Meet the Amsterdammer of the Year who provides a safe space for immigrants' kids
- 28 May 2019
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It started, literally, with a study room. Amsterdam’s New-West has a large population of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants with large families living in small apartments. In 2011, Abdelhamid Idrissi set up a room here for children who needed a safe space to study and, more importantly, the attention they lacked at home.
Eight years later, the 29-year-old has been named “Amsterdammer of the Year” for his organisation Studiezalen, which translates as “study rooms”. The annual award honours an Amsterdammer who has helped their neighbourhood and city through their work.
Abdelhamid grew up in one of the neighbourhoods that he now serves. He says that most people in the area have little or no education, are often in high debt and feel disenfranchised from Dutch society; as a result, they are distrustful of the government, and the children growing up in these enclaves are vulnerable to problems at school and on the street.
“My parents aren’t educated, but I received a lot of love and support from them,” Abdelhamid told My Salaam. “My father, who placed a lot of emphasis on education, didn’t allow me to work even at 22 years as he wanted me to finish my education.”
Thanks to the parental support, Abdelhamid qualified as a structural engineer. Other children from the neighbourhood aren’t so fortunate. In cramped quarters, they have no quiet space for schoolwork, and they often drop out of school at the prospect of earning a bit of money. “When you grow up in poverty, €1,000 seems like a lot,” he said.
When he got a job at a local supermarket chain, he was appointed team leader of a group of teenagers. He soon realised that he was good at connecting with these young people and quickly became a mentor to them. “I’d coach them on how to be respectful, to follow professional etiquette, like calling if they weren’t coming to work. I also heard from them about their problems: bullying, parental debts and so on.”
He started volunteering in the neighbourhood and soon caught the attention of the local government. They asked him to launch something for school children as there was a high rate of dropouts, obesity and street crime amongst the youth of New-West.
Studiezalen now has 30 locations in the city, and 650 primary and middle schoolchildren attend for free every week. They have 52 volunteers, ranging from retired surgeons, to grandparents, to volunteers from private companies. Idrissi also has eight paid employees qualified in pedagogy.
Nesrien Idleb, who has volunteered at Studiezalen for a few years, told us that he values the “family feel” of the study rooms. “I want to help the youth from my neighbourhood to overcome the obstacles that I’ve faced when I was their age. I had a brother and sister who were educated, so when I had a question or I needed their help with something, they could help me. A lot of the children from my neighbourhood don’t have this type of ‘backup’. From my own experience, I have learned that a little help direction can hugely influence one’s educational career.”
The Amsterdammer of the Year award has drawn a lot of positive attention to Studiezalen and has helped with funding for the organisation. Abdelhamid has also had audience with lawmakers looking to understand the underlying issues of the youth in the New-West. He, in turn, can explain how seemingly insignificant issues can have a huge impact.
Boxer shorts, for example. Abdelhamid explained to us that the community believes (wrongly) that electricity is cheaper during the weekend. As a result, laundry is done only once a week, on Sundays. Good-quality cotton underwear is expensive, so many boys get their only pair of underwear washed just once a week. They are so self-consciousness about their dirty underwear that they often avoid school.
“The children here have better school scores, but it is difficult to measure the impact on them when they receive help with their personal difficulties,” Abdelhamid said. Nonetheless, he added, when they receive the attention they need, it does help their self-esteem, their academic record and, by extension, their chances in life.
(Writing by Susan Muthalaly; Editing by Seban Scaria firstname.lastname@example.org)
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