“180amsterdammers” is a marketing campaign launched by the city of Amsterdam that focuses on the variety of nationalities that inhabit it. “This story began in the 17th century”, Nico Mulder, creator and coordinator of the initiative for the municipality, told SIR. “Amsterdam was among the world’s greatest cities. It welcomed people from world countries because here they found a good place to live, and to trade, and they felt free to express and practice their beliefs.” Open borders have always been greatly valued in The Netherlands: “Without that mentality we wouldn’t have experienced the prosperity we enjoy today.” The city’s specific feature was preserved throughout the centuries. “Three years ago we discovered that our inhabitants belong to 180 different nationalities, so we decided to enhance this feature and boost citizens’ pride over this special aspect.” 180 people, each representing a different Country, accepted to be photographed and to share their story of integration. Mulder assured that no selection was made. In fact the stories are very different from one another, all of them successful. The protagonists are Jampara, a musician from Burundi, Fathia, an Egyptian dentist, Sarah, a social worker from Wales, Monan, from the Ivory Coast, who takes care of old people, Khadeeja from the Maldives who works as a shop assistant … “We sought a balance between the young and the old, men and women, from different social classes and with different incomes.”
New “ambassadors”. “We faced some problems in terms of unrecognized nationalities, such as Tibet and Palestine. But we ultimately decided to include everyone in our project, leaving them free to present themselves as they are.”
Some were unwilling to share their personal stories and be photographed. They were reluctant because they didn’t want to “gain publicity.” “A woman from Butan had accepted but her husband didn’t allow her to participate.”
None of them have been paid. They were just thanked with free tickets for museums, exhibitions, a free ride on the canals, or a book. The stories and the pictures have been collected in a book. They can also be viewed online in Dutch and English (www.180amsterdammers.nl). The project is featured in an exhibition, alongside with the advertising campaign. These people became “the ambassadors of the city.” They are regularly invited to attend public events and meetings. The project will be extended “in order to continue sharing this richness.” Another book will feature recipes from 180 world countries. The ambassadors will take part in a set of events planned for the year 2017, while the cities of Lisbon, Athens and New York have shown an interest to “copy” the project.
Election and xenophobia. Is Amsterdam the Garden of Eden of integration? Mulder doesn’t hide the problems. For example, there is a large Moroccan and Turkish community that arrived in the 1960s, employed in hard labour – and low income – sectors, with a view to obtaining temporary residence permits. “In the end they stayed on, but they were never fully integrated, nor did they learn the language, while the government failed to understand the importance of supporting their integration into society. Their children were raised here, but with different horizons and values”, Mulder said, proudly emphasizing that:
“Here integration is successful, especially when compared to the rest of the Netherlands or Europe.”
What about Geert Wilders, founder of the populist, xenophobic Freedom Party, passionately involved in the ongoing election campaign for the 15 March election in the Country? “The populist movement isn’t only confined to The Netherlands. It involves all contemporary societies”, he explained. What are your forecasts for March 15 elections? “In our city a person like Wilders has no chances to win. Indeed, some will vote for him, and I’m afraid he will gain many votes, but not here. Here we experience multi-cultural coexistence. We know that we can all benefit from each other’s presence, that there can be a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Christian, a Hindu, living together. We see it happen every day. Restaurants feature dishes from world countries. There are places of worship for the believers of all world faiths.” Then what’s the secret? “I think that people fall into two categories: those open to change and those who want everything to remain as it is. Amsterdam’s inhabitants are used to openness and change.”
The experience of the Catholic community. Dea Broersen, coordinator of three deaneries in the diocese, reconfirmed the validity of the 180amsterdammers project along with the special features of the city of Amsterdam. “Amsterdam is a beautiful city where many different cultures, religions and people live together in peace. It has a special energy that extends beyond religious affiliation. In fact there is widespread tolerance towards diversity as such.” However, she pointed out,
“In terms of integration, there are different levels, as occurs everywhere. We can’t say it’s a full success. And I think there are supporters of Wilders here too. It’s not an ideal garden where everyone is happy and integrated.”
Broersen made a small suggestion to improve the project perceived as slightly “self-referential”, and with a partial view compared to the complexities of reality. In fact it would be preferable to envisage “how this success could be transmitted to less fortunate people”; namely to immigrants afflicted by poverty, to the socially excluded, those living on the margins of society and fallen into the grips of organized crime.