Immigration Challenges Dutch Society
By Eugene Robinson
What distinguishes Southeast is its status as home to the Netherlands' heaviest concentration of immigrants from the former Dutch colony Suriname, on the Atlantic shoulder of South America men and women like Murzius, 54, who was a government security agent back home and now works at a community center.
Nearly 300,000 strong by most estimates, the Surinamese in Southeast and similar neighborhoods in the Netherlands' other big cities pose questions that the nation like other rich countries throughout the world is urgently struggling to answer: In a white European country, can these nonwhite newcomers ever truly blend into the national identity? Can they ever become truly Dutch?
Or is it another process that takes place: Is the host society fundamentally changed by their presence, like it or not?
For Murzius, the answers are complex. "I am still Surinamese," he said on first reflection. But later, he added: "The Dutch don't see me as an outsider." Then later: "Holland is a white country. ... The Dutch are your friends, but they still tell you, in effect, 'You can approach to this point, but no further.' "
And finally: "I think we are changing Holland."
These questions of assimilation are increasingly important, not only here in the Netherlands but in the rest of Europe and much of the industrialized world. Rich countries that once were overwhelmingly white have suddenly become much more racially diverse, mostly due to a flood of immigrants from poorer countries former colonial subjects, refugees from war zones, economic migrants looking for opportunity, "guest workers" who will do the jobs that natives find unsavory.
The transition has often been wrenching. Some native-born residents see the complexion of their country changing before their eyes, feel the culture shifting beneath their feet, and become resentful. Many immigrants feel unappreciated and unwelcome, seeing the attempt to fit into their new societies as a constant struggle.
The question of a nation's sense of itself is particularly important in the Netherlands, Germany and other European countries, where nationality has long been based on shared ethnicity, shared "blood" unlike the United States or Canada, for example, which view themselves as nations of immigrants. The fact of increasing diversity can be seen in the World Cup soccer tournament, where European powers have fielded teams full of black and brown immigrant stars.
The major wave of Surinamese immigrants came here in the years just before and just after Suriname which the Dutch had obtained from the British in 1667 in a swap for Manhattan island was granted its independence in 1975. Virtually all are Dutch citizens, and only a few have left the Netherlands to go home.
As former colonial subjects, the Surinamese grew up speaking Dutch and were taught Dutch history in schools back home. These cultural factors should perhaps be expected to ease their transition into Dutch society, and indeed socioeconomic indicators bear this out: In income, employment and general prospects, the Surinamese rank well ahead of the Turks and the Moroccans.
But they rank well behind the native-born Dutch. "Our situation is certainly not hopeless, but it's certainly not as good as it could be," said John Khodabux, an official with an advocacy group for Surinamese immigrants called SSA. "We have Surinamese doctors, lawyers, judges, but at the same time we have a lot of problems. ... We have a kind of middle position."
Still, many Surinamese say they believe they have carved out a permanent place in Dutch society. Along the way, they say, they have had to adapt but they say they believe they have also altered the society permanently.
"When I came over here, Holland was a very gray country," Khodabux said. "I think we've made it colorful in a lot of ways."
The Surinamese immigrants in the Netherlands are themselves a multiethnic mix, as full of diverse ingredients as the gumbo-like soup served each Thursday afternoon at the center where Murzius works. Many are descended from African slaves, many others from immigrant merchants and workers who came to Suriname from India, Pakistan, China or the former Dutch islands that now constitute Indonesia.
They have in common that none looks like the stereotypical blond, big-boned, apple-cheeked Dutch.
In an average middle-class neighborhood called Bos en Lommer, on Amsterdam's west side, Muslim women in head scarves wheel baby carriages on the street while men chat in Turkish and Arabic and children of Surinamese heritage nip into a corner takeout after school. A lane between two huge apartment blocks is named Akbarstraat Akbar Street. Travel agencies tout low-cost package deals to Istanbul, Rabat and the Surinamese capital, Paramaribo.
Nationwide, about one-sixth of the children in Dutch schools are from immigrant groups. In Bos en Lommer and similar neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of newcomers, the percentage of immigrant children goes to one-third or even higher.
The Netherlands prides itself on being an open, tolerant society, duty-bound to offer generosity in the form of ample welfare benefits to those in need. These traditions run deep, and most Dutch say they welcome the newcomers. Dutch politicians who try to play the xenophobia card, as Jean-Marie Le Pen has done so successfully in France, have had little success.
Yet it is not at all hard to find Dutch who believe all this openness and all this largess have gone much too far.
"This is not my country anymore," said Elisabeth Kuiper, a retiree who was out buying flowers with her husband Hendrik one recent morning in Bos en Lommer.
"More and more and more of these people are coming. There are more black than white now in the schools," she said, using "black" to mean virtually all who are not ethnically Dutch. "I say they should stop it. It's already too much. But they keep coming."
A talk with the Kuipers in their tidy, antique-filled apartment offers a glimpse of how racial stereotypes begin to form and take hold. First, they volunteer that the immigrants they know personally the Surinamese man who lives upstairs, the refugee from the former Yugoslavia who lives next door are "beautiful people," in Elisabeth Kuiper's words. But the others, the ones they see on the streets, the ones they do not know, especially the Moroccans and the Turks those immigrants, to the Kuipers, are baffling and more than a little frightening.
"The crime is so bad, we don't go on the streets at night," Hendrik said. "In the jails now, there are mostly black 90 percent black."
"I don't understand them. I have three children, but they have 10 or more," Elisabeth said. "My grandchildren go to bed at 7 o'clock, but I see their children out on the street at 11 o'clock. How do they go to school in the morning if they're up that late?"
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company