beginning — you must start somewhere. There are some people who studied at university in Syria; they have a diploma and more than ten years experience, but here, it’s so different. But it’s better than staying in Syria, in this war. It’s very hard, especially because you lose everything, you need a new language, and so on.”

Bakri thrives off knowing that he’s making a real difference for other refugees new to the Netherlands. He’s already helped make a few matches for paid work, which was the most rewarding.

At the same time, he’s also aware of his own cultural differences in his new role, and he wants to keep learning and growing: “Every time I have any small problem or something, I ask, because it’s different here — so every time I ask, I ask, I ask, because I need to learn.”

Building cultural bridges

Bakri helps newcomers navigate the cultural differences of the Netherlands, but he also hopes that the Dutch take the time to understand their culture as well.

“It’s not just that we need to learn about the Dutch culture, but the Dutch people need to know about our culture,” he said. “When I work with the Dutch people, I show them my culture, and they know me more. Most people don’t know anything about Syria — just the war. There’s so much more to know.”

To better understand each other, he encourages both Dutch and Arab people to take the time to explain to each other why they do the things they do.

“We have a lot of problems with stereotypes. We need to know each other more. It’s very important, and we can make it easier.”

Through the SYVNL, he recently hosted a “culture day” at the VU. “We invited 20 newcomers and 20 Dutch people and we asked, ‘What do you know about Syrians?’ One girl told me, ‘You are from Syria; you are from ISIS.’ I told her, ‘I ran away from ISIS.’”

The one thing he wishes Dutch people realized about Syrian refugees? “Respect our experience,” he said. “Before the war, we had the same life [as you]. We had a life better than now. I remember when they gave me my house in Amstelveen; it was like the size of my room in Syria. It’s nice if we know each other more.”

A new future, new dreams

Next year, along with approximately 2,000 other newcomers, Bakri will be able to apply for his nationality in the Netherlands.

“It will be my country. So it’s important for me to speak Dutch and to know about the culture. Now I’m in Europe, and I focus on my new country now.”

His dream job? To work with children again. “Maybe in the future I can make a NewBees project just for children. When I have national status, I hope to go back to Syria to visit the children from my previous job. In the future I have a lot of ideas.”

His hope for other refugees in the Netherlands? “I hope all the people respect this country, because most people and the government are so friendly. They try to give us another chance to start a new life, so I hope all people respect that and say, ‘Thank God for this chance.’”

Want to support newcomers like Bakri? Consider making a contribution to directly impact the lives of motivated newcomers in the Netherlands.

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