Myrna, matching supply and demand between volunteers and refugees in Haarlem

Passion for understanding others

Myrna wasn’t always a social worker. “I used to work in real estate. It was a different world, but what I always liked about it was the contact with clients. They had specific needs, something that motivated them to either buy or sell a house.” Most of the time, the people she helped were new to Haarlem or already living there but looking for a bigger space. But the cases that affected Myrna the most were the ones who had to move because of a divorce, overdue mortgage payments, or even bankruptcy. “Those kinds of human stories spoke to me so much more than the business side of things. Figuring out what their needs were, what kind of home they were looking for—so much depends on feeling. I loved getting to the bottom of those things, doing the intake interviews and really understanding who these people were.”

Without knowing about the field of social work, Myrna figured she needed a career change. After a bit of research, she ended up at a career event where she saw the same spark in others. “The content and the presentations weren’t all that useful to me, but I was fascinated by what the trainers did. So I asked them what their profession was called and most of them told me they were social workers. Aha!”

“Those kinds of human stories spoke to me so much more than the business side of things. Figuring out what their needs were, what kind of home they were looking for—so much depends on feeling.”

The more she looked up about social work, the more she realised it was a perfect fit. “I liked everything about it. However, it did mean I had to go back to school and retrain myself in order to get certified,” something Myrna doubted for a while since she was already in her thirties with one child in tow, but good friends convinced her to go for it anyway. “It was something I wanted to do for so long. They convinced me to stop doubting myself and go for it anyway. So I did, and it was so much fun. I could apply a lot of my knowledge that I had from working in real estate since there were so many similar situations. It made me realise it wasn’t all in vain.”

Yet right when she was a fully certified social worker, the financial crisis hit. “All social work was cut. There weren’t any jobs. I was told that I didn’t have enough experience.” So Myrna volunteered to keep her knowledge fresh and build up some experience. “Eventually I crossed paths with someone who needed my help, and a little later a lot of refugees arrived. Working with them, I realised I had a special connection with that group, so I was given a lot of their cases.” This was around 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis. Haarlem set up an emergency shelter, and a lot of residents became very active and offered a helping hand, welcoming the refugees in the city. “It was great to see that initiative from the people,” Myrna recalls, “whilst on the news there was so much negativity!”

“This was around 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis. Haarlem set up an emergency shelter, and a lot of residents became very active and offered a helping hand, welcoming the refugees in the city. “It was great to see that initiative from the people,” Myrna recalls, “whilst on the news there was so much negativity!”

But along with the large group of people who wanted to help, also came a lot of less-than-practical ideas. “A lot of people wanted to take newcomers on a nice day out, but a lot of them had just arrived and didn’t have the need or energy to do such a thing yet. What they did do, is ask all their questions to the volunteers, who then started making calls to the IND and Vluchtelingenwerk. Great to show initiative, but those organisations were so busy with their own volunteers that they were falling behind on their own work.”

Seeing the need for coordination, Stem in de Stad created a vacancy for someone to do exactly that: coordinate between volunteers, organisations, and refugees. “At the time, I decided to give it a try and apply for the job,” Myrna shares. “I had been volunteering for a while, so this was a good opportunity for me to see how I was positioned in the job market and see it as a training. And then I got the job that basically allowed me to continue what I did as a volunteer!” Ever since, Myrna has been making sure that those who want a nice day out get the opportunity, that those who need legal advice are directed to the right organisations, and that those who just want to have a coffee or a chat with someone get that too.

Listening to the needs of newcomers and delegating to the volunteers is only one part of her job. The other part is promoting cultural understanding. “For example, whenever we have a volunteer who offers to take people out to visit a museum, but his or her calls are never answered, I have to deal with a frustrated volunteer who’s offering his or her time.” When something like that happens, Myrna will talk to the refugees, and sometimes they will tell her that they actually do not want to visit a museum, but they’re too afraid to say no. “So they end up diving away. That’s where I come in, as I can tell the volunteers that it’s not their fault—it’s just cultural differences. We’re very direct, they’re usually not, so we teach them that it’s okay to be straightforward here. Then we’ll end up shocked at how ‘rude’ they can also be!”

“We’re very direct, they’re usually not, so we teach them that it’s okay to be straightforward here. But then we’ll end up shocked at how ‘rude’ they can also be!”

Half of Myrna’s family is from Indonesia, so she recognises the difference in communication across cultures. “I recognise that humility, the dancing around a subject. It’s very different from our blunt Dutch ways!”

How to start over in a new place

Myrna’s family background matters in another way, too. “My family fled Indonesia after World War II, so they were refugees who too had to start over again as strangers in a country they had heard of but had never been to. And through all those family stories, I always noticed that the roots were back home. I’ve seen what kind of impact that experience had on my family, and how it sometimes made them feel like outsiders. But hearing those stories and being around them also made me look at things from two different cultural viewpoints and helped me understand things that others may overlook.”

On top of that, Myrna moved around a bit in the Netherlands and Europe, too. “Even in a small country, you’ll notice cultural differences. I was 12 when I moved from Limburg to Zuid-Holland. It would’ve helped me too, if I had a group of people to show me around because I had no clue what I was doing. They all had funny accents, and I didn’t even know the way to school! Those experiences shaped me, though, and for me they did so in such a way that it became my profession.”

“I was 12 when I moved from Limburg to Zuid-Holland. It would’ve helped me too, if I had a group of people to show me around because I had no clue what I was doing. They all had funny accents, and I didn’t even know the way to school!”

Myrna believes that her work enables volunteers and newcomers to expand their circles, and therefore, their perspectives. “It’s a great way to escape from your personal bubble. When I lived in France for a while, I’d go looking for other Dutch people. I get that. Here, newcomers do look for their own bubble because you long for something that’s familiar. There’s no need to explain—you can speak your own language. The year I spent in France, I lived with a French family, went to a French school, and was learning French, but what was so frustrating to me is that I could not express myself with the words I wanted to say. It’s the same for them: whenever you want to speak from the heart it’s just easier to be able to speak in a language that comes easy to you. That’s why I’m not too strict on them speaking Dutch, but I do want them to try – especially when we’re around – because it’s polite, but also it’s a good way for them to practise their Dutch without any consequences being attached to it, like an exam or something.”

Long-term initiatives

As a coordinator at Stem in de Stad, Myrna crossed paths with Justice & Peace. In 2017, the two organisations partnered up to organise Welkom Hier Haarlem. “It was a great initiative, and I really thought we should give it a go. It meant a lot for the city, since it came right at the time when everybody was willing to help.” There had been a lot of initiatives set up already, but it needed coordination: organisations did not know of each other’s existence, or even work, and Welkom Hier proved to be an event where everyone – including volunteer organisations – could get together to get acquainted with one another. It also offered locals an accessible way to get to know newcomers.

“Welkom Hier really got things going. A lot of people were curious to learn more about permitholders but weren’t really sure how to get in touch or didn’t know how to help. The event provided an occasion for them to get in touch: there were all these small stages set up with interviews, musicians, arts and crafts – we even had a kindergarten!”

Her collaboration with Justice & Peace remained even after the event. “When I heard about Samen Hier I saw it as the perfect continuation of Welkom Hier, which was great in and of itself, but it remains a one-off event. What do you do after? We can organise a big party every year, but we need a goal – and that’s where Samen Hier comes in. I believe in the concept, because that’s also what I hear from the people I work with. Everybody longs for that network, that social group around you that you can rely on. Even those that have been here longer tell me that they wish they had that when they first arrived. I have the same need. Whenever there’s a leakage at my house, I’ll ask around in my network first to see if someone knows a thing or two about it or is able to lend a hand. Having a network around is helpful for anyone.”  

“Everybody longs for that network, that social group around you that you can rely on.”

Myrna experienced this first hand when her mother fell ill recently, and Myrna was both mentally and physically occupied taking care of her. “I had to cancel a number of appointments with newcomers, and had to tell them that they wouldn’t be able to count on me for a while.” In response, the newcomers asked her about her dad, wondering who would be looking after him all the while. When Myrna told them he’d have to take care of himself for the next period, they asked her where her dad lived and started delivering dinners.

“They were asking me what else they could do for me,” she shares. “It was incredible. That’s what you get in return, whilst my Dutch friends would say ‘I’m so sorry to hear that’, and that would be it. That’s probably how I would’ve responded myself as well, thinking I couldn’t help anyway. But my dad was so happy with the help and loved the Syrian dishes that were brought to him. I’ve learnt a lot from it myself as well, that I have more to offer than just a listening ear. Compassion is often enough, but they take it one step further—not just asking but doing. And they won’t take no for an answer!”

Photo: 22 April 2017. Welkom Hier festival at the Philharmonie in Haarlem, organised together with Stem in de Stad and other local initiatives.

Welcome groups

Currently there’s about 6 Welcome Groups in Haarlem, which is enough to start the initiative and to make the first matches. “It’s an exciting time! I tagged along to one of the intake interviews a while ago, which was with a family of five. It would be great if we could match them to other families. I’m really keen to see how this works out, but the perfect match is so important. If the expectations aren’t set, or you can’t work out how to communicate your wants and needs, people will drop out and be disappointed on both sides. So there needs to be some coordination – and that’s what I do!”

But the unknown is scary, and getting together Welcome Groups is proving much harder than expected. “Haarlemmers, like most Dutch people, are quite critical. We like to know what we’ll get in return, what exactly we’re signing up for. It’s quite hard to find that group who wants to commit for a year—because our target audience, the 30 to 40-year-olds, are in the peak of their lives and would rather just be given a call whenever they’re needed.”

Samen Hier works differently with groups of 5 friends or acquaintances instead of random volunteers. “If volunteers still have to get to know each other, it’s a different vibe from a group that already has their own dynamic.” But Myrna believes that Haarlem is a good city for a project like this. “As a city, Haarlem is open to trying out new things. The municipality also supports this cause, so we’re going to give it a try. They’re very approachable and support us in everything we need to make this a success, which is very special. I do feel that people are lucky to be in Haarlem, because there’s a lot of kindness and compassion in the city. I think it’ll really help when the first group can share their experiences and act as an example for other groups.”

Photo: Haarlem is one of the four cities in the Netherlands to join the Samen Hier initiative, in which local Harlemmers will match with newcomers for one year to foster integration together.

The eldest child syndrome

The experiences of newcomers have changed drastically over the years due to improvements in the intake programmes. “The newcomers who have been here the longest, the status holders, arrived in 2015 or 2016 and had a very different experience coming here than those arriving now. They were a larger group, the majority of which had already been through an AZC (Asielzoekerscentrum or Asylum Seeker Centre) and had transferred from several locations because everything was full. Some were assigned accommodation and left alone after that. This group became a bit invisible. They already had their permits, so they were left to fend for themselves and had to figure out everything on their own. People arriving now usually stay in just one AZC before they are relocated in a city. Some arrived into emergency shelters where they received all the help in the world from volunteers. Since 2018, everyone arriving takes part in such a programme in which we explain about life in the Netherlands and Haarlem. It’s a lot of information, but they do have that instant contact and get to meet each other in small groups of 10-15 newcomers.”

Myrna believes that the first group continually helps her identify key issues as they have received less help. “My colleagues and I kept noticing all those little things that went wrong along the way—things we needed to improve for the next group of refugees. They were kind of like the eldest child—the model for how to approach the next ones with less mistakes.”

Fighting injustice

In hindsight, Myrna feels exactly in her element. “Sometimes I think back about what motivated me to do this. It’s in me to be able to mean something to someone, which makes me very happy. That’s the gift that comes with the job. Sometimes I think I’ve done so little, but it means the world to others. The injustice, that’s what I want to fight—with whatever’s in my power. Of course we will face challenges, but it’s also an opportunity to show that things can work. If it doesn’t work out, we will have learnt another thing. It’s all gains, no losses.”

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