The Power of Connection – In conversation with Nathalie, the RPM Coordinator

The Power of Connection – In conversation with Nathalie, the RPM Coordinator

By Francesca Celenta, RPM volunteer project Voice

During the intercultural training Refugee Project Maastricht (RPM) offers, as an icebreaker, we were asked what gives us energy. The majority of people responded that what makes them happy is being surrounded by people. Sharing a meal or a conversation with a friend or family member is what fuels us. Perhaps, these answers are particularly striking in their simplicity because they come during a period of social distancing where we are denied what we crave most – human contact. We thought it was important that the first article we published this year touched upon the themes of connection and sharedness. We asked RPM Coordinator, Nathalie Ummels, how RPM fosters connection.

How it all began

Nathalie believes that RPM is rooted in the feeling of enabling connection with newcomers. “The origin story is very moving. In 2015, during what the media labelled ‘the refugee crisis’, a German student in Maastricht called Aurelia Streit felt that she had to do something. Her idea was very simple, to visit refugees residing at the AZC. Back then the refugee centre was inside an old prison. Imagine travelling all this way, fleeing your home country to end up in a prison. Together with pastors from the InnBetween, students started visiting refugees and creating bonds and producing a positive counterweight to the narrative that was dominating the media.”

The media in general bombards us with stories that generalise, stories that reduce the people who are different from us into a stereotype. But by interacting with refugees, listening to their stories and creating human bonds, RPM manages to shine light on the different narratives that the negative outlook of the media obscures.

“Aurelia very quickly brought refugees and students together and what they did was talk, make music, cook, hang out, play games, pass the time, share, especially sharing parts of themselves. It was quite organic and to me, creating these human bonds and sharing stories and weaving refugees into the fabric of Maastricht life is just incredibly moving. The slogan of the student pastorate is ‘Love invents us’ and that is also at the heart of RPM”.

RPM branches out

RPM has had different approaches depending on the person in charge but also based on the period the organisation was living through. “RPM moves with the needs of the refugees”. Nathalie recounts that there was an activist side of the project. Students mobilised to protest against the deportation of one Afghan family. From that particular episode, a separate organisation, which focuses on the rights of Afghani refugees in the Netherlands (Stand up for Afghans) was created. Maastricht Goes Calais was another initiative that sprung from a group of students travelling to Calais to help provide humanitarian aid. At one point RPM became more structured and teams were introduced where each group focused on a particular task such as providing Dutch lessons or help with homework.

Back to our roots

“Last summer we had another moment when we paused, and we asked ourselves ‘are we doing the right things and are we doing them the right way?’. This led to kind of a rediscovering; the notion that the core of RPM is not just the services, it not just helping refugees, it’s about creating relationships. We moved away from a team-based structure to a project-based one. One of the big things that we realised is that we can do a lot more to be inclusive and to foster a welcoming atmosphere and that we need to be very careful with our own unconscious bias. In our eagerness to help we sometimes forgot to include people as equals, to partner with them and this was one of the big things that came out of the research. At the moment we’re trying to be a lot more mindful, to take a step back and empower people with a refugee background and encourage them to have a leadership position”.

Focus on inclusion

The purpose of RPM is to create a community of care that is built on relationships. The aim is to reduce or eliminate barriers between us and them, volunteers and refugees, helpers and helped and become a community where things are created together for everyone. “I feel that this is slowly being embraced again. I see the message seeping through: if you’re not partnering up something is wrong, just stop and take a moment to reflect. Have another look at your project and see how you can improve. RPM is organised in such a way that ensures people have a voice”. This philosophy is something that we are also trying to incorporate in The Voice project, both the podcast and blog, where stories and articles are created in unison. When different perspectives are involved, there is more nuance, and deeper understanding of complex situations.

A new intercultural training

Another outcome of the research carried out in the summer was that RPM needed to do a better job of bringing people on board and offering them a certain knowledge and skills that would be useful in their work as volunteers. “One of the things that I wanted to avoid was Othering in the trainings as it’s very easy to fall in that trap. Even if it stems from a good intention, this ‘let me tell you how to behave so that you won’t make mistakes’ message can be damaging. You are reduced to a label, ‘you’re Dutch’ or ‘you’re Iranian’, but there are so few of us who fit into this stereotype nowadays.”

“Take myself for example”, Nathalie continues, “I am originally from Maastricht, but people from here actually affiliate more with Belgian culture. I am also married to an American, so I live in a very US-oriented household. This is just me, but then we have people, volunteers, with three, four, five cultural influences, depending on where they’ve lived, mum and dad might be from different countries, now they’re studying in Maastricht. The same goes for the refugees. Say someone comes from Afghanistan, it’s a huge country, there are regional differences. Refugees may also have lived in different countries on the way, they speak multiple languages, they picked up habits. So, I really wanted to avoid this reductionist idea of personhood, of who you are”.

Nathalie did the intercultural training herself and reflected afterwards on whether it was something RPM volunteers would benefit from. “While the training was going on, my answers often surprised me, I thought ‘I am so not Dutch when it comes to this aspect’ and it just gave me a lot of insights about myself. And it also made me think. And I like stuff that makes you think. The material from the training kept coming back to me. I keep seeing new aspects in myself, in my household, in my relationships. This is what I hope people will get out of it; that by reflecting on yourself you can also see others in a new light”.

Creating a community of care

Nathalie hopes that RPM can bring a sense of relief and purpose to some of the young people who are in the limbo of asylum. “There are so many bright and motivated people stuck at the refugee centres. Some of them have been granted a stay and they’re moving towards a new life but there are so many people who are still waiting for the process to begin. And if we can find ways to reach out to them and include them and give them a chance to become part of this community, then it’s our duty to try. I always try to imagine myself in their position. Imagine if I had to flee with my three children, have all these hardships on the way and then end up somewhere where I don’t speak the language, I don’t know the culture… I think I would just want to start with something. You can’t wait for a year. Human beings need connection to thrive, to feel whole”.