What brought you to the Netherlands?
It wasn’t a plan thoroughly drawn up in advance, nor was it even very rational, I’d say now, looking back. I arrived in the Netherlands, in the Hague, in 2009, holding a five-year-old child by the hand and a three-month-old baby in my arms. I followed my husband, who had arrived here some months earlier to help a brother with the smooth execution of a construction project, and after that one many more projects ensued. Without necessarily thinking about a long-term stay in the Netherlands, once we were here, we tried to identify prospects so as to anchor ourselves in the society we found here.
I was born in a beautiful mountain town, in Vatra Dornei, from where I didn’t think I would ever leave for good, especially since nobody in my family ever emigrated. The geography of the place positions it quite centrally. It’s protected by mountains all around, which probably made me nurture a feeling of comfort, safeguarded by the borders. And even though as a child I wondered every now and then what was beyond those mountains, I never imagined that I’d be living outside of Romania.
How was it in the beginning?
I knew from the very beginning that I would not be able to work right away in an organised system, having my hands full, so to say. So while raising the kids, in the beginning I took care of our household administration, starting with preparing all the documents required to allow us to stay here legally – because at that time it was still compulsory to have a residence permit. Then, I had to find a school for our oldest – school starts here at four years old. I had to take out health insurance and have my diploma evaluated and recognized – in Romania I studied sociology at the University of Bucharest. I did the basic bookkeeping for my husband’s freelance activity, and so forth. Having had to do all this, I began to feel how important it was to know the Dutch language, although in the beginning anyone can easily manage here in English.
All this time, when we tried to settle down in the Netherlands, I came into contact with the new culture. I learned something new every day: the social distance – generally bigger –, the social smile, the manner of greeting, the importance of punctuality. It wasn’t very easy. Yet, that positive frame of mind resulting from the fact that you have to make it at least for the kids’ sake, if not for yourself, had given us the necessary energy to go on without overthinking our next steps.
I learned pretty quickly that in the Netherlands your chances grow exponentially if you begin by volunteering. I adapted to this trend and I did a training course, Op weg naar vrijwilligerswerk – The Path to Volunteer Work. I began by volunteering for various projects organized together with the local authorities in the Hague for the benefit of immigrants. That’s how I got to collaborate with a small team within the municipality that tried to spread information in certain neighbourhoods where immigrants live and that are considered to be crowded. It was information about the possible dangers of overcrowding. In another volunteering project, one of the organizations responsible for maintaining public order needed language and cultural interpreters that would enable communication with Eastern Europeans. And Romanians were becoming a group that was increasingly important.
I continued my volunteering activity at a foundation that was running projects to support Eastern Europeans in their integration process. This project enabled me, eventually, to come across the Barka Foundation, where I’ve worked ever since by becoming their employee. The Barka Foundation has Polish origins, it was founded in 1989, during the Autumn of Nations (the revolutionary period during the late 80s and early 90s, ed.), and it was born as a response to the increasing social problems of those years full of changes, when many people no longer identified themselves in the new socio-economic realities. The model suggested by Barka spread through franchises during the 29 years of existence in many regions in Poland, but also abroad: in the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Iceland. Generally, in all those countries where there was an obvious need to support those Poles whose immigration process had failed or had run into difficulties.
Are there also Romanians among these “vulnerable people”?
Yes, there are. After Poles, the Romanians form the second largest group that ends up in vulnerable situations.
Do you like to work in this social field?
Yes, of course. It goes without saying that without a certain emotional availability, it makes no sense to work in such a field. First of all, because vulnerable people, in general, have a very well-developed non-verbal communication ability and they can pick that up. The entire process can fail when you do not have the necessary availability and if it’s you, in the first place, that does not believe that the person can overcome the difficulty. And then there’s also the very special satisfaction you have when you’ve redressed someone’s downward journey that, without intervention, might have ended tragically.
Can your collaboration with the Barka Foundation be considered your favourite project?
Definitely, yes! First of all, due to the fact that coming to the Netherlands wasn’t a choice I had acknowledged emotionally, there’s a certain nostalgia for Romania that’s still lingering, and now I feel that through my activity at Barka I’m somehow paying it forward towards the place where I grew up and shaped up. It may sound like a cliché, but there is a constant longing that is still stirring my heart. So, yes, I like it that this project allows me to work with Romanians.
Then, this unexpected meeting with the Poles – I have 24 Polish colleagues – is surprisingly beautiful. Ever since I started working with them, I’ve discovered many distinctive traits of their culture: they’re warm, hospitable people, and their art has a certain sensibility to which we, as Romanians, resonate by identifying similar national traumas. I like the story of the project, how the idea was born out of society’s struggle to adjust to the new reality that followed after the revolution.
You work with Romanians in a Polish setting, and yet everything happens in the Netherlands. Are you close to this society, to its structure?
I have to say that, after almost nine years, I still don’t feel at home, but still, it’s getting better and better. Through my work I come very frequently into contact with the structure of the Dutch society and I feel I’ve started to know it increasingly better. I feel that I have learned how to communicate in various situations, I’ve learned the parlance of certain institutions, especially in the social field, which helps in my work relationships to the advantage of the beneficiaries. Also personally I feel increasingly comfortable in my relationship with my neighbours, with the parents of the my kids’ classmates. Still, there is always a certain emotional hold-back.
How come you have not yet managed to feel at home?
I think it’s because I came here late, when I was 26. My most profound experiences took place before that, in other places, with other people, always in Romania. Then, the speed with which everything happens here, the rhythm is not like where I come from, in Vatra Dornei, where the rhythm of the daily life was much slower, or even than in Bucharest, where anybody, regardless of how busy they were, still found the time to chat with their neighbour, just to give you an example. This overplanning, which is generally a plus factor, can be an obstacle in developing interpersonal relationships. I mean, for instance, the fact that even informal visits must be planned.
But what do you do like here, nevertheless?
I very much like the relationship between adults and children, which is far more open than in Romania, much friendlier and more present. At school, the atmosphere is much more relaxed than in Romania. The children are being encouraged to express themselves freely, to trust their ideas, to not let themselves be deterred by rigid protocols.
Then, the atmosphere on Saturday morning, when there’s a swarm of families with children going to and coming from the kids’ sport activities, with football being by far the most popular among boys and grass hockey among girls. In the neighbourhood where I live there are four such sport clubs. My oldest son is also playing football and we are, therefore, caught in this universe. The parents are very involved – there are always matches on Saturdays, while during the week there are two training sessions –, they cheer their kids with enthusiasm, even quite fanatically. They are all up to date with the championship rankings – it’s for amateurs, obviously, but very well organized. Moreover, the parents strive to create a certain bond between the children that are teammates and they organize getaways together. The dynamic created there is fascinating.
Another thing I like very much is the freedom to move and how cycling is facilitated. There are bike paths everywhere, very safe, wide, well-delimited. With the same public transport card you can travel long distance, switching busses, trams, subway, trains, including bikes, which you can conveniently rent from the train station. The bike is often a more advantageous option compared to cars, especially in the city.
What does the concept of success mean to you?
I think the first time I discovered the idea of success was when I was five or six years old, when I began going to the bread store and sometimes, when someone would ask whose child I was, no one managed to guess who my parents were. Then, inquiring further, they would all recognize my grandfather who was the head of the furrier’s shop in Vatra Dornei. I remember even now that feeling, later identified as pride, whenever I saw how the mimic, but also the tone changed of those who heard the name of my grandfather. The reaction of those people made me, for a while, introduce myself straight as Ion Cojocaru’s granddaughter. So my first definition, or rather my first measurement unit of success was given by the number of people who recognized and reacted positively to someone’s name.
Later, when I saw my grandfather’s first dissatisfied customer, I realized how transient success is, but also the fact that his success was not due to his status as head of the shop, but first of all to the quality of his work, which he had to strive to maintain to certain standards.
And even later, when I heard my grandmother’s first criticism of my grandfather, I realized that if a person is successful on one level in their life, they aren’t necessarily as good on all the others.
And, finally, when I also heard my grandmother praising my grandfather in front of one of his customers regarding his furrier skills, not only did I perceive my grandfather as a god in that field – if even grandmother says it –, but I also fine-tuned my measurement of success: it’s the number of people, and especially of those whose opinion matters to you, who acknowledge and appreciate your merit, your qualities, and the positive imprint in a certain field.
My impression is, however, that compared to Dutch people, in Romania we are much more strict when we talk about success. In the sense that in Romania it seems that it’s more frequent to expect of someone to be successful from all points of view – education, career, family –, whereas here, the threshold for success is lower than where Romanians like to set it. For example, here there are not that many who want to do a PhD at any cost, as is the case in Romania, just so that they know they covered the entire educational scale, even though they don’t necessarily intend to pursue a career in research. The Dutch will always find proof to validate themselves through other endeavours than those related to school – starting and preserving a beautiful family, volunteer activities –, without any trace of embarrassment, as is often the case with Romanians who lack a rich educational background.
For me, personally, success got another dimension once my children were born. Besides the fact that I can have a positive impact on a very large number of people, success also means to manage to motivate my children to have high ideals and to make them, first of all, proud of me.
How do you see yourself in relation to the Romanian community in the Netherlands?
Lately, I feel I belong more and more to this community, and I like this, I need this. The events organized especially over the past few years, as I understood from Romanians settled here long before me, by the Embassy, by the Romanians for Romanians in the Netherlands Foundation, or by the Romanian School in the Hague, manage to bring us together and to catalyze a certain interaction that’s gaining an increasingly identity-inducing layer. Of course I am continuously in contact with Romanians, thanks to my activity at the Barka Foundation, but that’s a different kind of meeting.
What would you advise a Romanian who would like to leave Romania now and come to the Netherlands?
My advice would be to come prepared. The safest would be based on a work contract. To get informed before leaving, about all the aspects, ranging from administrative rules to rules about how to behave in the Dutch society – extremely useful in this respect is the brochure New in the Netherlands , made by the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. I would recommend they have a minimum knowledge of English – this is a decisive factor for success –, even a minimum of Dutch would be ideal. To be prepared, because it won’t be easy, but with a concentrated effort, it’s doable. And to embrace the cycling culture.
Interview by Claudia Marcu
translation by Mihaela Nita
Portrait photo: Cristian Călin – www.cristiancalin.video
photo from the personal archive, edited by Alexandru Matei