AMSTERDAM - The Netherlands is facing the daunting task of integrating a massive number of people not only of different religious and sociological backgrounds, but also of different histories.
Lily Spranglers, director of the "Turkije Instituut," an independent organization that provides a Dutch perspective on various aspects of Turkey, underlined that the record of the Netherlands for tolerance and openness to change is somewhat shaky nowadays.
"The difficulty that the people coming from the Anatolian heights to the Netherlands would face was of course obvious. We had a highly individual, modern, urban society, this is why many immigrants found it difficult to fit in if they stuck to the style they had lived for centuries," she said, speaking to a group of Turkish opinion makers at the institute headquarters in The Hague.
A columnist for the Netherlands daily Telegraf and a comedian of Turkish origin Funda Müjde emphasized that the Sept.11, 2001 attacks led to a wave of Islamophobia that only recently subsided. "The Netherlands received immigrants more easily until the 1980s. But when economic tides turned low, it was usually the least qualified and the foreigners who lost their jobs," Müjde said. For years Müjde, one of the 400,000 Dutch people of Turkish origin, has approached the problem from her own perspective, and runs a cabaret to satirize the "Dutch Dutch," the Dutch of different origins.
Mehmet Genco, a supermarket owner in Amsterdam whose story is an example of a successful immigrant, is a case in point on the economic level some managed to reach, with a background of a stunningly low level of cultural integration that has taken place over decades.
Genco’s parents had settled in the Netherlands in the 1960s, and he arrived in 1970. "The first thing I did was learn Dutch," said Genco, who runs a market that sells mostly Turkish food to a clientele of varied origins, by no means the only one of his kind. "Food sales are primarily run by Turks in the Netherlands, and then by the Moroccans," he said.
His wife Meliha said the city was not consistent with their cultural habits. "Here in Amsterdam, everything is free. You can buy everything from anywhere you want," she complained, referring to soft drugs available in "coffee shops."
But her most pressing problem is acquiring a residence permit for her son’s bride who lives in Turkey. "If a Dutch woman goes to Turkey and marries someone, she can bring the spouse into the Netherlands without problems. But my child married a girl in Turkey, and for three years we have been struggling to get her a residence permit, although she has a child with Dutch passport," she said.
A common problem among Turks is the Basic Civic Integration Examination, which obliges citizens of certain countries to acquire a minimum knowledge of Dutch language, society and culture and express it in an oral examination, a test introduced in 2006.
Citizens of European Union countries and a host of other developed countries are exempt from taking the test, as well as certain Surinamese who meet the criteria. Human Rights Watch, a worldwide independent organization, questioned the act in its report "Discrimination in the Name of Integration," released in May 2008. The Dutch Ministry of Integration’s letter to the parliament that raised questions over the report, suggested that the law mostly concerns countries with a certain cultural, social and economic situation "whose citizens can be expected to have a certain knowledge and insight in the social structures and norms and values of the Dutch society."
"Most Turks marry people from Turkey. Girls, who grow up here, are somewhat more easygoing on certain subjects. Not everyone can accept this. Besides, one would prefer that the bride is of the same culture," Meliha said, reflecting the deep cultural chasm between her family and the society they have lived in for over three decades. Moreover, that chasm can also come between Turks themselves.
"I rented a room in a house by myself at age 17, six years ago. Other Turks give me [negative] looks because I have a Dutch boyfriend," said a student at the University of Groningen who asked to remain unanimous.
Bilal Şahin is a social worker at the Father’s Center, a non-governmental organization that helps fathers of non-Dutch origin cope with the alien environment they have arrived in.
"The first job I had back in the 1970s was on construction sites, and it was really painful for the first two years," Şahin said. His burden increased with the extra work he undertook to secure a better place in the new society that he had very little in common with. "Later I worked at a greenhouse for 12 years, and I went to Dutch language classes. It took me 12 years to get a hold of events around me," he said. Now he is an active member of the Father’s Center, which supports hundreds of fathers and sons gain skills to adapt.
But not everyone is fortunate enough to move up the social ladder. Overbosch College, a vocational school located in Hague, brings together 355 students from over 50 different cultural backgrounds including Indonesians, Moroccans, Turks, Surinamese, Ethiopians and many others.
The college is called a "black school," an expression that some of the Dutch are uneasy to use. An English teacher of Turkish origin Gülsüm Bahadır said not only the kids, but their parents too have integration problems. "Kids here barely learn Dutch, since at home and outside school they always speak their mother language," she said.
Director of the school Ton Kroonen said that 60 percent of the students have IQs somewhere between 60 and 80 points, below the average, recorded as a result of a test every Dutch pupil has to take at age 12.
But the immigrant children run the risk of scoring far worse than they normally would, because of their lack of adequate proficiency in the Dutch language. This means no matter how intelligent an immigrant student is, he will hardly receive enough education to attend a university, but will develop a career in shop keeping or caring for the sick. "The trend of sticking to low income professions is worsened by the parents’ desire to see their kids run the shops they own. Parents usually encourage their children to aim low, just to remain safe and sound," Bahadır said.
However, there are also examples that suggest the hard work pays off. "When I started at law school, I was the only person of bicultural background. My brother is eight years younger than me and at his school descendants of immigrants have their own associations," said Ali Yazgili, project manager at the Turkey Institute.
’Coming to grips
with the change’
Institute Director Spranglers said smoothing out the differences may take time, but it is not an impossible ordeal. "The Dutch lived with Protestants, Catholics, Jews, atheists and socialists in their own pillars before. For example my Catholic mother, living in the center of Amsterdam, was forbidden by her parents to buy bread from a Protestant baker. We are talking about the center of Amsterdam in the 1940s and 1950s. But this was overthrown in the 1960s," she said.
Spranglers said the definition of integration according to "Dutch Dutch" people may be a demanding for immigrants. "The Dutch expect immigrants to become more or less like them. And we now have a much undefined Dutch identity," she said. Discrimination, especially when it comes to employers, exists but its effects are bound to be broken, Spranglers said. "An immigrant or his descendant can finish university and earn a degree. But if they stick as a group of people, integration is harder," she said, adding that a large share of the problem stems from a lack of integration policy from the start of the flow of immigrants.
"The biggest mistake was to take it for granted that immigrants would go away in a few years. What happened was that the Netherlands now has hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their children who never cared to learn the language or to get to know the society they live in," she said.
"Eventually Dutch people will come to grips with the idea that they have to hire people of bicultural background. There is a hurdle on the way to equality called the glass ceiling. I believe in five years many people of Turkish or Moroccan background will hit this ceiling, where they cannot progress further because of their origin. But they will be so many in time, that it will be impossible to block their advance," Spranglers stressed. "The Dutch will have to accept that this is a society that will change," she noted.