According to UNHCR figures, there are 65.6 million refugees in the world, with only 189,300 settled – 120,000 of which take Europe as their new home. There are a total of 9,470 refugee status holders in The Netherlands. Between the disputes on xenophobia and nationalism, Startblok, a home for Dutch and refugees was established to challenge stereotypes and racism.

Founded in 2016, Startblok (Dutch for starting block) has been providing home and community to refugee status holders with the help of their contact persons affiliated with the Dutch Refugee Council, VluchtelingenWerk Nederland (VWN). The contact persons help with difficult documents, letters or papers from the municipality or the government; they can also help with taking care of the refugees’ budgeting, or support them as they learn Dutch, among other things. “We had some collaborations with the UNHCR, but they’re not a constant partner in this project where the status holders go to or have contact persons at,” Mirthe van den Hee and Fleur Eymann from Startblok’s PR office tell progrss in an e-mail.

“You live in a community with young people of diverse backgrounds and share the same goal: make a great start in Amsterdam,” reads Startblok’s manifest. But Startblok is not a fenced community, nor is it a hostel – it’s more of a small village or campus. Everything they do is on a voluntary basis; participation is not obligatory and people can go wherever they want, whenever pleases them.

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Startblokers talk in “Let’s Talk Business” project on May 10. / Startblok Riekerhaven

“We see relationships and friendships develop, but also buddies who connect with a coach to work on their future. It depends per hallway how active it is, but in general hallways are more and more connecting and seeing each other,”  say van den Hee and Eymann, who are actually tenants as well.

Startblok has room for initiatives and contributions run by its tenants. The community’s self-management makes Startblok more like home and more engaging. Tenants organize everything they can for themselves, from movie nights to festivals. Startblok’s self-management philosophy is believed to contribute to social cohesion and community building.

“After almost one year living at Startblok, we see a lot of growth, changes and developments,”  say van den Hee and Eymann. “In the beginning we were still trying to find out what way was the best to connect tenants with each other. During this year we found out that a lot and different events work the best, so [there’s] something to do for everybody and you find another with the same (or more or less) interest.” The self-managers see a growth in the number of tenants showing up at activities and events and also more diversity in the kind of people who are attending – unlike in the beginning, where they often saw the same people at all events.

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Starblok Riekerhaven.

The self-managers tell us that whether Startblok contributes to learning Dutch or not is difficult to identify since it depends on each status holder. However, van den Hee thinks that, in general, living together with Dutch people helps the status holders to learn the language, because they have so much Dutch people living around them. At events and activities they’ll also hear it a lot. “I think it is good to note, that everybody learns at a different level and has different (cultural) knowledge backgrounds,” she points out. “This means there is a big group already developing quickly, but there is also quite a few, that are going to need a lot more time to settle in and learn the language. ”

She notes that culture shock is a common phenomenon for newcomers, and that it most often appears after two to three months. “I think this is not necessarily the issue,” Mirthe notes. Obstacles that Startblokers deal primarily with are: language barrier, making it hard to communicate, to understand each other, to live together, as well as mental health issues affiliated with problems ongoing in their home countries, traumas, adaptation to new life, and cultural differences. “In time we will see if we can overcome them, but until then Startblok hopes to facilitate a place where we can overcome these issues together,” she continues. So far, Startblokers acknowledge the presence of these issues. “Everybody knew upfront, before moving in, this might be a somewhat special place to live where not everything is always running smoothly.”

The self-managers tell us that, while some of the locals living around Startblok in Riekerhaven were a bit skeptical about the project, others were very enthusiastic, and most were simply not judging too much. Generally, people are just waiting to see how things will progress with this group of young people challenging the norms. “So far, we’ve had no trouble with the neighborhood, except [for] two complaints: the first was about young people taking the roundabout the wrong way and the other about us not offering the opportunity for [people in] the neighborhood to visit and help out;” says van den Hee. “[Which] was hard to realize, because in the beginning we had to start up, settle in, move in, etc. Now we have more activities, have the facilities ready for use and we do more promotion, our project and activities are always open for people from the neighborhood to join in.”

Startblokers also participate in the neighborhood’s support group every six weeks. This meeting discusses how to improve the Riekerhaven neighborhood together, “since it is not the most vibrant neighborhood in Amsterdam,” they conclude.