Umayya Abu-Hanna: Dutch cultural work with and for refugees
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6 November 2015

Every culture has its own dynamics of dealing with people regarded as ‘other’. Although the Dutch feel as threatened by the new demographical changes and influx of refugees, there are some features that distinguish the ways they adapt to this change. The ‘refugee position’ is one of no citizenship, sense of belonging, ownership or future, while contemporary times in Europe are connected with leaders of the world, wealth and leisure. In addition to supplying refugees with basic clothes and medication, connecting the gap between the position of the refugee and the Dutch or European citizen is crucial.

Let’s have a look at a few examples of this kind of work:

Life is now and it is worthy

Although most Dutch stayed in their homes and work-places, a surprising amount of individuals took off literally to the physical locations where refugees needed help. Many individuals and groups arrived at the shores of Greece, the bottle necks in Eastern Europe and in Calais where refugees were stuck. In addition to supplying a lot of needed material, the Dutch attitude is ‘This moment is life, and we make it worthy and gezellig (homey, cosy)’. As an example, when midwives heard about refugee mothers giving birth on trains and on the street, Dutch midwives and tents were literally set on the shores where refugees landed, giving birthing safety and first ‘home and cosiness’ in the tent. The second example is a British initiative. Secret Cinema arranged a film festival in the famous refugee camp in Calais (France) and simultaneously in other places in Europe. The social media is an efficient way to spread new initiatives and the Dutch jump on good ideas, they join, help, co-work and copy. When refugees are part of a film festival, this shifts their position from objects to subjects, and it connects them to worthiness. Arranging these kinds of projects in multiple cities, and with refugees, involves a lot of straightforward encounters and mobility. Both elements of mobility and the importance of face to face encounters are embedded in Dutch children’s education.

Visible values

Naturally every society has a rough division between part of the population who would feel safe keeping their locality and nationalism; and the rest who regard themselves as part of the world and humanity. Cultural institutions belong to the latter, be it the subject matter they deal with, or the network they belong to. Most cultural institutions in the Netherlands did not think twice about making their care for ‘the other’ clear. In September, the City Theatre on the Leidseplein in Amsterdam, covered its façade with a huge banner (on the spot used for promoting their performance) asking the opposite building of Apple Store: “What is Apple ready to do for refugees?”

Instead of making separate niches for ‘the refugees’ or ‘refugee culture and work’, the already existing system was involved. A pragmatic attitude helps doing things together also in the cultural field. Togetherness gives volume and power to work. One example is when on October 21 theatres, cinemas and cultural venues around the Leidseplein and the Nes in Amsterdam donated the day’s proceeds to Refugees Netherlands. We are talking about some of the most impressive cultural institutes of the Netherlands, among others Paradiso, Melkweg, Theatre De La Mar, Theatre Bellevue, and children’s theatre Krakeling. In addition to their regular programs, the cultural institutions had artists who performed specifically for this event. The evening came up with roughly 37,000 euros. The institutes did not ponder what if all the audience who already bought tickets, or the performers- would not like to be part of this action- they decided on their role and went with it. This cluster of event gives a feeling of a shift in society, a step forward at the Amsterdam cultural scene, a shift towards a new common Dutch identity.


The fear Europe has is basically about Europeans losing their culture. Roughly speaking there is a polarised discussion, one about the common ground which different cultures share, and the second focuses on ‘cultural clash’. This subject is perfect for the cultural and artistic scene. Culture is about values, ideas and thoughts. For example, the value of freedom which is seen as a crucial European value. Most new refugees are running for their lives specifically because they have been seeking freedom in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Here’s an example of this kind of case: The Haarlem Theatre prepared a program called Liberación. Liberación is a musical tribute to freedom. The subject is not new, but the timing makes us rethink values in new contexts. And that is what the arts do in essence. Art is about revisiting values and human experience. We don’t need a separate niche for refugees, or ‘their experience and culture’. Programs in existing institutes can bring themselves up to date with new realities, new Dutch society and new Europe. We can weave common experiences between the cultural field, the overwhelmed old audience, and the new comers.

Another example of embedding a current subject in already existing structure: The eighth International Storytelling Festival Amsterdam. Quoting from their website: “This year, the festival will take place with the theme of traveling. The idea is that everyone makes one or several special trips in their life, in their head or physically. One man’s birthplace was far away and it took him a real long way to be here, find a home. The other was born here, but never felt at home. Some had to fight, others were luckier. These are the stories we want to collect and present.”


On October 18th VPRO TV-program Tegenlicht had a segment called Gimme Shelter. It introduced facts about the refugee situation and asked viewers to come up with innovative solutions. Many citizens and some designers are already working with surprising solutions, offering samples of possibilities. Each week one initiative was chosen to be developed. This way one can avoid re-inventing the wheel, and the whole nation has an umbrella to follow and look for hatching ideas and possible partners.

Another example, October24- 28th Amsterdam West had a charity exhibition called IMAGINE. The opening of the exhibition was made by former Culture Minister Hedy d’Ancona. Artist Thessa van der Voort invited poets to testify poetically of their involvement with the refugee narrative. The exhibition consisted of six monumental paintings, and the objective was to raise money through admission charge, selling prints, art cards, posters and the artworks. This type of happening weaves together multiple layers, the former minister of culture opens the exhibition, the visual arts, poets and programs for children make it a happening more than a highbrow place to fear. The art works are not random, they reflect on the issues at hand, something that can bring together people interested in art or in the question of refugees or both.


In addition to highbrow culture; involving ‘the common person on the streets’ in a joyful way, is important. From Dam to Dam – Run for human rights watch from Dam to Damascus was a happening all over Amsterdam. You could register and run literally anywhere. The aim was to have enough people to run the distance between Amsterdam and Damascus. People were running while on their boat, mat, bar terraces, or on the street. This enabled people who don’t want to be involved in refugee issues to take part, just by being, or doing something joyful or silly. The happening built a ‘we’ with consciousness of ‘them’. It connected Damascus to the Dam-square where the palace, WWII monument and the biggest department store lay. It made Damascus real, far and near. It makes the refugees also part of our silly mad happenings.

The cultural field holds the core of the identity of nations, and identities are changing fast. Being a conscious part of that change is crucial. Culture and art cannot change political situations but they can offer rethinking values, visibility, symbols and connectivity. And that is…well, an art of itself.

Photo © Aat Veldhoen (Boot 2)

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Umayya Abu-Hanna

Umayya Abu-Hanna is an author, journalist and former politician. Born Palestinian, she lived in Finland for nearly 30 years. Currently she resides in the Netherlands.

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