Monday, July 25, 2016

Inspired and uplifted I step into the street. Uplifted because of the many conversations, the sharing of Syrian, Indonesian and Surinamese food, and especially of hope. Willem Jansen of Initiatives of Change (IofC) describes dialogue as a magic word, a medicine. I experienced how true this is during an evening on 28 April in the IofC centre in The Hague on the theme: ‘My story, your story - is there a story we can share?’

Harsh words spoken about people seeking a safe haven in Europe, hurt me a lot. So much so, that I avoid watching the news. I can’t handle the images of hung pig carcasses and ransacked council meetings. Fear and hatred seem to prevail, while my heart overflows with the need to offer people a good home. The full hall on the 28th proved that I’m not the only one with these sentiments. That was the first discovery that made me feel uplifted.

Make the middle group visible and share positive stories!

Mohamid Sini, senior strategic advisor of the National Police, shared his story. ‘Because my father was welcomed here in the Netherlands as a refugee many years ago, he was able to bring his family over as well. Later in life he returned to Morocco in a dignified way.’ Sini stresses the importance of supporting the middle group in our society. At the moment our society seems split. You are either for or against the idea of refugees finding a home here, there is no middle ground. What you don't see in the media is the large number of people who have a much more nuanced view. Ransacked council meetings make the news, but not the neighbourhood vegetable gardens that I, together with refugees, created in Utrecht. Positive stories give us hope while images of protests spread fear. ‘We just hear too little good news,’ Jansen summarizes.

How to Have a Better Conversation

One method for creating both positive stories and better understanding the other, is through dialogue. Jansen knows all about this. He tells of his experiences in bringing people from different backgrounds together in The Hague. This city has the dubious distinction of being ‘the most segregated city in the Netherlands’. Getting people together and listening to each other can be really difficult, he knows from experience.

What helps Jansen and his team in their work is the The Dialogue Toolkit!  It is a free practical guide to help you build bridges in tense situations between people. It was developed by the INGO Conference of the Council of Europe, one of the three advisory bodies of the Council of Europe. 

And now the time for listening is over.

And what do you do?

We were asked to talk to someone in the room, whom we did not know. I look around me and see warm smiles, somewhat uncertain glances and open, friendly postures. I get  up and ask an elderly tall man if he wants to talk with me. He says yes (hurray!) and we walk to the couch in the back of the room. He is amazing. He teaches Dutch to refugees, and didn’t just offer a home to one, or two, but to three boys that fled to the Netherlands. He can’t really explain why, as helping in this way is so obvious for him. ‘My wife sometimes says, “but what is my part in it all?” While actually, she is the one that made the boys feel so much at home that we became a second set of parents for them.’

My second dialogue experience is also amazing. The half-Iraqi, half Dutch woman has such an open attitude that we can't stop talking. We discover differences and similarities by answering questions about our Dutch identity.  She also shares many stories about how she helps refugees through her work at 'Plan Nederland'.

A veil was lifted! 

Sadly, our one-on-one conversations have to stop, because the evening is drawing to a close. I am clearly not the only one who is excited and uplifted.‘It feels like a veil was lifted and I was able to look into somebody else's life’. ‘I would love to experience more of this!’  And, ‘I think we will exchange email addresses’ are reactions from the participants. Sini closes the evening: ‘Dialogue is a beautiful word and a solution to many problems. Especially if you respect the person you are talking to and let go of your judgement.’

Dialogue really seems to be a magic word. For the first time in years I look into the eyes of my fellow train passengers before I sit to join them. The train leaves and I’m dreaming about the warmth I felt during and after the conversations at Initiatives of Change. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could feel this warmth all the time?

Merel Segers

Merel Segers is an Independent Professional in the field of Sustainability Analysis & Communication. She collects and shares positive news.