By Mia Lodder
— Though there are students willing to pay large sums of money for rooms barely larger than a closet to live in Amsterdam, some students have found a way to live in the capital for free. Apart from their gas, water and electricity bill, they pay 0 euros a month.
For years, there has been a housing shortage in the Randstad and particularly in Amsterdam. Especially for students, who usually have a tight budget, it is difficult to leave their parental home and find a place of their own in the big city. In their quest to find an affordable room—or a room at all—they scour Facebook, register on websites like Studentenwoningweb and Kamernet.nl, which usually have long waiting lists, and simply ask around. It is a time-consuming and exhausting process for many. Although the Coronavirus crisis and the consequent shift to online teaching has reduced the need to live close to the university, some students still prefer to live on their own to try to build up a social life and have somewhat of a “normal” student experience.
Living in Amsterdam affordably is a big enough challenge; how does one manage to live in Amsterdam for free? Unbeknownst to many, there are a number of organizations that offer free housing in exchange for several hours of social work in the neighborhood. One of these organizations is VoorUit, which gives students of the University of Amsterdam (UvA), the Vrije Universiteit and the Hogeschool van Amsterdam a place to live in one of ten different neighborhoods. VoorUit’s mission is to create connections in these disadvantaged neighborhoods, in which activities and opportunities for children and the elderly, the groups they particularly focus on, are scarce or too expensive. “VoorUiters”, as the students who work for VoorUit are called, spend ten hours a week organizing events and building a community feeling in the neighborhood.
Toon de Vries, project manager at the organization, explains that the founders of VoorUit were inspired by an Israeli project they had come across at the time. The project was called Open Apartments and offered students studying at the University of Haifa scholarship assistance and free housing in exchange for community work with children and elderly in the neighborhood. VoorUit’s model is slightly different: they are not officially affiliated with any higher education institutions like Open Apartments, but work together with several housing corporations that own buildings in the neighborhood. Usually, students get offered places in buildings that are set for demolition in a few years.
VoorUit is mostly active in Amsterdam, but they have now also expanded to Amstelveen and Zaandam. Meike Aarnoutse, who started working at VoorUit this summer, says the organization has moved farther and farther away from the center of Amsterdam due to gentrification. VoorUit and similar organizations, Aarnoutse explains, settle in neighborhoods where the buildings are more affordable and where there is a need for social work that students can satisfy. Places like Bos en Lommer that used to meet these criteria are now, due to gentrification, less in need of VoorUit and thus the organization has moved further outwards.
Aarnoutse is 19 years old and started studying Cultural Anthropology in September at the UvA. She is from Vinkeveen, a small village in between Utrecht and Amsterdam and knew that she wanted to live in Amsterdam while studying there. She spent a lot of time going to “hospiteeravonden” she found on Facebook, evenings where housemates invite people interested in a vacant room to choose who they would like to live with. “Hospititeeravonden” are very common in the Netherlands and many high school seniors start looking out for these early. It was a tough process, she recalls. When she found VoorUit, she knew that this was something for her. Even if she could have found another affordable room not associated with an organization like this, she would have chosen VoorUit, she says.
VoorUit is not only a way to get a room in Amsterdam; Aarnoutse also sees it as an immediate way to make friends. “As a first-year, this is amazing,” she says, especially since many of her classes are online. She loves the community feeling and having her friends just walking distance away. Aarnoutse was placed in the west of Slotermeer, which is surrounded by several other VoorUit neighborhoods in the far west of Amsterdam, which is also known as Amsterdam Nieuw-West.
She likes getting a look behind the scenes of how the municipality works, to see where money for things comes from, though she finds it a bit sad to see how tight budgets are. She sees her work as the practical side to her Anthropology studies, while at the university, she gets the theoretical side of things. With her father being a pastor and thus very active in the church and her mother having worked with elderly people for a long time, her interest in doing community work does not come from nowhere.
A few streets over, Moena Geddi, 22 years old and a fellow Cultural Anthropology student at the UvA, works for VoorUit in Slotermeer-Oost. She’s a second-year student and it is also her second year at VoorUit. She is from Nijmegen, so commuting to class by public transit would have taken her at least half an hour in each direction. Applying at VoorUit was therefore initially for “selfish” reasons, she says: primarily to ensure that she would have a place to stay in Amsterdam. “If I hadn’t been accepted [to VoorUit], I would have had a lot of stress. Without connections in Amsterdam, finding a room is really difficult.”
Geddi discovered VoorUit during the open day of the Vrije Universiteit in early 2019, at which they had an information stand. She was immediately very enthusiastic and already started the application process in the train on her way back home.
Applicants are asked to send their resume and a two-minute video of themselves in which they introduce themselves and express their motivation to work at VoorUit. After that, they are invited to a selection day with other applicants, where they have to give a short presentation. She says she wasn’t too nervous for it: “The presentation and everything were not scary, it was more nerve wracking whether or not I would get in.”
After getting the good news, she was placed in Slotermeer-Oost, which has a team of twelve people, quite large for a VoorUit team. She lives with three other VoorUiters in an apartment in the neighborhood. Geddi explains her initial impression of the first room she got offered: “Above all I was very grateful that I got a room, so I was pretty fine with anything. It’s of course not in a house in Oud-Zuid—which is considered Amsterdam’s most fancy neighborhood—but that’s what you sign up for. My room was really small though, it barely fit a double bed, but again, that is overshadowed by the gratitude, because you don’t pay anything for it.” Though her neighborhood is certainly not the center of Amsterdam, she likes living there: “It’s very gezellig, it’s more of a residential area and there’s everything you need. And it’s not even that far from the center.”
Committing herself to improving a community is not new to Geddi, as she has volunteered at several organizations in Nijmegen before moving to Amsterdam: “I think that’s also why I was accepted, because it’s really up my alley.” Though she has prior experience and says that work like this comes quite naturally to her, the people she works with vary widely in age, from children to elderly people, while previously she worked mostly with children. Drinking coffee with elderly people in the afternoon and then working with six-year-olds requires quite some adjusting.
At VoorUit, the ten hours a week are divided into six and two times two hours. The six hours are for organizing and doing activities, such as tutoring schoolchildren, providing after school care, teaching Dutch lessons or just having coffee with a small group. Besides that, two hours are reserved for meetings and preparatory work and the last two hours are to be spent with the VoorUiter’s contact family or contact person in the neighborhood. According to their website, it is many VoorUiter’s favorite two hours of the week, although Geddi would disagree. To her, the bond often feels forced and it feels a bit awkward to have to keep coming into someone’s home: “It’s a nice thought, but in practice I don’t know anyone [at VoorUit] who really likes it.”
A successful project in Geddi’s neighborhood is the girls club, where girls between about seven to nine years old can come from four to five thirty every Monday. The girls club is held in Buurtkamer Tante Ali, a community center in the neighborhood. Upon entering Buurtkamer Tante Ali a bit after five, I am greeted by excited shouting from 15 young girls, all sitting around a long table. Amongst a few shouted “hello’s”, I get a “Who is she?” I seem to have come in during a vote for the prettiest drawing. “Don’t vote for who you like, but which drawing you like the best!” Caroline Kubinek (20) who is hosting today with Yaëla Brandwijk (23), reminds the girls. There is more yelling. After the prettiest drawing has been chosen, they do a few rounds of hide and seek. The girls scatter, hiding under benches and countertops, while someone counts to twenty.
Soon after, people arrive to pick up their daughters or little sisters. Two girls have not been picked up yet. They are friends from school, both nine years old. While they wait to be picked up, Kubinek and Brandwijk strike up a little conversation with them. For one of the girls, it is her first time; her friend encouraged her to come. “She [her friend] always says: “Tante Ali is so much fun, we do this and that…” It looks like she will come again. “In our class it is even more chaotic than this: we’re with twenty girls and six boys,” the girl says with a grin. They two girls go to the islamic elementary school El-Wafa, which is a three-minute bike ride away from the community center.
After a few minutes, the brother of one of the girls arrives to bring them home and Kubinek and Brandwijk start cleaning up. “I do continue to find it quite exhausting,” Brandwijk says to Kubinek as she clears off the table, but she finds it very worth it. She says “You almost get too much as a student, it saves me so much money.” She wishes she had found out about it earlier; she left home at 22 and is currently in her third year of her degree. Both are students at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam: Brandwijk studies Applied Psychology, Kubinek studies Creative Business.
To ensure that projects like these run smoothly, there is a “wijkcoördinator”, or “neighborhood coordinator” who oversees the work VoorUiters in the neighborhood perform. Another step above that are the project leaders, of which there are three. Though there is a kind of hierarchical structure, it is a very accessible, “informal” organization, Aarnoutse tells me, with many project leaders being former VoorUiters themselves.
Araik Gingnagel, 20 years old and a history student at the UvA, became coordinator of the Jacob Geelbuurt neighborhood this summer, but started working as a “regular VoorUiter” a year before that. Like almost everyone at the organization, he found VoorUit while he was looking for a place in Amsterdam. He had posted on social media that he was in search of a room and under one of his posts his current housemate, who was already at VoorUit at the time and had gone to the same highschool, commented that VoorUit would definitely be something for him. “I’m also originally from West, Bos en Lommer—though I later moved to Zaandam—so I feel very at home here.”
As a neighborhood coordinator, Gingnagel does the ten hours a week that VoorUiters usually do and works another five and a half hours (for which he gets paid) coordinating the team: quite the hefty workload. Luckily, Gingnagel says, his study program is quite flexible and he has also decided to take longer than the usual three years to get his degree. Still, it sounds tough. “You hear stories sometimes about people and you think: “they’re really only doing it for the room”. I think if that’s the case, the work is really tough, because it’s ten hours a week on top of your studies, on top of maybe even another job or you might want to join a student association…” But Gingnagel clearly enjoys the work he does: “I find giving a language class one of the highlights of my week, especially in Coronavirus times.”
As everywhere else in the world, the Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted income inequalities in Amsterdam and has disadvantaged the already disadvantaged even more. Gingnagel explains: “People in this neighborhood often don’t have good jobs, many of them have “flexjobs”, and with Coronavirus you see that these neighborhoods are hit very hard. Parents have night shifts or uncertain shifts and what you see then is that children hang on the streets until eleven or even one and are on their phone until two and that of course is not exclusive to Nieuw-West… But for some parents it is just very difficult to be good parents due to their socio-economic status.”
Working in a neighborhood like his, Gingnagel interacts with people very different from himself and ends up in situations students normally wouldn’t be in. “That can be quite confronting,” he says. “Some people you’re helping live in poverty, or don’t speak Dutch very well, or are sick.” He finds it extremely gratifying that he can mean something to those people and that he can create such nice bonds with people he otherwise would probably not really talk to. “Sometimes I think “Oh, I’m off to my language class girlfriends”, who are three women between around 40 and 75 years old. He has learned a lot while at VoorUit: “There are these social skills that you didn’t know you could further develop, because you were just never confronted with them.”
Gingnagel has grown close to an elderly Syrian couple, Rajeh and Nawal, who attend the Dutch classes he and his housemate Vera teach. Gingnagel tells me we can drop by and see if they are home. I am a bit wary as I do not want to show up uninvited, but he assures me that they are extremely nice and will probably want to give me tea.
The tea is immediately offered. With a steaming mug in front of me, I take a seat on the couch, with Rajeh and Nawal sitting diagonally from me on the other couch. They came from Damascus to the Netherlands five years ago, because it was too dangerous for them to stay in Syria. “Living in Holland, it is very good”, Rajeh tells me in English. “Everything is done, no problems.” The people here are nice, they say, but they miss having a relationship with their neighbors. Rajeh thinks building up relationships with them is difficult, because of the language barrier. It’s why he and his wife are going to the Dutch lessons.
“Nederlands is a very difficult language,” they both find. “Uitspraak (pronunciation)… Luisteren en praten is ook moeilijk (listening and talking is also difficult).” They say a few sentences or words here and there in Dutch in between the English. They have been going to the lessons provided by VoorUit, which are one and a half hours on Mondays, for about “six months?”. He checks with his wife, asking her in Arabic. “There were two months of vakantie (vacation), so about four months,” he concludes. They say it’s very moeilijk because of their age, but Arabic is also difficult, they explain, more than Dutch. They are very excited nonetheless and like doing their homework together. As I leave, they tell me to stop by whenever I find myself in the neighborhood again. “You’re like our granddaughter”—they have told me about their granddaughter, who lives in Germany and is about the same age as me.
This little chat with Rajeh and Nawal was already extremely heartwarming, so I am curious about Gingnagel’s most rewarding moment: he is still awaiting it, he says. “My bar is set a liiitle bit high,” he laughs, but he knows what he wants it to be like. “VoorUit’s goal is to make the neighborhoods more resilient, more active and to create more engaged neighbors. That if in five years VoorUit would leave, they will have gotten to know each other and they can solve problems themselves. Not just that we organize a coffee afternoon, but that we have encouraged people to organize one themselves.” Basically, that VoorUit can stop existing, because they are not necessary anymore. “One day, the neighborhood will have to make it on its own,” Gingnagel says. In the meantime, VoorUit is an inspiring opportunity for students to live for free in Amsterdam, while also bringing about social change.
Editor’s note: This news story is part of a collaboration between The Herring and AUC’s journalism course. The story was written, edited, and fact-checked by students of the journalism course. Some content may have been altered by The Herring’s editors for clarity and style.