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Marit Meijer: ‘Each resident has a unique story’

It was a sunny June day in 2020, Utrechters were allowed out a bit more again after a lockdown. Welkom in Utrecht had organized a scavenger hunt through the city. For Dutch people and their language buddies. Marit also participated, with her Turkish buddy. At the end of the scavenger hunt, under the trees near the Janskerk, an intern of Welkom in Utrecht was waiting for the walkers. Marit got talking to her. And became enthusiastic. At that moment she was working on a bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and was looking for an internship. Could she also do a three-month internship at Welkom in Utrecht? ‘Yes sure, please.’

Sense of belonging

No sooner said than done. Marit attended the Women’s Evening at the asylum center on Joseph Haydnlaan, helped with the mother language café there, with the cooking evenings at Het Wilde Westen where refugees put the most delicious dishes on the table together with Utrechters, and much more. She also did research during her internship. The theme was: status holders and their ‘Sense of belonging in Utrecht’. Marit: ‘This allowed me to interview all kinds of different people.’ Because that’s what she enjoys most: getting to know people with diverse backgrounds, asking what their view of the world, of life, is. She was given full scope for it. Also after her internship, when she continued to work as a volunteer for Welkom in Utrecht.

Star Lodge

In December 2021, an emergency shelter was opened in the then Star Lodge Hotel on Biltsestraatweg. Welkom in Utrecht was given a prominent role there to organize and facilitate activities. New employees were needed. And Marit turned out to be a perfect candidate. She found it a fun, informative period. ‘I met an awful lot of people and made very valuable contacts.’ At Star Lodge, she and her colleague Jesse handled recruitment. On Tuesday between 2 and 3 pm all residents have to report to COA. Welkom in Utrecht is there with information on activities. At least as important as informing are the talks. Often, the Welkom in Utrecht employees are the first contacts with Dutch people of people in reception. Marit: ‘During this moment, you often see the same people. They just come to say hello, to have a chat. And sometimes you have a contact that goes further. I got a Syrian friend from it. She believes this is the strength of Welkom in Utrecht. That everyone who works there is also personally involved with various refugees. ‘It’s not like ”I finish my to-do list and that’s it. It’s very human.’

She is silent for a moment. ‘And you know, that contact doesn’t have to be deep with everyone either. Valuable for me is also to run into a refugee in town and just say “Hi, hello.” For myself, that is also nice. I have only lived in Utrecht for five years. In the beginning, I didn’t know many people. In the past year, I got to know so many people, including refugees, but also colleagues, volunteers, and people who set up an activity. The work at Welkom in Utrecht is often about refugees’ sense of belonging; they benefit from getting to know the city, and expanding their network. But actually, it is also the other way around, not only for me but also for volunteers. We also get to know a lot of new people. It’s an interaction.’

What is her best memory? She has to think about that for a while. Because there are many. Perhaps “her happiest memory” is the trip to Scheveningen. When Welkom in Utrecht in 2022 during the summer, when it was so hot, went with all the people of Star Lodge to the beach of Scheveningen twice. Marit: ‘Then you sit in a bus full of people who have never seen the Dutch coast. Everyone was so happy. Most people went into the water, although that was pretty cold, sometimes even with clothes on. Really super fun to do. And especially nice that you can share such a moment with each other.’

Strong stories

Difficult moments were also there. Of course. ‘I spend most of my time in an asylum seekers’ center. Every resident has a story and even though you don’t know everyone’s story – we never ask about their flight story – you do feel that such a story is almost always difficult. Moreover, nobody is in an asylum seekers’ center because they want to be there so badly. Sometimes I was at a children’s activity. Then I saw those children playing and I thought: phew, you are seven or eight years old and what have you already been through? Often asylum seekers spend years in an asylum seekers’ center before they have a somewhat stable daily life. And yes, that feeling can be tough for me too.’

What did she learn? ‘I gained a lot of people skills. Refugees are often pigeonholed. And seen as a homogeneous group. But of course that is not true at all. There are over 300 people living at Star Lodge and that’s 300 individuals. And all those volunteers walking around, that too is not a homogeneous group of course. I’ve learned to work with all those people and stay neutral.’ She gives an example. ‘Suppose I would have told a refugee during recruitment that a friend of mine is gay, then I know from a few people that they wouldn’t talk to me anymore. That’s quite an intense idea. But I had to position myself so that I didn’t let that bother me. Because if we went to the museum for a day with a group, then of course I had to invite that person. Welkom in Utrecht is for everyone. It doesn’t matter what your background is or your sexual preference or what language you speak.’

Casting nets

And another crucial thing. ‘I have seen quite often that volunteers work from a “White savior idea”. And that refugees are portrayed as people who are totally not self-reliant and very pitiful. And yes, many refugees are pitiful, but often very self-reliant. And what I like so much about the work at Welkom in Utrecht is that the team is not there as “Oh those poor refugees, we’re going to help them”, but more as supportive, so that people can make a connection, lay out lines of communication for them that are useful to them. Because I do think that if you come to the Netherlands as a refugee it is made difficult for you to settle here. It starts with a procedure that can take a very long time, and then it takes a long time before you get a house, and that house is not necessarily in the city where you were in the asylum seekers’ center, that sort of thing. And although an asylum seekers’ center here in Utrecht, compared to other shelters, is still pretty much in ‘the world’, it is still a closed entity, and not really inviting. An organization like Welkom in Utrecht creates the opportunity to connect. An afternoon at the museum may sound superficial. But these are moments when people not only have fun but also get to know the Netherlands a little better, feel a little more at home. After a museum visit, you know how things work in the Netherlands in that respect. You already have that connection.’

Marit stopped working at Welkom in Utrecht in May. She is currently working as a volunteer in Hebron, Palestine to learn more about human rights there. In September she will start a master International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam. And she will stay involved with Welkom in Utrecht. Because Marit is one of the youngsters living in the mixed housing form at azc Pahud in Overvecht. And in that azc too, Welkom in Utrecht is in full swing.