• Ellen Barnes

Preserving the Past while Building a Future: Newbees Keeping Zaandam’s History Alive at the Zaanstad

What better way to learn about a new country than to delve into its past? At the Zaanstad Municipal Archives, seven newbees are doing just that.

As volunteers in the archives, their workspace is filled floor-to-ceiling with cabinets holding historical documents of Zaandam’s centuries-old past. With an impressive collection of historical photos, films, books and newspapers, the archives form a beautiful, living memory of the region.

With so much work needed to properly preserve the documents, it’s also a great place to learn new skills, practice Dutch, and meet new people. The team works together to help the staff store, sort and care for the documents. The outcome? Diving into the past is helping them create a brighter future.

“I feel like I’m a part of history — the history of my new country.”

Elena, a Russian native, is often fascinated by the ancient documents she encounters. Learning about Dutch history has been an adventure: from finding decades-old documents hidden inside of an unopened tablecloth, to stumbling upon beautiful old books with gold bindings. There’s always something new to discover.

Reading them has helped to improve her Dutch: “Sometimes I find very old documents from the 18th and 19th centuries. My Dutch is not perfect, but I try to read them. It’s great for practice; more and more I am able to understand what the documents are about, and they are so interesting!”

“Doing this voluntary work has been very important for me. It was the first step in my new life and my new future,” she said. “You can meet new people, practice the language, understand new ways of life. If you do nothing, you build nothing. So, it’s a good start for me — I feel like I’m a part of history, the history of my new country.” Her hope for the future? “In Russia, I had a high education diploma in economics. I worked as an accountant. In the future, I hope to do this again in the Netherlands. But first I need to speak better Dutch, so I need to study and practice.”

“Staying at home is not an option for me”

Every Friday Muhmad jumps on his bicycle to work at the archives, which he has been doing for almost a full year now. When we asked him what it meant to him doing this work, he smiled: “I don’t have a full-time job yet, so I have time. Staying at home is not an option for me. Here I can work with others and learn to speak Dutch”.

“It is a great to meet new people, which is important when building a new future”

After seven months, George’s favorite part is the social interactions: “I like meeting new people, and speaking and practicing Dutch” he said. “Sitting and drinking coffee and tea, working together. It is a great activity to meet new people, which is important when building a new future.”

Why it’s important to get involved? “It’s more pro-active,” he said. “Staying at home or going to the supermarket, it’s not enough. I wanted to work because I want contact with people.” The work has led to befriending both with other Syrians as well as Dutch people: “There is a Dutch couple who come to my house once a week to speak Dutch with me over coffee. I have the time and I want to meet people.”

“I can’t just stay at home; I love to work”

Mona, from Syria, has spent a year in the archives. What she likes most? “It’s an activity. I don’t want to stay home all the time,” she said. “I used to work as a math teacher in Syria for 30 years, and I love to work. I can’t just stay at home. Here I can learn Dutch and speak with my colleagues; it’s great”. “Volunteer work is good because I learn how Dutch people work,” she said. “I can see what they do, how they work — it’s very useful.”

“NewBees is great because they always organize activities and workshops; I like this. The people are all very helpful and friendly. I am happy.”

To learn more about NewBees’ mission to match newcomers with meaningful work, visit www.newbees.com.

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