In deze blogreeks ‘Verhalen van burgerinitiatieven’ delen initiatieven hun ervaringen rondom inclusie van vluchtelingen in Nederland. Door de verschillende verhalen van initiatieven samen te brengen, willen we een ruimte creëren waar initiatieven ervaringen met elkaar kunnen delen,  op hun eigen manier en in hun eigen woorden. Wel stellen wij hiertoe een aantal vragen: Tegen welke problemen of uitdagingen lopen zij aan binnen hun initiatief? Wat zijn geleerde lessen uit het verleden, en waar liggen kansen in de toekomst? Wat betekent inclusie voor deze initiatieven en hoe geven zij hier vorm aan? Voor dit verhaal zijn wij in gesprek gegaan met Adel AlBaghdadi, oprichter van het in 2016 opgerichte WE Organization NL, een refugee youth-led initiatief dat zich focust op het tegengaan van xenofobie en het bouwen van bruggen voor inclusie. Lees snel verder voor het verhaal van WE Organization NL [Engelstalig].

A personal commitment to including refugees’ stories

“The necessity of initiating WE Organization began with my personal story. It started when I found myself in the Netherlands, after having crossed various borders in 2015 to be in safety. During my first few interactions and conversations as translator between refugees and local volunteers in the AZC where I stayed, I was able to realize that the stories of refugees were hardly present in public discourse. The main narratives about refugees back then were often imposed by third parties, such as volunteers and the media, leaving less room for the voices of refugees themselves. Additionally, if refugees were presented in public discourse, they were represented mainly as villains or threats to Europe."

“To counter this rather negative public discourse in which terms like ‘refugee crisis’ were used and in which refugees turned into numbers, it was needed to share the stories of refugees themselves. We had to give a human face to this group. Therefore, I became personally committed to create dialogues. We started contacting local schools close by the AZCs, to give a face for the refugees they hear about. Then we added more schools and also went to universities, companies and government institutes. Eventually, this effort led to the foundation of WE Organization NL, an initiative with which we wanted to bring the stories of refugees into the light.”

“Since we believed in the power of refugees sharing their own stories with public audiences, we were started cooperating with different stakeholders such as universities, NGO’s and schools to create a shared space where we invited refugees and other minorities in Dutch society to meet with different public audiences. Our focus was on groups of people with a negative label according to society - besides refugees, also other groups of migrants or members of the LGBT community, for example – and to give them the floor to share their own stories from personal experiences in a safe environment. We wanted to make visible the human ‘beyond the label’, as we call it.”

“In addition to our focus on storytelling, we provide training on active citizenship for Dutch youth – regardless their background – to mobilize them to play an active role in the society. This project forms WE Organization NL’s contribution to the UN agenda on Youth, Peace and Security.  For example, one of our projects during the pandemic was an online project, to highlight the stories of migrant food entrepreneurs to share their stories and recipes, not only in the Netherlands, but also for wider audience. Additionally, our scope of refugee inclusion extended to the labour market, as we started to offer workshops to refugees on presentation skills and writing a CV. We noticed the shortage of handy persons in factories, so we organized events where handy persons with a refugee background could show their expertise to the factories. We called this project “No words, but deeds”, and we organized it in collaboration with a Dutch organization

Challenges of a small, refugee-led initiative

“Currently, our team consists of five to six people, all with refugee or migrant backgrounds. We have bonded with each other, and now form a team in which we see ourselves not only as colleagues but also as a family. The downside of a small team is that it is sometimes hard to achieve our goals, precisely because we are so small. This lack of human capacity makes it more difficult to make an impact. To solve this issue we always try to collaborate and work together with other organizations who share with us the same values of inclusion and diversity. Besides the limited human capacity, another challenge we have is financial instability and the constant search for funds. However, this does not mean we put the money first. On the contrary: if we believe in an idea and we think it is important to be done, we invest from our own pocket and time to implement it.” 

Diversity, inclusion, and ‘ticking a box’

“Diversity and inclusion are core elements of our effort to make refugee stories more visible. In our storytelling workshops, we are trying to bring different perspectives together. What often frustrates me is the way that some organizations approach diversity and inclusion. For example, in some meetings where organizations claim to include refugees in their decision-making, it becomes clear that they care more about taking pictures with the refugees than to open-up their decision-making for them. In this way, refugee inclusion feels more like ticking a box, instead of real inclusion. Furthermore, when organizations are recruiting refugees as volunteers to do some work, you can often see a hierarchy where refugees are not taken seriously. Organizations approach refugees as if they are saying “You are only a volunteer and you will not have a job contract with us”. This hierarchy lowers the motivation of refugees and impacts their perspective on integration, because they are approached as people with deficiencies who are not qualified to have a paid job.”

“When we look at other organizations and how they can include refugees, we see that the  Dutch language barrier is considered a big obstacle. As a refugee-led organization, we advocate for other organizations or companies to lower the bar for language skills when hiring refugees. I must emphasize here that lowering the bar does not imply lowering the expectations for the quality of work that is performed by refugees; in contrast, it means being able to look beyond language imperfections and seeing the additional values of refugees. Since most of the Dutch people speak English, we are convinced that there are many possibilities to hire refugees who can speak English, that at the moment are not considered.”  

"Lowering the bar does not imply lowering the expectations for the quality of work that is performed by refugees; in contrast, it means being able to look beyond language imperfections and seeing the additional values of refugees." 

A unique possibility

“But also diversity in the field of civic organizations is important. Usually in the Netherlands refugee organizations are founded and built by Dutch people who are familiar with the complex bureaucracy and different regulations. Therefore, it is less common to have civic organizations led by refugees. However, the one thing that makes our organization precious is the personal experiences we have as a refugee-led organization. As such, our organization believes that the voice of refugees is not only indispensable, but that refugees also have ownership of their stories, which should be echoed at the table with other stakeholders. This unique possibility, as much as it is an advantage, also brings a responsibility as it puts me as the founder of the initiative in the spotlight as role model. To meet the expectations of my fellow refugees and to be a bridge-builder between the world of refugees and the new hosting society puts me under pressure to lead the organization and keep it alive so to say. At the same time, this position also helps to motivate other refugees to believe that they can achieve something here in the Netherlands.”

"The one thing that makes our organization precious is the personal experiences we have as a refugee-led organization."


Learning Crossroads for Refugee Inclusion

Dit verhaal is opgetekend door Younes Younes (onderzoeker binnen het Learning Crossroads for Refugee Inclusion-project) en Kay Mars (projectcoördinator en junior onderzoeker Refugee Academy), naar aanleiding van een gesprek met Adel AlBaghdadi (oprichter WE Organization NL). Meer weten over WE Organization NL? Bekijk dan hun profielpagina op deze website. Heb je zelf een interessant verhaal dat je met een breder publiek wilt delen? Neem dan contact met ons op! We maken graag ruimte voor jouw verhaal.