One year ago, a chance encounter with a refugee completely changed the course of Annika’s life.
When the Dutch native was walking through a park next to an emergency asylum shelter in Zaandam, a Syrian man began a friendly conversation with her. “It was the first time that I met a refugee,” she said. “I was a bit scared before meeting him, because I had no idea what kind of people they were.”
When she later joined him at a nearby church that allowed refugees to come rest, have tea and even start learning Dutch, she was amazed by the warm environment and enthusiastic volunteers. “After that, I was there almost every day,” she said.
She began giving Dutch lessons to refugees herself, and when she saw a post about NewBees’ need for a photographer, she recommended a man from her language group who was a professional photographer in Syria.
A year later, she’s now helped match over 75 refugees in the Zaandam and Amsterdam areas with custom volunteer opportunities.
“Because of government regulations for asylum seekers, most refugees need to volunteer and participate in Dutch society,” she said. “My favorite part is the personal connection with the people. They don’t know the way [to volunteer]. They don’t know who to call or where to go.”
She recently met with a man who drove a bus in Syria for over 25 years. Despite his lack of Dutch, Annika was able to match him with an organization to drive a bus from Zaandam to a nearby village. “Otherwise, there is no bus connection to this village,” she said. After joining a Dutch chauffeur for a month to learn the route, he’ll soon be able to drive the bus by himself.
“He said to me, ‘I’m so happy that you gave this job to me. Thank you.’ That’s so special, and it makes me feel good,” Annika said. “All I had to do was call somebody and match them. The man from the bus organization called and said, ‘We are so happy with him, and it’s so special to give him this opportunity; he’s a really good driver’ — that’s beautiful.”
Through her contact with refugees, she’s learned a lot about the Syrian culture and customs, such as having a more relaxed schedule or having an honor/shame mentality. “I thought I was pretty open-minded and knew Arabic culture, but sometimes I still catch myself thinking, ‘Wait a minute, this is not true. You’re stereotyping.’ These people are completely different than I thought. I learned to stay open-minded. Everybody is different. You can’t say, ‘All the Syrians are like this’ — I knew that, but now I know it even more.”
She’s also learned the value of face-to-face connections — she tries to bring each volunteer to meet their potential organization as early as possible. “Then they see a human being,” she said. “You see somebody in front of you and see how well they understand the work.”
One thing she wishes Dutch people knew about newcomers? How much they are the same as us. “We only know Syria from the news and media, but have no clue how they actually are,” she said. “A lot of people who are here studied, had good jobs, a house, children, cars, and then everything vanished. That’s why they are here.”
In fact, she says, many refugees say they wish they could already be working instead of accepting benefits from the gemeente. “They say, ‘I want to work.’ So I explain that they are standing before a big mountain, and they just have to take the first step. To learn the language. To volunteer. You just have to start somewhere.”
“I think that every organization here should open at least one vacancy for a refugee,” she said.
“My advice to organizations is to open yourself to the possibility. There are so many refugees here with so many different talents and skills, and we can really learn from them. I learn from the people I work with every day.”