Amsterdam's Challenge: Helping Muslim Students Adapt

It’s a city with over 170 different nationalities and almost half of its people are ethnic minorities. No, it’s not New York. It’s Amsterdam. This month marks the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage from Amsterdam to what would become New York. As the two cities celebrate their common heritage, they’re also reflecting on the shared challenges of multi-culturalism. In this first of a two-part series on how their schools are coping, WNYC’s Beth Fertig reports on a high school in Amsterdam that’s trying to do a better job of assimilating Muslim students.

REPORTER: On the surface, Calvijn met Junior College in West Amsterdam could be compared to an underperforming high school in an outer borough of New York City. Most of the students are children of immigrants. They live in a poor neighborhood. And their test scores are labled “weak.”

In this first-year class, students are writing simple newspaper articles in both Dutch and English. Thirteen year old Fatima Tabaaddit reads what she wrote, in Dutch, to describe a photograph of her school’s cafeteria.

FATIMA: This is ah (speaks in Dutch) do not children in this hall…

REPORTER: She’s referring to a sign warning children not to linger in hallways. Fatima’s parents are from Morocco. But she was born in Amsterdam. Although she’s still learning English, a subject all students take, she considers herself fluent in Dutch.

FATIMA: Ah yes. I talk good Dutch with my Mom and Dad.

REPORTER: But while Fatima and her classmates speak Dutch, their teacher, Mohamed El Jaouhari (Joe-HAR-ee), says their reading and writing skills are about two years behind where they should be.

EL JAOUHARI: For example looking up a word in a dictionary. To make a very simple example. They don’t know how to do that, so they have to be taught in first year very basic skills to learn language.

REPORTER: That weakness in vocabulary and writing holds back many students in New York, too. And, just as students in New York are often isolated by poverty, the director of Calvijn met Junior College- Eric ten Hulsen – sees the same thing in Amsterdam. The vast majority of his 500 students are children of Moroccan and Turkish immigrants, many of whom are not well educated. They live in low-income housing. There are behavior problems like fighting and cursing. And though West Amsterdam isn’t a slum by American standards, he says the kids wind up getting stuck in their neighborhood.

TEN HULSEN: They have a low self esteem. They live in small worlds, small mental worlds because their parents are from foreign countries. They often don’t know the Dutch society. So their children don’t naturally experience the things that my children experience.

REPORTER: In recent years, the Dutch government has become increasingly concerned about the low performance and isolation of immigrant students, especially Muslims. The 2004 murder of the controversial filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a Dutch-born Islamic militant was a wakeup call for a nation that prides itself on multiculturalism and tolerance. Some on the right worried the Dutch had become too tolerant; others feared they had allowed Muslims to become isolated by not doing more to include them.

REPORTER: A few schools including Calvijn met Junior College have since tried to help these students join the mainstream. Calvijn extended its day and added small group instruction in Dutch reading and writing to improve academics. It’s considered one of the weakest schools in Amsterdam. Twenty five percent of its students leave after completing their basic vocational degree at age 16. To encourage everyone to complete their secondary education, Ten Hulsen added programs in economics and healthcare so his students can stay for two more years.

TEN HULSEN: Because children who are accustomed to their teachers and to the type of care they have in our school have a better chance to finish the secondary education here than to finish in another school with strange people and a totally different climate of care.

REPORTER: Teachers even make home visits. Police inspect lockers twice a year for weapons. And in what ten Hulsen calls “opening windows,” professionals visit the school to give students role models.

In the school’s cafeteria, which serves Halal meat – Furgan Tasle recalled meeting an architect with his class recently.

FURGAN: (speaking in Dutch) TEACHER: he said, ‘When I met the architect I really want to be an architect.’

REPORTER: He said he plans to go to a university – something most of his classmates won’t do. As in other European nations, students are tracked at an early age and sent to either vocational high schools like Calvijn, or academic ones that prepare them for a university.

Despite the positive tone at Calvijn, reflected in its bright, sunny classrooms, some say ethnic minorities in Amsterdam still face big obstacles. Khalil Aitblal, a spokesman for the Union of Moroccan Mosques, says he knows of high school graduates who can’t find good jobs.

AITBLAL: They have to prove themselves double. Because there is that image of Moroccan Dutch people - regardless of qualities that he has – that you don’t have to hire them because you will get problems, communication problems or cultural problems.

REPORTER: That social stigma is compounded by Dutch terminology. Anyone who is not of Western European descent is labeled “Black” whether they’re Asian, Turkish, South American, or African. The Dutch will tell you they’re not being racist – just practical, for identification purposes. That’s why Calvijn met Junior College is commonly called a black school. Khalil Aitblal, though, objects to the term.

AITBLAL: If you say black schools you are asking for separation and you are asking for challenges and problems.

REPORTER: Making it harder for students to assimilate.

The Netherlands now labels those who aren’t ethnically Dutch “non Western ethnic minorities.” They account for 34 percent of the population of Amsterdam - a percentage that’s expected to grow. And that’s fueled the debate over what makes someone Dutch.

RIFFI: Who gets has who gets have? Has is for? Thank you, he, she, it …

REPORTER: At Calvijn met Junior College, English teacher Houda Riffi’s students wear jeans and sweatshirts and listen to Western pop music. A couple of girls also wear headscarves. Yassine Laoekeli (laow-keh-lee) says he knows what it means to be Dutch.

YASSINE: If you’ve got a Dutch passport or Dutch ID and that kind of things, and I’m born here.

REPORTER: Meriem Aithaddou agrees, but says Dutch is only half of her identity.

MERIEM: I still have the culture from Morocco yes.

REPORTER: Her teacher shares that feeling. Though Houda Riffi was born in Amsterdam, she says she’s neither completely Dutch nor Morrocan.

RIFFI: I don’t see any negativity in that. Maybe that’s strange but I just, I’m somewhere in the middle as well. And I think many peoples are with me. Out there in the middle area. And it doesn’t necessarily have to go wrong. It’s just a different way of feeling.

REPORTER: “Different” in a way many Americans also understand. As Amsterdam, like New York, becomes increasingly multi-cultural, educators hope those differences will become a source of strength. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.

Part 2: Brooklyn International Students on 'Being American'

Beth Fertig on the Brian Lehrer Show