In this Amsterdam housing project, Dutch youth and refugees live together — and run the place

Amsterdam's Startblok Riekerhaven housing project is a ‘European laboratory’ for integrating a wave of refugees. (Startblok Riekerhaven)

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands — The white prefab housing blocks dropped in a field next to a highway bypass here don’t look like much. But the project known as Startblok Riekerhaven is an innovative housing experiment — and social experiment — worth watching.

Since July, more than 550 young adults under the age of 28 have been living here. Half of them are Dutch, including students and others without the means to afford Amsterdam’s high rents. The other half are refugees, recently arrived from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, and eager to settle into a new life in a new land.

The two groups are not only encouraged to mix socially but to think of themselves as building a new community together. They organize joint activities, like movie nights and football matches. Through a buddy system, they learn about each other’s cultures. They also share responsibility for maintaining the buildings and grounds, a “self-management” structure intended to unite all the residents in the common cause of caring for their living space.

The project is unique in its approach and required a lot of creative thinking by municipal officials, the leaders of a pair of social-housing agencies, and the residents themselves. In just nine months, they turned what first seemed like a crazy idea into a potential European model for housing refugees and integrating them into society.

It all started a little more than a year ago. Leon Bobbe, CEO of the social housing corporation De Key, had to find a new location to put hundreds of empty container apartments. These low-cost mobile dwellings have become a popular solution for student housing in Amsterdam; the units Bobbe needed space for had just been moved to make way for permanent construction.

Social housing corporations in the Netherlands are responsible for providing people with a low to medium income with affordable housing. De Key specializes in serving young people, from students to people who are just starting to work.

The question of where to put the temporary apartments went to Laurens Ivens, Amsterdam’s alderman for housing. Ivens was already wrestling with the challenge of finding housing for 2,400 refugees, an annual target set by the Dutch Ministry of Internal Affairs. He contacted his colleague Achmed Baâdoud, president of the local council in Amsterdam-West, a neighborhood with large Moroccan and Turkish communities.

Achmed Baâdoud (second from left) with Startblok Riekerhaven residents. It was Baâdoud’s idea to fill the housing complex half with Dutch youth and half with young refugees. (Stadsdeel Nieuw West)

Baâdoud suggested the apartments could locate on a sports ground in his area, at least for a while. Ivens wondered if the apartments could house “status holders” — refugees who have permission from the government to stay, study and work in the Netherlands. Baâdoud agreed, but with a twist.

“I didn’t want just status-holders — I have a responsibility to my constituents to also provide housing for young people from this district,” Baâdoud recalls. “Besides, ten years ago we already made the mistake of housing newcomers separately. Now, they still don’t speak the language and are not participating fully. Our aim is to turn newcomers into citizens of Amsterdam, and that works a lot better if they mix with local residents. So, I said: Let’s combine these two groups.”

‘This project was quite unique’

The municipality of Amsterdam leased the plot of land to De Key at a below-market price and for a limited period of 9 years. After that, a new residential neighborhood is planned for the area. That was good enough for Bobbe. “The tenants receive a lease for a maximum period of five years,” he explains. “That is what we call a ‘campus contract’, which we use for all our student housing.”

All the practicalities were taken care of, yet Bobbe wanted more. He didn’t just want to make a functional housing project, he wanted to build community where the residents would create lasting social bonds.  He was envisioning something like Christiania, the famously free-spirited squatter village in Copenhagen. “But it’s not going to happen by itself,” Bobbe says, “so how do you organize that?”

De Key got another organization on board: Socius, a housing organization that specializes in redeveloping office buildings into housing for young people. Socius had a history of using unusual tactics to get residents bought into building community.

“All our projects contain some sort of self-management,” says Pim Koot, commercial manager at Socius. “So we have some experience in organizing this, although this project was quite unique due to the mix of tenants.”

At Startblok Riekerhaven, Socius was responsible for the selection of the 280 Dutch tenants. “A lot of young people are looking for affordable housing, but for this project we really wanted to make sure they knew what they were getting into,” says Koot. “We expect people to actively contribute.”

Leon Bobbe, CEO of the social housing corporation De Key: ‘The question for us was how to give these young people a future, without being paternalistic.’

Anybody under the age of 28 could apply; in addition to the usual paperwork, applicants also had to fill out a questionnaire and explain their motivation for wanting to join this particular project. Three times more applications came in than the number of available units. “On the basis of the personal motivation we made a selection,” explains Koot.

The selection of the refugees was the responsibility of the municipality. In addition to being cleared to stay in the Netherlands, they also had to be under the age of 28 and to be alone — the project is not for couples or families.

“The status-holders are mostly from Syria and Eritrea, but also from other countries — for them, this project is a stepping stone into life,” says Baâdoud. “But that is also true for the Dutch youngsters. We didn’t mind if youngsters from outside of Amsterdam could join, especially from the richer communities. Because here they get to know the diversity of the city.”

That describes 22-year old Anouk Duba, who is Dutch but not originally from Amsterdam. She says the diversity at Startblok Riekerhaven was a draw for her. “I want to connect with people from all over the world and want to make foreigners feel welcome here,” Duba says. Although she admits the project is viewed with some skepticism from the outside. “When I tell my friends about this project, they don’t understand what I’m doing here. They are sometimes scared to come over, because they think it’s not safe.”

Anouk Zwaan, another 22-year old from outside Amsterdam says she’s heard the same things — and hopes her positive experience at the complex can help change public attitudes toward refugees.  “I come from a very white neighborhood,” Zwaan says. “My friends and parents never meet foreigners. My dad is worried about me, but I really don’t feel scared at all here.”

Communicating without words

After residents moved in a few months ago, Socius organized an introduction day for both the Dutch tenants and refugees to get to know each other. “It was kind of awkward,” Duba remembers. “We played a lot of games to get to know each other.”

The people from Socius also had another agenda. They wanted to spot who the natural leaders were, both among the Dutch residents and the refugees. “With these exercises in group dynamics, we wanted to see who were the organizers in the group and the ones that align people,” says Koot. “In order to organize self-management, we were looking for people who could be trusted with specific tasks in the community.”

One ice-breaker required a group of people to lift a large wooden stick together without talking. Abdullah Zakrat, from Aleppo, Syria, participated in that one. “It was an exercise to learn how to work as a community, not as a person,” he recalls. Later, Zakrat was selected to be one of five project managers responsible for the Startblok Riekerhaven complex. This is an official job for which he and the others earn a salary from Socius.

“I work about 30 to 70 hours a month,” he says. “As project managers, we are responsible for safety and hygiene and generally keeping the place in order.”

[Read: How Nashville is training a new generation of local leaders from its immigrant communities]

Apart from the project managers, Socius selected other tenants to work paid part-time jobs in key management roles. There is a technical team of two who do the maintenance of the buildings and the grounds, one person who is responsible for finances, and a two-person communications team. Socius keeps one of its project coordinators on location at Startblok Riekerhaven to back up these staff, but the day-to-day work is handled by the tenants. De Key is learning from Socius how to organize this tenant self-management structure and will eventually take over the oversight role.

Both Koot and Bobbe are very pleased with how the tenant self-management system is working out. They believe that having a community of activists, rather than just passive tenants, will help with the goal of integration. They also want to combat any notion that the refugees are not capable by letting all residents see their contributions for themselves.

Bobbe is especially enthusiastic about the communications team that handles all the questions from the press. “If a journalist approaches us, we just refer them to one of the press coordinators and let them handle everything,” he says. “Which is kind of a new way of working for us as well.”

Agitators for inclusion

In terms of housing units, Startblok Riekerhaven consists of one-person studios that share common rooms and large kitchens. There also are some larger apartments with a bathroom and small kitchen for two to share. Studios and apartments were carefully allocated to ensure diversity in background, gender and language skills throughout the complex. The studios rent for €510 a month, which includes water, electricity, heating and internet; the shared rooms cost a bit less. The Dutch tenants and refugee tenants pay the same amount for rent.

To build a community with more than 500 people is difficult. So the idea is to work bottom-up and start by building social connections within each hallway. Following the introduction days, two organizers — one Dutch and one refugee — were selected for each hallway of about 20 people. They are called “gangmakers”, which is a Dutch word with double-meaning. “Gang” means hallway, and a “gangmaker” is someone who gets the party started.

The gangmakers are responsible for getting people involved in social activities such as group dinners or watching movies. They also make sure everything runs smoothly on a day-to-day basis — that people put out their garbage or don’t make too much noise. Nahom Berhane, a 24-year old Eritrean, is a gangmaker for his hallway. “Of course you cannot force anybody to join,” he says. “But sometimes people are shy, so you figure out a way to overcome their anxiety.”

From left to right, Anouk Zwaan (from outside Amsterdam), Abdullah Zakrat (Syria), Anouk Duba (outside Amsterdam) and Nahom Berhane (Eritrea), (Letty Reimerink)

With so many cultures there are inevitably some difficulties in communication. More English is spoken in the hallways than Dutch, although many of the refugees are taking language classes. Socius also offered a training in intercultural communication. Berhane found that very useful.

“How can you find common ground in something that is normal for one, but not for another?” he says. Berhane cites an episode from a couple of months ago, when a group of Eritreans lit a fire outside, part of a traditional ritual called ‘Hoye’. “Some people were a little panicky because of the fire,” he says, “but everybody was interested and came to have a look.”

Anouk Duba was one of the people who came over to check it out. “We all ended up dancing together,” she says.

Tenants can also participate in a buddy system. Through a kind of speed-dating, matches are made between refugees and Dutch residents who share a common interest like art or sports. Duba and her roommate both have Syrian buddies. “The other day we went to their house and they cooked an enormous meal for us,” she says. “It is very interesting to hear their stories. One of them wants to become a journalist, and my friend’s a journalist too, so she can talk about how to write a good article.”

Participation does not come easy for everyone. Anouk Zwaan moved in later than the others; above everything else, she was most glad just to have housing she could afford. “Between studies and a job in the supermarket, I don’t have much time left to socialize,” Zwaan says. “But I might get a buddy at some point.”

[Read: More than half the world’s refugees live in urban areas. Here’s what that means for cities.]

Everyone involved in putting together Startblok Riekerhaven has learned something in the past year. A big lesson is the need for organizations to be flexible in their thinking. Achmed Baâdoud is proud that the municipality was able to work beyond the existing boundaries of its departments. “We have to be able to look differently at the problems we face and also let an organization like Socius take the lead,” he says.

For De Key’s Leon Bobbe, the project involved a whole new way of working. “The question for us was how to give these young people a future, without being paternalistic,” he says. Abdullah Zakrat, the tenant from Aleppo, agrees. “We can do things ourselves,” he says. “It is important that people realize that.”  

The project is still evolving and time will tell if it will succeed. Baâdoud calls it a “European laboratory.”  Local leaders are important, he says. “We feel and hear what people really need,” he says. “People who leave their homes don’t come here for the ice-skating; they want to be seen, heard and appreciated. I want to show the people in my community that this new diversity is a quality we should use, instead of feeling threatened.”

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Letty is a freelance journalist who writes stories about cities and the people inhabiting them.  Full bio

LEARNING FROM AMSTERDAM

  • Half of the residents at Amsterdam’s Startblok Riekerhaven are Dutch youth who can’t afford private housing. The other half are refugees who have legal status to stay, work and study in the Netherlands.
  • Leaders among residents from both communities were picked for key roles in managing day-to-day operations at the project, uniting residents in the common cause of caring for their living space.
  • Other residents are tasked with organizing social activities and including residents within their hallways. 

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