Fr Sjaak de Boer mhm is the priest-in-charge of the International Parish of Christ Our Saviour in The Hague. At his and deacon Paul Falke’s initiative the parish community has devised a project of encounter with migrants and refugees. Jan Maasen, one of the parishioners reports:
The ‘Share the journey’ campaign by Caritas Internationalis aims to promote a ‘culture of encounter’ between migrants, refugees and local communities. The four verbs from Pope Francis’ Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees of this year play a major role in this: welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating. How do you do that in practice? The B-COS Hand in Hand Project of the international English-speaking Parish Church of Our Savior in The Hague provides a good example.
When the project was set up in 2015, there was still no question of this campaign.
But the ‘culture of encounter’ is well recognizable in it.
“The B-COS Hand in Hand project is primarily aimed at supporting status holders in the Netherlands, and in The Hague in particular,” says Anthony Heinsbroek, who has been one of the coordinators since last autumn. “The key word we use here is ‘hospitality’. It is not only about an open, welcoming and involved basic attitude, or the willingness to allow refugees to share in our own prosperity and privileges, It is also about protecting and promoting the freedom of the guests (the refugees) here, by helping them build a new life here independently, based on their own talents and dreams. ”
The reason for setting up this project was the large flow of refugees to Europe in the autumn of 2015. In addition, the parish wanted to raise its voice against the increasing fear and intolerance towards ‘the refugee’ and ‘the stranger’ in general. Heinsbroek: “The fact that within the Church of Our Savior the enthusiasm for the project arose so quickly, is probably also due to the international character of the parish, which has 95 nationalities, many of whom are expats: they work at head offices of multinationals, at international organizations or at embassies. Although often privileged in a material sense, they are familiar with the feeling of strangeness and uprooting, and recognize the greater value of hospitality and community. ”
In addition, the parish has seen an increase in the number of young Dutch people with a foreign partner in recent years. Heinsbroek himself worked in Africa for three years and therefore knows from personal experience what it means to live in a country where you do not speak your mother tongue. The Church of Our Savior is a thriving parish, where more than 1000 people celebrate Eucharist every week and almost 50 work groups are active.
The initiative for the project came from pastor Sjaak de Boer mhm (Mill Hill Missionary) and deacon Paul Falke. They made a call for volunteers. The response was great. At the first session there were 40 people, at the second session 35. Most of them were expats, who did not speak Dutch themselves. The refugees do not want to learn English, but Dutch. The group therefore became smaller.
In that session, Vluchtelingenwerk provided information about refugees, what they experienced in their own country and on the road, what they expect here, what they have experienced in the Netherlands during the asylum procedure and that they are becoming very sceptical. They constantly get the message: “You may have to go back to your country.”
The B-COS Hand in Hand project ultimately resulted from this session. The existing Justice and Peace working group has taken care of the project and made it its most important activity. The project focuses on status holders in The Hague. These are mainly Syrians and Eritreans. The parish wants to help them integrate into society. Not through an integration course, but through practical activities in which the meeting between people is central.
First of all, this is reflected in the buddy project. Refugees are individually welcomed by people from the parish to talk, cook, take a trip, etc. together – so to discover the many facets of Dutch society in a low-threshold way. Initially a contract was signed in cooperation with Vluchtelingenwerk for this component: the buddy will do something with the refugee for at least two hours once every two weeks during a period of six months. Now we work directly with the refugees without a contract.
Then we also offer weekly Dutch lessons, so-called ‘conversation lessons’, which are given by volunteers from the parish with a background in education.
Small groups of refugees come to the parish itself to meet with each other and with the teacher, to become proficient in Dutch conversation practice. Learning and workbooks are subordinate to the concrete encounter and the ‘common-sense’ aspect of language as communication.
Finally, a number of activities are organized that make a more symmetrical exchange between volunteers and refugees possible, with random activities and shared interests. This could be, for example, a visit to the Dream Factory of Omar Munie, a former refugee who has become a fashion icon and is very busy with the refugee themes or visits to the Lower House of Parliament, the Gemeentemuseum, Panorama Mesdag or the library. Sometimes they also make bike tours or a bus tour together. Also popular are the monthly international cooking evenings in the parish center with the title ‘Soul Kitchen’. Taking a meal together is very important for mutual meeting.
In the beginning, the refugees were mainly supplied by Vluchtelingenwerk for these activities. Nowadays, refugees who participate in an activity bring along other refugees, e.g. to a meal.
Why has the parish set up this activity? Heinsbroek: “We think that it is very important to create a sanctuary in the Catholic Church where refugees can go whatever their cultural or religious background, where they can really be themselves, no strings attached. We want to form a community with these refugees, in both the painful or vulnerable and the pleasurable aspects of human existence, without this having to be accompanied by a religious-moral justification. That is to say: obviously we cannot separate this commitment from our own Christian inspiration, but the refugees are free to pick the fruits of that inspiration in their own unique way. This freedom has a very strong effect on the people we receive here in our parish buildings: it makes them much more receptive and also enables them to give something of themselves. give. ”