“Maastricht is part of my identity, just like Aleppo once was”

“Maastricht is part of my identity, just like Aleppo once was”

Sphinx debate on diversity in Maastricht

21-03-2022

MAASTRICHT. Who may call themselves a ‘Maastrichtenaar’? What is it that makes you feel at home in a city? Is everyone equally welcome? On Tuesday evening in the Muziekgieterij, the second debate in the series Who does the city belong to?, organised by the debating centre Sphinx, was about diversity in Maastricht.

“Who in the hall feels like a ‘Maastrichtenaar’,” panel member Abakoula Argalaless, founder of the foundation that wants to improve living circumstances in Niger, asks the audience. He does, he has just said. “I have lived here for 29 years, I married a woman from Maastricht and work for a Maastricht awning company.” But is he also regarded as a Maastrichtenaar, panel chairman Sander Kleikers asks? “I hope so. Although I must say, I never had any regrets that we gave the children my surname, until my daughter went looking for a room here. Time and time again, she was turned down until she started to use her mother’s surname.”

Back to the hall where a handful of people have stood up. “You were in doubt,” Kleikers addresses a woman. “Why?” “I have lived in so many places, I feel like a world citizen.” Panel member Hoseb Assadour, who came to the Netherlands as a refugee in 2015 and works as a dental hygienist, recognises this. “I also feel more like a cosmopolite than Armenian or Syrian.” That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel connected to the city. “Maastricht is part of my identity, just like Aleppo once was.”

Feeling at home

To feel at home, Assadour needs to feel safe. What does that mean for him? “That bombs are not dropping on my head. First the basic needs have to be met: safety, food, water, a roof over your head. Then you can continue to build further: friends, a job.” For Akudo McGee, PhD student at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Maastricht, language and security are important. “I still sometimes feel like a stranger, because I cannot completely express myself in Dutch. And my visa runs out in two years’ time. If I can’t find a new job, I will have to return to the United States, where I am from, or to Nigeria, where my family is from. That is why everything – my apartment, my friends – feel temporary.”

Pigeonholes

Belgian-Japanese photographer Tetsuro Miyazaki is interested in how we perceive each other. “It is normal to have expectations, to put a person in a pigeonhole. But we do need to be aware of the consequences of this behaviour, certainly when we try to keep someone in that pigeonhole.” For his exhibition Expats x Migrants – to be seen in bus shelters throughout the city – he photographed people from Maastricht with different backgrounds and asks the viewer: what do you see, a migrant or an expat?

“Afterwards, we took to the streets to ask the question while filming,” says Miyazaki. “A lot of people say: I see a human being. But there are definitely differences. If you don’t admit that, you don’t admit that people are treated differently and that problems arise from that. Embrace the differences and enter into conversations without judgement.”

The latter appears to be difficult at times. Clients at work often address Argalaless in English. “While all foreign people who come to the Netherlands have to learn the language – that is the system.” He feels that you can work on the basis that if someone is working here, that person went through the procedure. “So start with Dutch.”

Feeling heard

What can the city do better, is the question after the break. In the meantime, Constance Sommerey, diversity officer at the UM, and Nathalie Ummels, co-ordinator of Mondiaal Maastricht and project leader of Refugee Project Maastricht, have joined too. Having a diverse population is not enough, says Sommerey. “People need to feel heard, but you want to go a step further: that people join in the conversation.” That is not always easy – (foreign) students, for example, won’t be quick to stand as a candidate for the city council elections; after all, they often leave after they have completed their studies. “The individuals leave, but the student population continues to exist,” says Sommerey. “How can you ensure that their voices are still heard?”

“I look at the world through white glasses and carry a white backpack of experience with me,” says Ummels. “I think I am doing really well when I am friendly and try to help someone. But I still determine the standard, I have that person come to me. It is up to us to reduce the distance. I was in the MECC yesterday while a Ukrainian family was being interviewed. They were lovingly helped, but there was no interpreter. This is an example of how the system sometimes fails, even though the individual tries to make the best of things. We all need to look at this.”

Acceptance

Start young, says Assadour. “Recently, during a workshop, a child asked if I was a refugee and whether he could touch me. Afterwards he said: ‘You are real.’ We need to increase acceptance, which can be done by focusing on it at schools. Have the discussion with educationalists and teachers. Things are already happening, but it is not enough. If you now do something once a year, make that ten times. Then maybe in fifty years’ time, discussions like these will no longer be necessary.”

McGee thinks that having more contact would help. “When I am with friends with different backgrounds and different skin colours, it is not about what you can and can’t say. Then you can ask everything and say everything.” Conversations start from equality, says Miyazaki too. “Accept that we are different, but that we are also equal in this. In a workshop, I get people to stick seven labels on themselves. Those with the same label have to stand together. We start with a single label, then everyone is on their own island. But as soon as more labels are added, more connections arise. We are not just one label.”

This was the second debate in a series of four on the theme Who does the city belong to?. The next meeting will be about petitions; a date has not yet been set. All debates (in Dutch) can be re-watched via debating centre Sphinx’s Facebook page.

Author: Cleo Freriks

Still: from the livestream on Facebook

Tags: diversity, debate,sphinx,maastricht,studentandcity,international students

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