Jong Rast is a theatre project for young people of different cultural backgrounds in Amsterdam West, one of the capital’s many multicultural neighbourhoods. For years the members of the theatre company have worked together as a team. Cultural differences are not ignored – if anything they are often accentuated.
Integration in Holland
Through the centuries, immigrants have come to live in the Netherlands and have assimilated to a great extent.
Portuguese Jews of the 15th century, European-Indonesian migrants who came after World War Two are examples. They learned the Dutch language and customs and passed these on to their children. Not only did they transform themselves, they also changed the society around them, influencing the speech, cuisine and many other aspects of Dutch culture. As this transformation was happening, few took notice.
Today this is very different. As immigrants adapt to Dutch society, the process is being studied as if under a microscope. Academic researchers, politicians and journalists are continuously observing and commenting on integration.
Some paint a negative picture of today's immigrant: preferring the burqa to blue jeans, couscous to cabbage and potatoes. Unwilling or unable to learn Dutch, taking little on board and offering little in return to the culture.
Naturally this is a narrow view, though it's clear the differences between Dutch and immigrant cultures are a source of conflict. Integration can be a painful - and painfully slow - process. As it continues, Radio Netherlands Worldwide explores some of the problems encountered, and the solutions offered, on the path to integration.
The company’s director is Elike Roovers. She says it is not easy to get young people from such diverse backgrounds to work together. However, she manages to turn this into an advantage. “You wouldn’t have a production without conflicts. I see the differences as an enrichment. The world is a better place if we can hear stories from different perspectives. If we keep on hearing the same old story then our lives become really monotonous.”
After Elike Roovers gives a signal the young actors start running towards each other in a zig-zag pattern as quickly as possible without bumping into one another. It is one way of learning how to cooperate and avoid conflict.
The goal of the project for youngsters between the ages of 15 and 24 is to find promising young actors from various cultural backgrounds who can relay their own experiences from different perspectives. The actors end up writing their own stories. Jong Rast holds auditions and also recruits actors at schools.
Although the debate on integration in the Netherlands often leads to tension and an aggressive tone, the members of Jong Rast (from Surinamese, Antillean, Moroccan and ethnic Dutch backgrounds) get along exceptionally well. Sufyen (22), who is Dutch and has a Moroccan background says:
“Everyone here has one passion: acting. We don’t care if people are black or white, what kind of clothes they wear or if a girl does or does not wear a headscarf.”
That is not to say that the problems of the outside world never enter the safe surroundings of the theatre. There was a discussion after Mohammed Bouyeri (a fanatic Muslim) killed Dutch film director and columnist Theo van Gogh in 2004.
The coordinator of Jong Rast, Elif Uzun, says: “When Theo van Gogh was assassinated we decided to meet. We asked what the consequences of the killing were for them personally and what they thought about it. Because they seriously discuss such issues with each other they become closer. We do not ignore sensitive issues.”
Sulayma (15) a Dutch girl of Moroccan origin has been with Jong Rast for two years. She has made a number of good friends there. Her best male friend is Dutch. Her best girlfriend is Surinamese.
”After a few months we were one big family. The other members visit me at home. What I really like is that we don’t form separate groups. And that’s the way it should stay. It does not matter if you wear a headscarf or not.”