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"We were inspired by Matthew 25:35" – Refuge in a Frisian Village

While the media report about refugees flooding the country and violent protests against asylum seekers' centers in 2016, six small villages in the Dutch province of Friesland each offer a house to a displaced family. Heartwarming, but not easy.

Originally published in De Groene Amsterdammer – June 10, 2019

(Artwork by Aart-Jan Venema)

On a cold November day, drenched by rain and much later than expected, the Yasin family arrives in the Frisian village of Easterlittens. They got off the bus a stop too early and had to walk straight through farmers’ fields to get to their new house, which was bought and fixed up for them by local villagers and the church. Their new neighbors welcome them with a meal of pizza and soup. With the help of an interpreter, the family gets acquainted with the group of local volunteers who will help them with everything from finances to learning Dutch. After dinner, the parents and their five children are given a tour of the village. "Nice, very nice," they respond when asked what they think of their new hometown.

A few months earlier, five of Easterlittens’ residents persuade their neighbors and church to purchase a home for a refugee family. One third is paid for by villagers, one third by the church and one third by an anonymous donor. Local and national media report extensively about the initiative of the little Frisian village, which is presented as a shining example for the rest of the country. "This is just a small drop in the ocean," says initiator Aad van der Burg to newspaper Trouw in July 2016. "But it would be great if it spread to the rest of the country."

Most of those living in Easterlittens support the initiative and even contributed financially, but some residents feel put on the spot. It’s important for the initiators to show that reality mirrors the dream. Janneke Bijlsma, who is leading the initiative, mentions to weekly magazine Vriendin shortly after the Yasin’s arrive: "You make such a huge effort and want to make sure it all works out. These people come from a metropolis. Can they ever take root here? Sometimes I wonder: what did we do to them, what have we set in motion? "

"This seemed like a way in which we as a village could truly make a difference."

In 2016, six Frisian villages set up their own initiatives to welcome a refugee family into their midst. Although in other parts of the country people open up their own homes to house refugees and a non-profit foundation in Rotterdam buys up 200 homes to house asylum status holders, this is the only place where small villages decide to welcome refugees as a community.

It all begins in Wiuwert, a village of 277 inhabitants twenty kilometers south of Friesland’s capital Leeuwarden. In September 2015, resident Jeannette Reen reads an interview with Omrop Fryslân journalist Eelke Lok in the Leeuwarder Courant, who offers his own views on the refugee crisis: "Those people are traumatized, you shouldn't put them all together in centres. There are 419 villages in Friesland. If every village adopts a Syrian family, that could really solve things. "

Jeannette Reen cannot let go of the idea. A large family house across from the church has been on sale for years. Couldn't a refugee family live there? "As a member of the church council I can submit proposals," she says. "And this seemed like a way in which we as a village could truly make a difference."

The church council loves the idea but is also cautious because of all the commotion surrounding the reception of refugees in the rest of the country. A few council members secretly begin making preparations. They speak with the municipality and the Dutch Council for Refugees and investigate whether such a project is financially feasible. A few months later they decide to go ahead with it. The house across from the church is purchased and made habitable by volunteers and the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) is informed and asked to find a suitable family.

Now the rest of the village’s residents, who have been kept in the dark, need to be informed. "That was the most tense moment," says church council president Alle Jacob Bremer. "In the media, the news surrounding refugees was rather negative. That made us weary of possible negative reactions." But the response from the village’s residents, who are informed about the initiative via a door-to-door letter, is overwhelmingly positive. A photo of the letter is immediately posted on Facebook and excited messages begin to flood in. That same evening, Jeannette Reen is called by local radio station Omrop Fryslân to talk about the village’s initiative in next morning’s broadcast.

The media present the initiatives as the prime example of the Frisian ‘mienskip’, the community that creatively addresses problems together. While Dutch asylum seekers' centers are overflowing, municipalities are struggling with placing the minimum number of refugees and large families are stuck in asylum centres, these Frisian villages offer a creative solution to an apparently unsolvable problem all on their own. And in light of the negative and sometimes violent reactions to the refugee crisis in the rest of the country, the villages’ initiatives provide a heart-warming counterbalance.

But the initiatives do not only provide a solution to refugee issues. Many villages in Friesland are struggling with fast shrinking resident numbers, young people moving away to cities and the closing of local primary schools. The arrival of refugee families with young children therefore also offers a practical answer to local issues.

"We primarily wanted to help refugees, but we also had the quiet hope that a family would have a positive impact on our village," says Alle Jacob Bremer from Wiuwert. "We have a small school here and every child who comes to it is more than welcome. There also appeared to be an arrangement whereby the school can get funding for additional teachers with four new students. Things like that suddenly started to play a role too."

In the summer of 2016, Wiuwert’s church council receives news that a suitable family has been found, who will arrive shortly thereafter. But instead of a family, a Syrian man arrives in the village alone. "We did not expect that to happen and we had doubts about it at first," says Bremer. "But then you hear his story."

Nezar Kefou traveled to the Netherlands ahead of the rest of his family. His children are still in Jordan with his second wife. His first wife went missing years ago during an assault of Assad's troops on their village, in which hundreds were killed during a five-day massacre. He came to Europe on foot and by boat via Turkey and is trying to get his family to come to the Netherlands via family reunification as soon as possible. Bremer: "The idea at that moment was that the rest of the family would come over in the near future. So we’d still have that ideal picture that we had in mind. But alas, it all turned out differently."

In Jorwert, a small village a few kilometers from Wiuwert, a similar initiative is set up. Five local women get talking about the refugee crisis and how powerless they feel during a dinner party. "You saw all those people in boats in the media, that little boy on the beach. We wanted to do something and decided we could do that right here in the village," says initiator Geartsje de Vries.

That same night they come up with a plan which the women hope will kill two birds with one stone. Local childcare has already disappeared to a neighboring village and primary school is slowly emptying out. "We knew that families had fled from Syria, and a large family was very welcome here." They decide to convert the vacant community centre, which is not being used, into a home for a large Syrian family.

"The idea at that moment was that the rest of the family would come over in the near future. So we’d still have that ideal picture that we had in mind. But alas, it all turned out differently."

However, realizing that plan turns out to be more difficult than they expect. First of all, the women discover that all 340 residents must agree to the plan to give the community centre a residential destination. All residents vote yes, provided that the family continues to live there for at least five years to recoup the renovation costs through the rent. "That seemed realistic to us," says De Vries, "but no agency or organization could give us that guarantee, because a family cannot be forced to stay somewhere."

But, as they say in Friesland: “As it net kin sa’t it moat, dan moat it mar sa’t it kin” / “If it cannot be done the way it should, then it should be done the way it can.” De Vries, who works at the local radio station Omrop Fryslân, arranges an interview in which the mayor of Heerenveen, who is also chairman of the Taskforce Housing Asylum Status Holders Friesland, is asked to offer his views. He pronounces that the initiative is too important to be allowed to fail and organizes a meeting with a representative from the province, who offers guarantees and subsidies from the province on the spot.

The women confront subsequent challenges with a great amount of creativity. De Vries: "One of us works at Friesland College and was able to arrange for students to oversee and carry out the renovation." Another initiator works at the municipality and can quickly arrange all the permits and papers they need. On New Year's Eve, a concert is organized in the local café to collect extra funds. The house, called Ús Hûs (Our House), is ready to move into that summer. 

A family has already been picked. The local municipality, which has already been reprimanded by the government for not placing the mandatory number of refugees, has been assigned a family of ten to place in one of the small villages that the municipality is made up of. Jorwert’s initiative comes as a godsend for them. But the initiators don’t yet know what the family is like or how old the children are. "We didn't know anything," says De Vries. "Whether someone would come wearing a niqab, what their beliefs were, whether the children were adolescents or toddlers. We didn’t hear anything until the very end."

When a Syrian family with eight children between the ages of two and seventeen finally arrives in June 2016, it is not only the village itself that’s in turmoil. Omrop Fryslân followed the entire preparatory phase in a special radio broadcast. TV shows and local newspapers report about the arrival of the family. Requests for documentaries are coming in. And although the family quickly announces that they do not want to appear in the media anymore, for fear of repercussions for family members left behind in Syria, news of the successful initiative is spreading like wildfire throughout the region. 

It does not take long before more villages announce similar plans. In response to all the interest Organization Doarpswurk, which supports local village interests, launches a special support project: ‘Refugee with Asylum Status in my Village’. Dozens of people come to their information evenings. Wiuwert and Jorwert are also approached individually by different villages for advice. Similar initiatives are not financially possible everywhere (often it is the churches that finance them) and in some villages the resistance amongst residents is too great. But in Easterlittens (430 inhabitants), Gaastmeer (295), Aldeboarn (1500) and Goutum (3000) initiatives do eventually get off the ground.

"We didn't know anything," says De Vries. "Whether someone would come wearing a niqab, what their beliefs were, whether the children were adolescents or toddlers. We didn’t hear anything until the very end."

In Gaastmeer the initiative comes from a number of villagers who are involved with the local Protestant primary school. Their hope is to keep the school open with new students. The local church makes the parsonage home available. But a Syrian family with six children does not arrive until December 2016, two months too late to register the children with the local school, which means it has to close down.

In Goutum it takes almost a year and a half to find a suitable house, since house prices are very high so close to Leeuwarden. A Syrian family moved into in a neighborhood that officially belongs to Leeuwarden two years ago. As opposed to other villages, Goutum’s residents are not really involved with the initiative, which was set up by the church. "Many people from Goutum probably do not even know that we have done this," says church steward Harry Kuiper.

In the village of Aldeboarn the initiative also comes from the church. "We were inspired by Wiuwert and Matthew 25:35: ‘I was a stranger, and you took me in’,” says church elder Hugo van Woerden. "But of course that sentiment is not exclusive to believers. We thought it was important that the village participated. The church has financed it all, but the residents have carried it all out."

The villagers start preparations in the spring of 2016, and a year later a Syrian family with three children moves in. At first, everything seems to be going well. "When they had just arrived, they all really enjoyed it. They were very happy with the house and all the help," says Wendy Tijsma, who assisted the family as a local volunteer.

But after a few months the family indicates that they want to leave again. "It is all very different here than in a big city like Aleppo. There you have everything you need around the corner. We only have one supermarket here, which is pricey. Public transport is scarce, and they did not have a driver's license. It soon became clear that they were not happy living here. Together with the municipality and the Dutch Council for Refugees, we then tried to find a home for them in Heerenveen."

When that takes longer than expected, tensions quickly rise. Tijsma: "They wanted to leave immediately, but of course that wasn't possible. They were disappointed and angry about that and that caused some friction.” The volunteers try their best to make things work until the family leaves to Heerenveen in the summer of 2018.

The church wants to welcome a new family and the Dutch Council for Refugees is behind it. Another Syrian family, which has come to Aldeboarn via regular placement, is doing very well there. But the volunteers are in doubt about a second attempt. Tijsma: "My colleague did not want to do it again and withdrew. Personally, I was open to giving it another try, but only if we checked in advance whether the new family could truly feel at home in a village. I didn't want the same catastrophe. That’s not nice for the family either. We did warn the church and council about that."

A new family arrives in Aldeboarn in the winter of 2018 through a United Nations resettlement program, which places refugees in a critical situation directly to a new home. This time a Sudanese brother, sister, and her young child, move into the house. According to Tijsma things are going well this time around, although practical matters such as transport remain a problem. "The brother wants to get his driver's license but has no money for it yet. Now they have to cycle five kilometers to Akkrum in order to take the train to Heerenveen."

In Easterlittens it becomes increasingly difficult for the initiators to retain the enthusiasm they had at the beginning. After a while the father indicates that he never wanted to come to the village but was told by the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers that they would end up on the street if they refused. As an illiterate man, he has enormous difficulty with the language and complains that it takes him hours on the bus each day to get to his integration and language courses and the supermarket. His wife regularly has to go to the hospital, which leads local volunteers set up a carpool. Everyone tries their best to make things work, but eventually the family indicates that they want to move to the south of the country, to a big city, as soon as possible.

Eventually, the situation becomes so troublesome that the local Council for Refugees intervenes. "They really got stuck there at a certain point," says Anna Riemersma from the Súdwest-Fryslân Refugee Council, who supervises the local volunteers. "The volunteers no longer knew how to remove themselves from the situation. The family wanted to leave. The nice conversations that were there in the beginning were no longer possible. A pattern had emerged from which no one could escape. As an outsider, I spoke with both parties and said what had to be done. Everyone was very happy with that. But it was kind of too late at that point. "

In March 2018, the parents and the youngest three children leave for Rotterdam. Their two oldest sons stay behind, assisted by the volunteers. But they don't want to stay in Easterlittens either. In a documentary that Fryslân DOK makes about the two boys, the eldest son, Mohammed, says: "The people here are nice and helpful, I have never met such people before. They helped me a lot. But I still don't feel at home here."

In Wiuwert, Nezar welcomes his wife Mouna to their new home a year after he arrives. Together they make the best of their situation. Nezar gets his driver's license and buys a tricycle for Mouna on Craigslist. Every week they get fresh cow and sheep milk from a local farmer, which Mouna uses to make cheese, yogurt and butter. Their contact with the local volunteers is good and they quickly make friends in the neighborhood. “This a dream, our dream” says Nezar. “We want to stay in Wiuwert and build a life here.”

But Nezar's children cannot come to the Netherlands. The Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND) needs permission from his first wife, but because she is missing and there is no death certificate, that is not possible. After several lawsuits, Nezar’s lawyers still have not been able to circumvent this rule. His oldest son now lives in Sweden, his daughter is getting married soon and will stay with her husband. But his youngest son is still waiting in Jordan. "This is a much better place for a child to grow up than in a big city," says Nezar, "but his room is still empty."

At the start of 2019, Nezar announces that he and Mouna will be leaving Wiuwert. He has been told by his lawyer that he can apply for family reunification again with a permanent work contract. He has been unable to find permanent employment in the area but can start a job right away in The Hague. "We don't want to see them go," says Jeanette Reen, "but of course we hope that Nezar can see his children again." During an emergency consultation, the church council decides to simply try again after they leave. "We started this adventure to help refugee families and we will continue to do so."

"This is a much better place for a child to grow up than in a big city," says Nezar, "but his room is still empty."

Three years on, most of the Frisian villages that welcomed a Syrian family can claim that their initiative was largely successful. The help of volunteers is steadily decreasing, the children do well in school and have joined local sports clubs, the parents have passed their language exams, made friends and participate in community activities in the village. And regardless of the fact that they all miss their families and homeland, most families do feel at home in their new hometowns.

But in three of the six villages the initial families left again and in two villages increasing frustration and dissatisfaction eventually led to a very tense situation. At the beginning of 2019, things have largely returned to normal, although it did not go without a hitch.

Yet you do not hear anyone speak of disappointment or thanklessness. That it hasn’t been easy is admitted everywhere. But people here prefer not to talk about the setbacks. They enthusiastically recall the ways in which the community came to action, how the initiatives were set up and problems creatively addressed together. When it comes to the question of what was unsuccessful or what might have led to feelings of disappointment, words are carefully chosen.

In the villages where the families left, the initiators, without exception, showcase a deep understanding of the difficulty the families had with living in their small village, where public transport is poor, neighborhood supermarkets are expensive and the contrast with life in a big city like Aleppo or Damascus is great.

But whereas the media were initially enthusiastically welcomed in the hope of spreading the word, perhaps even inspire other villages, initiators are now more reserved. In Easterlittens, where three years ago the initiators tirelessly shared their story in local and national media, they have no interest in an interview. The initiators indicate that they are tired of all the media attention and "feel that everything that needs to has already been said". They agree to their story being told, but no longer feel the need to tell it themselves.

Getting stuck in misunderstandings, talking about disappointments, it isn’t done here. Maybe it's the famed Frisian sobriety. The belief that "things go as they go" and that “you shouldn't make an issue of that”, as one of the initiators phrases it. Perhaps there is also a fear that the inspiring story about the villages’ kind reception of refugees, which should have been an example to the rest of the country, will be replaced by a story of misguided idealism and thankless refugees. In the end, neither version is correct.

But there is also an interest in maintaining the positive story about the villages’ initiatives. At the Council for Refugees Northern Netherlands, commotion arose in early 2018 when a team leader spoke out against the placing of refugee families in small villages in the Leeuwarder Courant. Municipalities and the Dutch Council for Refugees desperately want to prevent villages from daring to knock on their doors in the future or write off new initiatives in advance. According to Anna Riemersma, mistakes have certainly been made in the chaos of 2015, but that lessons have been learned, by the Dutch Council for Refugees too. "Now that everything has calmed down, we can select differently and guide villages better. These are great initiatives and you see that things can go well. And after all, not everyone can go to Amsterdam or Rotterdam."

The team leader who criticized the initiatives has since indicated that he was quoted incorrectly and Ineke Fennema, regional manager for the Council for Refugees Northern Netherlands, says that the council continues to support village initiatives, current and future ones. Because even though the refugee influx has decreased in recent years, you never know when it will start again.

But recently, the ideal of the welcoming communities has been called into question again. After a fight between two children, a man threatened the Syrian family in Jorwert with a knife. He is to appear in court in July. The village that had been the success story that inspired so many others, suddenly has a very different story to tell. What exactly happened is not clear, but the family wants to leave. According to them, threats have been made in the past. Attempts were made to mediate between the perpetrator and the family, but to no avail. The prevailing feeling, says initiator Geartsje de Vries, is that a few have ruined it for the rest. In the only public reaction given since their arrival, mother Roushan says she is grateful for everything she has been given: "A quiet village, nice neighbors. But I also love the city. "

Original article in Dutch: De Groene Amsterdammer


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