Building bridges through storytelling

Author: Tessa Koorevaar

“Migrants from Muslim countries should not be able to enter the Netherlands.” “Islam has introduced unfreedom, discrimination, and violence to the Netherlands”. These are statements from the party program of the PVV, the political party that is currently the second biggest party in the Netherlands and is expected to retain its popularity in the 2021 elections. 

I have been born and raised in the Netherlands, and a lot of my family members share opinions that are expressed by the PVV. Personally, I did not believe these ideas to be true, and I went on a Nour Project to Tunisia in 2019 to learn more about this particular country in the MENA region. The Nour Project is a product from AIESEC, the biggest youth-led organisation in the world, that allows you to go on a volunteering project in the MENA region to get a more nuanced understanding of it. This experience in Tunisia challenged my own prejudice as a Dutch citizen and taught me how to share my new insights with family and friends back home in a constructive way. 

During the summer of 2019, I went to Tunisia for 6 weeks to volunteer at a marine diversity NGO. I lived in a flat together with other international volunteers and totally immersed myself in Tunisian daily life. Every day was full of struggles related to language, cultural differences, and adapting to a very different way of life. But these challenges were what made my experience truly life-changing. 

When I returned to the Netherlands, full of excitement and stories that I wanted to share, I noticed that for the first time in my life, I was actually able to have constructive conversations with my family members about the topic of immigration. This was due to one pivotal point: the power of storytelling. Instead of falling back into old discussions about abstract topics and being right or wrong, my family attentively listened to my stories about the people that I met, the funny moments that were caused by cultural differences, and the aspects of the Tunisian culture that I fell in love with, such as the following story:

During my last week in Tunesia, we went camping with a few of the other volunteers and a few Tunisian AIESECers. The Tunisian AIESECers that were with us were girls of my age who were similar to me: They were university students, cared about the world, and were still figuring out what to do with their lives. Except for one difference that a lot of Dutch people would immediately notice and draw conclusions on; the Tunisian girls wore a Hijab, while I did not. 

As we were sitting around a campfire at night, watching the stars and listening to Coldplay, we started having some deep conversations about life. A game of truth or dare led us to discuss whether we would want to get married and have children at some point in the future. If my family members would see us sitting there, under the stars in Tunisia, they would immediately bet their money on the Tunisian girls wanting to have a husband and children, and me as a Dutch girl wanting to stay single. Well, my family members would definitely have lost this bet. I found out that I was the person of the group with the most conservative outlook on life, surrounded by women who did not want to marry and who wanted to focus on building an amazing career.

This particular story changed the perspective of my family members on how they view women wearing a hijab. They now do not necessarily view every Hijabi as being highly conservative, but they acknowledge that women can be very feminist while wearing a Hijab. 

Next time you experience frustration with your family members because they express opinions that hurt you, I want to challenge you to start telling stories from your own experience. Talk about actual people that you know that relate to the topic at hand, like a friend who was bullied online for being gay, or a friend being denied access at a club for their skin color. 

Hopefully, this will create a more open conversation and nuanced understanding about marginalized groups in the Netherlands, and discourage people from expressing hateful opinions like the ones expressed by the PVV.

Check Tessa’s poems inspired by her experience in Tunisia!  

If you want to hear similar stories from other alumni of the Nour Project, you can listen to the #BridgeTheGap podcast on Spotify. 

If you are interested in going on a Nour Project yourself and would like to know more about it, click here. Once you sign up you will be contacted by an AIESEC’er who will give you detailed information about the projects. 




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