Despite severe protests initially, they both engaged in meaningful encounters and interaction with refugees in the U-RLP project Plan Einstein e.g. through classes entrepreneurship and other courses and social activities within the Plan Einstein community. Contrary to their expectations, the participation on the U-RLP Plan Einstein project positively influenced their perspective on life in general and on integration in particular. In their opinion the project has only brought good things to the district and now they regret the departure of refugees from the district.’
Despite fierce protests, a temporary asylum seekers’ centre (ASC) in the Overvecht district of Utrecht opened its doors at the beginning of 2017. A year and a half later – on the eve of the closure of the centre at Einsteindreef – those people who were originally the most outspoken in opposing the plan appear to be the very ones who sincerely regret the refugees’ impending departure from the district.
The weekly language café is about to commence in the centre’s meeting room. Khaibar Karimi (17) enters elatedly. He has managed to raise his language level from B1 to B2 within the space of just a week. ‘The quick learner,’ as his teacher proudly refers to him. Khaibar is grateful above all. I learned a lot at the language café, much more than at school. Now that he has been granted a residence permit, he knows what he wants to become: a surgeon.
‘"f they send them here, set the place alight; that’ll stop them.’" This is one of the most notorious statements made by local resident Ries van Dijk (60), the figurehead of the opposition to the proposed establishment of an asylum seekers’ centre, following an emotive public consultation evening in early 2016. "The area manager and two policemen arrived at my door two days later. They planned to arrest me. It didn't happen in the end, as we actually had a decent conversation.’"
‘Overvecht’s residents deserve a huge compliment’
In January that year, opposition to the proposed establishment of the centre came to a head. Mr Van Dijk and like-minded neighbours formed the hard core of the protest movement, bandying the slogan ‘no ASC here’. Skirmishes between supporters and opponents of the plan occurred during a public consultation evening. The large police contingent present barely succeeded in keeping the two groups apart. Opponents even marched on the town hall on several occasions to add emphasis to their objections.
"We definitely didn’t want 400 testosterone bombs (young single men, ed.) turning up, Mr Van Dijk explained was the object of the protest back then. I never once resorted to violence, however, as that’s not my style. I did have concerns though. The events in Cologne, where women were sexually assaulted by Syrian men, were all over the news. I have eleven grandchildren, and I do my utmost to protect them. Moreover, as the district of Overvecht already had its fair share of problems, we simply didn’t want what we viewed at the time as the “added burden” of housing an asylum seekers' centre."
A purely positive effect
That’s the way we thought at the time. After all, Mr Van Dijk and his neighbours now see things differently. Contrary to all his expectations the asylum seekers' centre – which eventually opened six months later than planned, in February 2017 – has brought only good things to the district in his opinion. ‘We haven't experienced any nuisance, as the centre has actually had a purely positive effect,’ he admits. The refugees always say hello. Sometimes not in Dutch, but at least they make the effort, which counts for a lot in my view.’
And that is basically what alderman Kees Diepeveen (GroenLinks) had in mind when he persevered with the plan to take in four hundred refugees, despite fierce resistance. He decided to make a virtue of necessity: we needed to establish a ‘new-style shelter’, a ‘model reception centre’, which would be known as Plan Einstein. It would benefit not only refugees, but also the local residents: providing training and activities for everyone and housing for young people from the neighbourhood.
Local resident Mireille Sedney (36) took an entrepreneurship course, despite initially feeling sceptical. "I was also part of the group that was not very happy that a shelter was to be set up here. I was a bit scared of the unknown. In the end, I resigned myself to simply making the most of things. I’d reached a point in my life where I was looking for something new to do. Since I took a course there, I have to admit that Plan Einstein helped me find a job. I started my own catering company, and am already doing good business."
‘We haven't experienced any nuisance, just a purely positive effect’
In addition to employment, the asylum seekers' centre helped Sedney make new acquaintances. "My negative thoughts about the arrival of the shelter were soon dispelled, which made a great difference. I had countless conversations with refugees in which I told them frankly about my initial attitude. I realised that they felt just the same; they were also afraid, but of us. I had ample opportunity to discuss the issue at length with them. I've discovered that it makes no difference where you come from, we are all equal and ultimately want the same thing: a good life, that's what it's all about."
Author: The article was published in the Utrecht edition of the national newspaper Algemeen Dagblad in late summer 2018.