In Amsterdam, the empty Bijlmer Bajes (Bijlmer Jail) was recently converted into a large asylum center for refugees from war-stricken areas like Syria. But the former prison is not like any other asylum center. Over the past few months, it has become a successful creative hub called Lola Lik, with numerous pop-up projects that help refugees gain work experience.

Bijlmer Bajes in 2017
Bijlmer Bajes in Amsterdam

Bijlmer Bajes: From Prison to Hotel, Hamam, and Restaurant

These projects include a Hamam (Turkish Bath), hotel, a temporary museum, boxing school, and a restaurant. Many have called it a prime example of the ‘Amsterdam Method,’ which recognizes immediate societal integration as its core objective.

As I live near the former Bijlmer Bajes and love finding new places to have coffee or lunch, I decided to pay a visit to the new restaurant: A Beautiful Mess. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but the friendly atmosphere and stylish interior made a great first impression. I approached some of the employees and asked them if they could tell me a little bit about the place. Despite their busy day, they were willing to sit down and explain the story. What followed was a conversation with Khaled, one of the Syrian refugees that works at the restaurant.

A Beautiful Mess Restaurant in the former Bijlmer Bajes A Beautiful Mess Restaurant in the former Bijlmer Bajes

A Conversation with Khaled Al Betar

After a short introduction and discussion of the restaurant’s concept, Khaled and I started talking about the importance of creative places like the Bijlmer Bajes. Khaled explained the value of working in a place where refugees and locals are able to interact, and how it manages to make a difference.

“I think the biggest challenge for refugees is isolation. Everyone stays within their own circle, so to say. Turks talk to Turks, Syrians make friends with other Syrians, if you know what I mean. The fact is that most of us are already struggling with psychological problems like depression. You have to understand that we have lost everything we built up in our home country. Isolation makes it even harder to start your life again in a new society.

I think the biggest challenge for refugees is isolation.

Many refugees have gone to university or completed higher education, like probably about 50% of the people here. We are ambitious, we want to be a contributing member of society, and have a fulfilling career. Just like anyone else in Amsterdam. I studied ICT myself, but we need job experience and everyone needs to start somewhere. Here you can be a barista, but also a manager. There is a big variety in positions and working level. Projects like these are like an in-between, a step along the way. It’s like being halfway between refugee and an integrated member of society.”

Conversation with a Syrian refugee in Amsterdam

At this point, our discussion shifted to learning how to speak a new local language. Since conversational skills are notoriously difficult to acquire in the Netherlands, we started speaking in Dutch.

“You always hear that almost every Dutch person can speak English. This is true, but speaking Dutch is a very important part of integration, more than you might think. But it is difficult to become fluent, Dutch people switch to English whenever they hear a foreign accent. The government helps with programs, but you need to have everyday conversations with locals in order to become fluent.

I wish people would realize that all of us have something to offer. It’s like an injection of new blood into society, and also into the labor market.

That’s why this restaurant is such a good place. It helps work against isolation and becomes a meeting place between refugees and locals. This works both ways, because we also bring something new to Dutch society, even if it’s just through our dishes. What is this Dutch saying again? “Wat de boer niet kent, dat vreet hij niet” (translation: “A farmer doesn’t eat what he doesn’t know,” meaning that most people only appreciate food or culture they are already familiar with). But I wish people would also realize that all of us have something to offer. It’s like an injection of new blood into society, and also into the labor market.”

Bijlmer Bajes Sold for €84 Million to Become Eco-Friendly Suburb: What’s Next?

A few days after this conversation, news reports revealed a plan to transform the Bijlmer Bajes into an eco-friendly suburb. The new ‘Bajes’ quarter will include a park, urban farm, apartments, houses, restaurants, care homes, a school, and a health center. This might mean that Lola Lik, including its many projects, will soon have to make way for urban redevelopment. The government has sold the complex to a subsidiary of building giant BAM for 84 million euros. The exact date has not yet been announced, but construction will start sometime in 2018. For now, nobody quite knows what’s next for the refugees. It looks like the projects will keep going strong for at least the next few months.

Lola Lik in the former Bijlmer Bajes
The recent influx of refugees in Europe is one of the biggest topics in politics today. Usually, refugees are discussed as nothing but a problem. While there’s no denying that the reason for a refugee’s flight is never a happy one, I can’t help but wonder if many Europeans ever ask themselves how these newcomers contribute to our society. Everyone has dreams about their future, ambitions about the person they want to become. The only difference is that most of us don’t have to worry about having lost our homes, careers or even our loved ones. Because that’s what many refugees have to deal with on a daily basis.

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3 Replies to “A Conversation with a Syrian Refugee in Amsterdam

  1. This looks like a great place to meet and interact! I think it’s a shame that some politicians depict the “refugee crisis” as a pure “horror scenario” for Europe… there could be a lot of positivity/optimism gained in enabling these young people to start a new life! I don’t know how to express that in a better way – but anways: let’s hope for the best!!!

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