A Different World for Refugees in the Netherlands


In February, our field coordinator Martina participated in a study visit through the “Amsterdam – Athens: Building capacity for supporting refugees”, run by the Bodossakis Foundation. Campfire Innovation and three other organisations (We Need Books,Social Hackers Academy, Starfish Foundation) from Greece visited organisations active in Amsterdam. This is an account of her impressions.

We expected that the situation in Amsterdam would be very different from the situation in Athens, but what we saw and heard exceeded even our great expectations. It was a peek to another world. I will introduce them all and give a brief summary of what they each do. The main takeaways for me were:

The power of language to promote inclusion

Immediately, I noticed the different terminology that all the organisations and volunteers use in Amsterdam. In Greece, we have struggled with finding terms that would be dignified, and have generally used terms ranging from “asylum seekers” and “refugees” to “POCs” and “beneficiaries”. The term used in the Netherlands is “newcomer”. It is a great example of a respectful term that doesn’t bring the usual stigma with it. Similarly, many initiatives focus on combating stigma and stereotypes.

Movement on the Ground is an initiative active not only in Amsterdam but also in Lesvos. In Amsterdam, they manage the Movement Hotel, whose workers are refugees. In addition to offering employment, the Movement Hotel is a great fundraising and awareness tool for Movement on the Ground. This organisation also ran a campaign to show how small the differences between locals and newcomers are: headshots of locals and newcomers were displayed throughout the hotel.

Makers Unite is a new social enterprise focused on inclusion through co-design and co-creation. Newcomers and locals congregate in the community space, get to know each other and create products that are then sold to the public. The space and products offer an opportunity for raising awareness, building trust and a sense of belonging, and creating social networks. Recently there has been an article from The Guardian.

Building on an existing structure

The close collaboration between local authorities, large, established NGOs and grassroots initiatives was impressive. Basic services are provided by the state, so other actors can easily build upon existing efforts and clear referral pathways are in place. Since there is no urgent worry concerning accommodation and food, the activities run by organisations that we visited included giving newcomers access to studies, assisting them with finding or creating jobs and especially enabling them to create networks—both professional and social—by introducing them to locals and encouraging collaborative projects.

Inmybackyard is a new grassroots initiative that focuses on giving newcomers access to a network by building social networks within the community. Newcomers and locals can register and, when there are enough people registered in a neighborhood, monthly meetings are established so that people can gather, cook together, and get to know each other.

Another one of the established NGOs that provides newcomers with a niche but necessary service is the Foundation for Refugee Students -Stichting voor Vluchteling-Studenten UAF, which counsels refugees in pursuing their studies and gives them study stipends. The organisation also provides alternatives based on needs in the labor market to people for whom studying might not be the best option.

Connecting to the corporate world

An example of collaboration between grassroots and companies isRefugee Talent Hub, an organisation that aims to change the national perspective of newcomers from burdens to talents. One of its core activities is its digital platform for matching talents with employment and balancing the gaps between skills and labor market openings. Networking is crucial to success, so Refugee Talent Hub acts as a liaison between companies and newcomers. Paul, himself a migrant living in the Netherlands for many years now, was one of the most inspirational people that I’ve met in in Amsterdam.

Refugee Company is another grassroots initiative that empowers refugees by connecting them to work opportunities. They also run various social enterprises, including a cafe and restaurant called A Beautiful Mess, which helps to build corporate partnerships and professional trainings, and a tailor atelier and design lab, which sells its products to the public. They collaborate with many other grassroots organisations and help newcomers create their own networks.


Even in the Netherlands not everything is perfect

There are still gaps in the system for more basic needs and smaller organisations are displaying their creativity in fulfilling them. This is where I saw the most similarities with Greece’s civil society initiatives.

Takecarebnb is a grassroots organisation focused on hosting people in need of accommodation, which was especially important during the Autumn of 2015. The organisation has its role even now, as people wait in the reception center for accommodation from the municipality or at other difficult moments when they need some extra support. This organisation’s principal activity is matching hosting families with newcomers. A byproduct of this activity is its raising of awareness and its ability to help newcomers create a social network.

Finally,Veranders is the last organisation that we visited. It’s a community center for locals, older migrants and refugee, and newcomers that reminded Greek community centers a bit more. The approach of this community center is to be a very practical educational center that provides courses for professions with bicycle, clothing, and tools workshops but also space where people take initiative and organise their own projects.

Yet, challenges still remain. One of the biggest challenges that newcomers face is the language barrier. They have to reach certain level of Dutch language proficiency within 3 years. The tool that is used to motivate newcomers to fulfill this requirement is a financial loan for the lessons that is forgiven if the language exam is passed. If the language exam is not passed, however, the newcomer finds himself in a foreign country with a debt. Various organisations are concerned about this and searching for solutions.


The visit confirmed that grassroots initiatives and efforts are indispensable to the refugees response, even in a country with an established and functioning reception process for asylum seekers. The innovation that these small and smart organisations have brought to their field is immense.  Even though it’s not possible to draw direct comparisons between the opportunities and challenges of refugee and grassroots organisations in the Netherlands and Greece, there are still many commonalities.

The general conclusion of this trip is something that is at the core of Campfire Innovation’s mission, that networking and collaboration is necessary across sectors. We have a long way to go to reach effective collaboration in Greece between more formal actors and the informal response of the civil society. The right kind of channels of communication and a lot of trust need to be built for this to happen.

(The programme is part of a partnership between the Municipality of Athens and the Municipality of Amsterdam - Campfire Innovation has taken part in the capacity building programme offering the opportunity to staff / volunteers of initiatives working to support the needs of refugees in Greece to attend a 3-day training in Athens conducted by experts from the Dutch Council for Refugees -VluchtelingenWerk Nederland. They led sessions regarding fundraising techniques & proposal writing; campaigning & advocacy skills; volunteer management & approaches for addressing staff & volunteer burnout. Campfire Innovation along with other grassroots organisations, also participated in a 3-day study trip to Amsterdam, where they had the opportunity to visit and conduct meetings with various NGOs which have developed good practices in working with refugees.)