"We have to start from zero. And I think we have to be open for that, because here we can start from zero.”
For as much as Shatha’s accomplished in her new community of Zaandam, it’s hard to believe she’s only lived there for a year.
“We [newcomers] have to do something. We cannot stay all the time at home doing nothing — I like to do something.”
Between volunteering at five different local organizations (yes, five), she’s become a familiar face to many. To Shatha, volunteering is a vital aspect of a life well-lived — and a way to acclimate to a new country, culture, language and way of life.
“I was here, sitting, with only three days of school — this is not enough to fully learn the new language,” she said. “We need to be with Nederlanders. I think this is the important thing. So I said, ‘Ok, I want to find a volunteer job.’”
With a Palestinian heritage, Shatha spent most of her life in Saudi Arabia and attended university in Syria. When she arrived in the Netherlands two years ago with her three children, she wasted no time seeking ways to help others.
“I was an Arabic teacher in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “I spent nine years with that. I was a teacher for non-Arabic people — people coming from America, the Philippines, India — and I learned English from them. I didn’t study it, so I learned it from the people.”
She wanted to utilize her language skills to help other newcomers who didn’t yet understand Dutch or English, and she wanted to immerse herself in her new culture; it was just a matter of figuring out how.
“One door opened, and then many doors opened”
When Shatha gave her CV to NewBees, she was matched with VluchtelingenWerk Nederland (VWN) as an Arabic-English translator for a new Arabic family. “I like it,” she said. “They came here, and they can’t speak Dutch or English; it’s hard for them.”
The role at VWN was just the first of many: “One door opened, and then many doors opened,” she said. “With NewBees, I found a lot of ways to volunteer. NewBees is like a bridge; they connect people together. When we’re new here, we don’t know a lot of people — NewBees knows a lot of people, and they see that we have something special to offer.”
“This is important here,” she said. “We need someone who supports us. As newcomers, we don’t know anything [about Dutch society].”
A volunteering virtuoso
Finding more opportunities was a snowball effect: “From NewBees, I found “Tell Your Story” — we share our stories, and we now have a workshop about how to stand in the theatre, how to speak, and so on. It’s going great. And then from the storyteller, we found the cooking.”
Today, Shatha is rarely sitting still: whether she’s cooking traditional Arabic food for a local art organization, serving as a Facebook admin and Arabic translator for two newcomer organizations, sharing her story live on-stage, giving free Arabic lessons, helping other newcomers with Dutch, or organizing and collecting items for new arrivers, there's no slowing down.
“I like to teach the non-Arabic people,” she said of the Arabic lessons. “I found that it’s a challenge. It’s much more difficult than Dutch,” she added with a laugh.
She also loves the diverse group that comes to the Arabic dinners. “We eat and talk at one table. When we show our culture and talk about our culture, we become closer.”
Mostly, Shatha loves the empowerment of being able to help others: in Saudi Arabian culture, she explained, women are rarely able to volunteer. “In Saudi Arabia, the man has to do everything, and the woman is just sitting,” she said. But when her husband passed away, she had to find her own work and do everything on her own.
”I had to do everything alone in Saudi Arabia; but here, it’s different. A lot of women here come to me and say, ‘You can do it, you can do it. You are strong!’ They give support. And this is what we need.”
Learning Dutch the “real” way
Shatha sees learning Dutch as the key to true acclimation: “If you cannot speak, then you cannot do anything.”
Similarly to how she learned English in Saudi Arabia from her students, she wants to learn Dutch through interactions with locals, not through books.
“I’m trying to learn the Dutch from the street,” she said. “I don’t like the books, or studying from the books — in the book, it’s very hard. It’s very complicated. A lot of people now finish the inburgering (Dutch integration exam), and they still cannot speak good Dutch.”
“If newcomers are speaking just Arabic, they cannot do anything. They have to study hard — I have to tell myself this — the language is very important. We have to finish the language first, then we can communicate with the Dutch people. If we know English, it’s also helping a lot. The language is very important. If you cannot speak, you cannot do anything.”
“If you can speak a little bit of Dutch, then you can start volunteering. This is very important for the language. We have to talk with Dutch people.”
Her goal? To finish mastering the Dutch language and find full-time paid work as an Arabic-Dutch translator. “I like to speak with people and connect with people; I like the more social work. This is my goal.”
What it really means to help
But for now, while she finishes studying, she wants to continue helping. “It’s good for me and good for others — so why not? Here, they give a lot. I just want to give something back.”
She understands the value of her help because she knows how it feels to need help herself.
“People come here, and they need support, they need things,” she said. “And they are my friends, too — because when I came to Zaandam, I was alone, totally alone, and I had an empty house.”
“When I see all the people here helping us, they are not speaking Arabic like us, it’s a different language, a different culture, it’s totally different — and they just want to help us. So why can I not help too? It’s hard for me to find [paid] work right now, so I think the volunteer work is very useful. For me, and for others.”
“We have to be open”
One thing Shatha wants Dutch society to know about newcomers?
“We are not lazy people; we like to work. Because of the war, we lost everything. We didn’t just come from nowhere. We were rich, but we lost everything, and now we have to start from zero — with the language, work, everything. A lot of people have good education, but they’re working as a cleaner. We have to start from zero. And I think we have to be open for that, because here we can start from zero. We have to start from somewhere.”
She explained how it’s not common in Arabic culture to take jobs that are beneath your level of education, skills and experience — but here, this is often the way to begin and to find a path to a new profession.
“We have to be open,” she said. “Many Arabic people think, ‘If I studied, if I have good education, I cannot do a lot of certain jobs.’ But we can try different things. I can go to the street and clean the street, no problem, I’ll do it. Why not? Here, even if you’re cleaning, it’s ok; it’s a job. In Arabic culture, it’s different — but here, we have to change this thinking.”
“Here, they give a lot. And we have to be strong, we have to be thankful, and we have to give back. And NewBees is like a bridge. They can connect the people, and this is an amazing thing.”
To support newcomers like Shatha, check out our contribution page to learn about how you can make a difference in the lives of local newcomers.