Tanya Milnes – Utrecht, Netherlands

The Netherlands is a place of social innovation, entrepreneurship and a why shouldn’t we, as opposed to a why should we attitude. Utrecht itself is a quick 20-minute train from Amsterdam, a student city with a diverse culture. I am currently studying international studies and environmental science and Utrecht provided the perfect environment and opportunities to be inspired.

First things first however, a story. This photo was captured precisely two seconds after falling off my bike. You see, there aren’t any hand brakes and I was too short for the bike (NL has the tallest population worldwide). 
This photo to me however, is symbolic of how I felt at the beginning of exchange; unsure and embarrassed, masked heavily by laughter. By the end of my stay in NL, I loved biking to classes, to get groceries and go out. Thrilled that I could finally make it to places in the time that google maps suggested, and that I could keep my hands warm by stuffing them in my jacket pockets. What I learned from this transition, was that through being willing to embrace new experiences, challenging myself and being open to embarrassment, these actions became second nature. It can also be applied to a majority of the situations I found myself in; making new friends, attending networking events, trying to buy groceries using only Dutch.

As well as biking, I did do some studying. I studied subjects that focused on politics, human rights and conflicts. Through this, I was able to visit the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the US embassy in The Hague, and have a discussion with a member of the US Consulate from Amsterdam in one of our classes. I also was able to attend an event held by the Student Association for Conflict Studies and Human Rights. Where, we were able to develop a comprehensive understanding of the current situation for refugees in Amsterdam. Amsterdam have utilised the space of the former prison, the Bijlmerbajes, converting it into a centre and community hub for refugees and social change organisations. Refugees are provided with six months’ accommodation here whilst their applications are being processed. They are free to come and go, however they are unable to work. Also in this hub, the Refugee Company is situated – an organisation that helps refugees to gain work experience and build a network in Dutch society before finding paid work.

However, there is a group of undocumented refugees; approximately five hundred people in Amsterdam alone, who have, for a variety of reasons, has their refugee status denied. They are therefore not provided housing by the government, nor are they allowed to work; resulting in homelessness and poverty. The organisation ‘Wij Zijn4 Hier’ or ‘We Are Here’ in English, works to create awareness and visibility surrounding their current situation in the hope that Dutch Society will be able to bring about change. This experience brought attention to the capacity of social change and impact, key ideas that underpin the global studies degree.