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OPINION: Mind your words

OPINION: Mind your words

About a month ago a young American, Jennifer Kamorowski, entered this university as PhD researcher at the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience. She found that, living in the Netherlands, you have to have health insurance. You apply for it, at CZ, and get a letter back. In het Nederlands. Yes, in Dutch. Should immigrants be accommodated?

I recently had an “immigrant experience" -  a situation in which I felt ashamed for not speaking Dutch. In the Netherlands, obtaining health insurance is compulsory, and I diligently completed the online application for the CZ insurance plan offered through the university (with the help of Google translate). I received a letter from CZ, written in Dutch. I patiently and carefully typed the text of the letter into Google Translate and learned I must submit a copy of my residence permit and information from the IND (Immigration and Naturalisation Service). Easy enough.

In a mixed group of Dutch nationals and people from other countries, I was lamenting the fact that I had to retype the letter to understand it because I don’t (yet) speak or read the Dutch language. I jokingly noted that perhaps CZ would be clued in to this fact given that they were asking for documents from the IND. One person spoke up and asked, “Why is that their problem?” Somewhat taken aback, I acknowledged that clearly my language barrier is not the problem of the insurance company. The person went on to make sure I understood that I moved to this country and should not expect to be accommodated because I don’t speak the language.

CZ is the insurance company for UM employees, which boasts about 40% of academic staff from countries other than the Netherlands. Is it reasonable to expect that a person who only recently arrived in the country speak Dutch? Would it be unreasonable for UM employees to request communication from CZ in a language other than Dutch? Maybe yes, maybe no. There are many ways to communicate that immigrants are welcome (or not) in the workplace - words are only one.

While what I experienced was very minor, in that moment I felt shamed in front of the group, and it made me think about the lack of understanding and empathy faced by millions of immigrants around the world who are trying their best to adjust. Language is frequently used as a basis for nationalist arguments to exclude immigrants altogether, which echoes in the sentiment that immigrants "expect" to be "accommodated." Is a language barrier really the basis upon which we want to judge the intent of our fellow human beings? It's a small leap from justifying poor treatment based on a language difference to excluding immigrants based on race, ethnicity, or religion.

UM is a widely diverse community – that is one of the characteristics that makes it a special place. People arrive here from around the world whose first language is not Dutch, nor even English. Yet we find a way to overcome and acculturate, often with a little help from our friends. There are many challenges immigrants face living in a new country, and hopefully our efforts to adapt to a new culture will be seen as more important than our (in)ability to speak Dutch. Dank je wel!

Jennifer Kamorowski

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