In a trendy common living-room, young adults and asylum seekers cook on Sundays. They call it the ‘incubator space’. On the wall, it states: “Plan Einstein, cosy and social in Overvecht.” One week the Dutch prepare hotchpotch, the next week asylum seekers cook an international dish. Neighbourhood members can join in at one of the four picnic tables if they make reservations. When they have finished their meal, residents often stay on for a chat, karaoke, or to play cards. Afterwards, each of them returns to ‘their part’ of the building.
Utrecht Refugee Lanch Pad is integration from day One. Deputy Mayor Kees Diepeveen of the municipality of Utrecht emphasizes that it is a plan for everybody in Overvecht. It provides extra housing for young adults. The young adults who live here, organise activities for and with asylum seekers and district residents alike. The courses on the premises, too, are intended for asylum seekers and district residents. In this way, everybody can work on their future. Diepeveen: “Plan Einstein advocates Living Together, Learning Together. I want neighbourhood residents to visit the location because something is going on there that’s interesting for them. In this way, receiving asylum seekers will also have significance for the district. There is much interest in this approach from the Netherlands and Europe.”
Marloes van de Ven (20), a first-year Social Work student, received the key to her studio in October last year. She had sent a letter of motivation to Socius, an organisation that specializes in housing young adults, and she was selected. “I have to be a good neighbour. In January, we organised a New Year’s brunch for permit holders and other residents from the neighbourhood, in collaboration with the Al Amal Foundation. The first asylum seekers moved in on 1 March 2017. My fellow residents and I often invite them to do something nice together, like going bowling, watch soccer in the common living-room, or sing Dutch songs with the Stut theatre company, which I am a member of. I have contact with some asylum seekers through WhatsApp. I involve them in my life, so that they can see what is going on in the Netherlands.”
A lot to do
A few doors down another corridor, the Lebanese Steven Moussa (31) has shared a room with three other refugees since 1 March. He had applied for asylum in the Netherlands in February. In Plan Einstein, there is a lot to do from day one. “In the first week, the Dutch youngsters asked me to join them for a meal, and I went to the theatre with them. We have a little chat every day. I also had an interview with a Refugee Council official in the first week to talk about my future. At the centre, I take a Dutch course, and in April I began with a course in international entrepreneurship. In Lebanon, I worked as a freelance ‘digital printer’, and I had my own projects.”
“It’s a good thing that a man like Steven doesn’t need to wait until he receives his residence permit,” says location manager Peter Zwaan of the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA). “At the centre, he can make an early start with integration and participation. With the youngsters living nearby, our residents can make contact with the Dutch in a natural way. They can also take courses in business English and international entrepreneurship here, which may also come in handy when they have to return to their own country. Of course, there are also residents who sit in their room all day worrying. We offer them specific guidance, and when they are up to it we encourage them to participate in society.”
The COA works closely with the neighbours. “The youngsters can contact us every day if they have questions about residents,” the location manager says. “There may come a day that somebody they have been playing tenpins with is on the plane to his home country. This is also something they can talk about with us.” Zwaan is curious about how the Utrecht Refugee Launch Pad will work if the office building has been renovated and will be the home to 400 asylum seekers. “Families will be living here too, and they will need other kinds of activities with local residents. To this end, we have contact with De Dreef District Centre, just around the corner. I hope that by having the reception centre here the relationship and contact with the neighbourhood will be good by the time the COA leaves in late 2018.”
Utrecht Refugee Launch Pad receives its subsidy from the Urban Innovative Actions fund of the European Commission because it is a good example for other cities in Europe. In this approach, the municipality of Utrecht cooperates with Socius Wonen, Utrecht University, the Volksuniversiteit Utrecht, the Social Impact Factory, the Refugee Council Midden-Nederland, and the COA. The Universities of Roehampton and Oxford carry out research into the impact of the project on the district. For further information about this initiative, visit Planeinstein.nl.
Author: Sandra van Egmond, Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA)