Rotterdam – right in the middle

NETHERLANDS. Despite a mayor with a migrant background, a close look at Rotterdam reveals a city torn between right wing parties and organizations for migrants. But a closer look shows that everyone is aiming for the same goal.

Dawn lights the red-brick houses of Rotterdam with a shivery sun, sending the second biggest city of the Netherlands to another routine day. The streets are quiet and neat. The atmosphere is peaceful, almost mystical. However, under the surface there is war going on: the city of Rotterdam is waking up to another day of struggle about its identity.

Around 600.000 people live in the city, almost half of them having a migration background. The mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, is a Muslim migrant from Morocco. A short walk in the urban streets reveals a simple fact: Rotterdam is a very multicultural city. But recently, many voices claiming that multiculturalism doesn’t work have started to appear, pointing out the failures of the system.

Youth organizations

One of these voices is Ronald Sorensen, the chairman of Leefbaar Rotterdam, a local party whose support is rapidly increasing. “Multiculturalism failed completely”, Sorensen says. “As a teacher, I witnessed in my school that the pupils were divided by ethnical groups.” He admits that he is afraid the Muslim culture will become the dominant one in Rotterdam, but at the same time, he makes clear with a decisive tone that he is not against Muslims but against a lack of integration, especially among youngsters with a migration background.

Many organizations in Rotterdam work with those youngsters, trying to integrate them into society. As a matter of fact, Rotterdam is the European Youth Capital of 2009. Lotte Gunveld, a local 19-year-old student participates in one of these many projects: “We have had problems with migrants, but the city spent a lot of money trying to solve them, and now they have decreased.”

Sorensen believes money is the key to understanding the failure of integration. “All those organizations working with the youth don’t try to solve the problem, they like to keep it going because they are making money out of it.” He has no problem to be more direct: “They get huge salaries, and that is a kind of corruption. Schools are the institutes who should integrate migrants into society.”

The muslim migrants

Not far away from the offices of Leefbaar Rotterdam stands SPIOR, an umbrella organization for all Islamic organizations in the Rotterdam region. Marianne Vorthoren, the policy officer of SPIOR, converted to Islam ten years ago. “We hold a lot of dialogue meetings, and I myself am involved in several projects in the field of empowering women”, she says. “We have for example a project against forced marriages or social isolation of Muslim women.”

Vorthoren denies the term integration. Rather she prefers to use the term participation. In her opinion, the way to make migration work is by creating participating citizens who contribute to the community. “We are supporting the younger generation to participate, to speak Dutch, to vote in the elections, to be involved in Dutch society.”

Ironically, Sorensen agrees to most of those things. Besides objecting to forced marriage, he also notices three elements of integration which are quite similar to those of SPIOR: respecting the law, speaking Dutch and finding a job. “As long as these conditions are being met, Muslim migrants can preserve their culture.” He takes the Chinese immigrants as an example: “They are not depending on the welfare system, they don’t get involved with the police and they speak Dutch, and that is the reason no one is having problems with Chinese migrants.”

A matter of attitude

The need for integration or participation is not the only thing Sorensen and Vorthhoren agree on. The local elections will be held in March, and everyone thinks that the results of the upcoming elections will determine the future of migration in the city. Well, almost everyone. “There is no such thing as racism”, says Farid, a migrant from Lebanon. “Ronald Sorensen is Norwegian, he is not Dutch, so he can’t be racist”, adds Farid and implies it is all just a political show.

The sun sets over the horizon. Evening falls on Rotterdam, as another day of identity struggle comes to an end. But what is the struggle all about? Both sides, left wing and right wing, want the same thing: more integration of migrants into society. Is it really just a political show?

Perhaps the important issue in this fight is not the final goal, but the way to get there. Leefbaar Rotterdam suggests harsher rules and a much more strict approach in order to achieve integration. SPIOR are trying it the other way, promoting participation in society by teaching about moderate values and being involved in the community. At the end of the day, the difference is in the attitude. “He might have a point”, says Gunveld about Sorensen, “but the way he tries to do something about it is wrong.”

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