UTRECHT, the Netherlands — On a blustery afternoon, the day before Dutch voters go to the polls in the year’s first test of the potency of European populism, parents arrived to pick up their children from the Anne Frank School in Kanaleneiland, a hardscrabble suburb of this heterogeneous city.
Pushing strollers, the parents — whose roots stretch from Latin America to North Africa to India — wondered what would happen if Wednesday’s contest ratified an inward-looking vision of the Netherlands. They dismissed the man who has propounded that vision as an agitator. But they worried nonetheless.
Kanaleneiland features prominently in the story of Dutch demise — at least as told by Geert Wilders, the far-right leader of the Party for Freedom, which is poised to make electoral gains on Wednesday. He once lived here, first as a member of the municipal council of Utrecht, representing the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, which now draws the populist's scorn.
In Wilders’s telling, he did not have a pleasant time in the neighborhood, where the percentage of ethnic minorities is roughly triple that of Utrecht as a whole, according to municipal figures.
“I used to live in Kanaleneiland, a suburb of Utrecht, which, during the 20 years that I lived there, transformed into a very dangerous neighborhood for non-Muslims,” Wilders said in 2013 in a speech in Australia. “I have been robbed. On several occasions, I had to run for safety. The same transformation has happened in parts of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and other cities in the Netherlands, as well as in cities in Belgium, Germany, Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden and other countries.”
Bucking traditions of openness and tolerance that have defined the Netherlands, Wilders is pledging to “de-Islamize” the country by banning the Koran and closing mosques. His monition, which has been tempered but not rejected wholesale by more mainstream parties intent on keeping Wilders out of power, has resonated in parts of the country that remain more homogeneous but have seen an influx of immigrants in recent years.
One of these communities is Veenendaal, a city in the greater province of Utrecht that periodically wins praise for being green and friendly to cyclists, in an already green and bike-friendly country. In other words, Veenendaal is seen as highly livable. It also forms part of the Dutch “Bible Belt,” a stretch of the Netherlands marked historically by a high concentration of conservative Christians, an anomaly in an overwhelmingly secular country.
But many residents say they are no longer observant and no longer find it so easy to live here. If Kanaleneiland is the threat in the nationalist imaginary, Veenendaal is the threatened — and the two sit scarcely more than 20 miles apart.
“It’s come to feel like you’re a stranger in your own country,” said Hanna Lagard, 63, who has not worked since 1991, when she fell ill and came to rely on government benefits. “Foreigners come and expect everything that we can give them. They have something in their attitude — you feel always a little bit afraid.”
Lagard has voted twice for Wilders — “He is a Dutch man. I am a Dutch woman. He wants to make us proud,” she said — but has come to believe that the far-right firebrand may be part of the problem.
“Too much fighting, fighting, fighting, all the time,” she said, explaining why she may support the fringe Forum for Democracy, which has adopted Wilders’s nationalist and Euroskeptic message but turned his anti-establishment attack against him.
Eef and Jeannette Westening, both septuagenarians, also are dissatisfied with the leading parties but plan to support 50PLUS, which advocates for the interests of pensioners, as an alternative. They granted that Wilders had a point about the dangerous changes afoot in the Netherlands, but demurred on some of his solutions, such as yanking the country from the European Union.
Monique Derksen, 40, will stick with Wilders, she said, if only because her mother supports him. Though he sometimes behaves like a “racist,” she said, she likes his basic message about immigrants. “They want too much power in the country,” she said.
The reach of these sentiments should not be underestimated, said Laela Mouhdid, 35, who has lived in Kanaleneiland for 16 years.
“I’m very nervous,” said Mouhdid, who was born in the Netherlands to parents from Morocco, considering the prospect that Wilders could prevail Wednesday. “I think there is a chance.”
With her 3-year-old daughter, a student at the Anne Frank School, in tow, Mouhdid said Wilders’s depiction of Kanaleneiland does not square with the neighborhood she knows — one in which she and her entire family are either working or in school.
But Deydania von Boehove, a 29-year-old immigrant from Nicaragua, spoke to a different experience. She has found the neighborhood highly unsafe, and she hopes to move soon. Late at night, she said, she has endured the shouts of men — and the cry of “whore” when she does not respond.
In 40 years in Kanaleneiland, Metha Bijkerk, 70, said she has observed a clear divide, even in the small community. She feels secure, she said, but she knows the circumstances are different a short distance away, gesturing across a set of train tracks at towering housing complexes.
Sprawling, high-rise complexes accommodated housing needs generated by the postwar boom, as immigrants were enlisted to work in neighborhoods like Kanaleneiland. Half a century later, Kanaleneiland is dogged by higher levels of unemployment, lower educational attainment and greater dependence on welfare than averages in Utrecht as a whole, according to data compiled last year by the city. It is among the districts classified as “problem neighborhoods” by the Dutch Housing Ministry.
These changes had not yet taken hold when Henk Ijmker lived in the neighborhood as a child in the early 1960s. Homes were more costly, and they were occupied mainly by white families, including many Roman Catholics. People still went to church, he said.
“There was one girl with brown skin in my class,” recalled Ijmker, who is now 61 and plans to vote for the Christian Union, which has socially conservative and Euroskeptic positions but embraces immigration.
Ijmker moved back to Kanaleneiland to run a church, House of Peace, which on Tuesday afternoon was bustling with mostly young people eating and preparing for an Afghan ceremony scheduled for that night. Two young men played ping-pong.
Kanaleneiland is avowedly not part of the Bible Belt, but Ijmker is looking for new ways to help structure the lives of people in a neighborhood that has been remade in his lifetime. And as church-going is no longer uniform in Veenendaal, which nevertheless remains lined with churches, the two communities may not be so different after all.