The month of February revolved around the theme of loneliness and social inclusivity this year at Deedmob. In search for inspiring stories from people or organisations who made a daily effort towards more inclusivity, we spoke to Welcome NL founder Julius Weise about social innovation for nonprofits, stereotypes and making new friends.
How and when did you come up with the idea of 'Blendin,' now ‘WelcomeNL?'
“Prior to starting my degree in Cultural Anthropology I moved to Bologna, Italy. This was in September 2015. Coincidentally, I came into contact with a large group of West-African refugees of my age. We’d frequently play football together and became great buddies. Meanwhile, I observed the hopelessness of their situation. Our friendships inspired me, so during the winter I headed to Lesbos where I worked as a volunteer, working with and welcoming people who had fled. My mother, brother and little sister joined. Upon return I couldn’t seem to let this chapter go and sought a way to contribute in the city where I lived: Amsterdam. After my search I discovered a large emergency centre, at the end of my street, of all places. Soon it became evident that people who arrived in the centre were treated like little children. They received barely any responsibilities in the shelter, which caused them to stare at their phones, bored, for most of the day.”
“This experience made me think about alternative solutions. Solutions rooted in equality of people, where it didn’t matter if you had just fled from another country or were born in the Netherlands. With my friend Kourosh, who grew up as the son of parents who had fled, I thought of the concept of an online platform where newcomers and locals could easily get in touch.”
“In order to live a happy life, building a supportive network is crucial. Newcomers in Dutch society lack this, and this is worsened by the fact that newcomers and locals merely co-exist. Through intensive contact between these groups we discovered that both of them were in need of social contact, open to meeting new people and actively looking for ways to achieve this. Blendin jumped on this need and was founded to make it possible and accessible.”
“By now, we have partnered with the Swedish organisation Welcome and designed a Dutch version of their app, which was launched in December 2018. After the first two months we had acquired over 2,000 users and facilitated meet ups between newcomers and locals in 28 different towns and cities throughout the Netherlands!”
Prior to this adventure you were well on your way to becoming a successful entrepreneur as the founder of the fairtrade shoe brand MIPACHA. To what extent do you consider running an NGO different from scaling a start-up?
“A large difference lies within finances. Our app is free for use and there are no talks of advertising via our platform. This means that we need to acquire our funds in a different way. Given the fact that we’re a foundation without any profit objective, we can’t focus our attention on regular investors. We deal with a large number of stakeholders, which often proves to be challenging. We initially focus on newcomers who are in need of social and professional contact with Dutch people. For this to happen, we need to activate locals who are open to filling this need. Finally, we need to ensure our organisation afloat, which is also why fundraising is a large part of my responsibility. Evidently, this process is very different from my previous enterprise whereby the target audience was a paying customer.”
We see this everywhere: online tools and networks that aim to generate more offline social cohesion. Does this trend, in your opinion, speak to a lack of efficiency of traditional methods?
“Hard question. If by ‘traditional methods’ you mean the church, community centres, schools and sports clubs, then I agree with this claim. However, I do believe that these places remain the most adequate methods for social cohesion. The problem is that nowadays their role is becoming hard to fill. If I look around, it becomes evident that we all seem so connected via social media, but that social interactions with strangers or people in your ‘own bubble’ are becoming less frequent, despite these often resulting in enriching experiences. Besides, I think our generation is actively seeking ways of contributing to a better society or environment, but would rather do this in a way that fits the 'zeitgeist' (their lifestyle). Nowadays, we’d rather do this in an accessible, quick and positive manner. This is something for which we’d like to offer the tools.”
Most memorable meet up?
“A few weeks ago, when we had just publicly launched the new Welcome app, Hani, from Yemen, posted a lunch invitation. He invited a few people to barbecue on a Friday. A lot of fun of course. The only problem? Hani lives in the AZC in Luttelgeest. Potentially the smallest town in the Netherlands. My colleague Pepijn and I sent him a message via the app to thank him for his kind invitation and tell him that the chance of there being an active local around Luttelgeest was rather slim. Hani thanked us and told us he’d keep posting a new invitation every week until someone reacted. He didn’t wait long, seeing as the following day, Edwin, a Dutch user, reacted to Hani’s request with: “Finally, something in my neighbourhood! I’ll be there!” Edwin and Hani regularly contact each other and have had lunch on several occasions. I think it’s a great example, as it adequately illustrates the power of the app well. We could never have put anyone in touch with Hani ourselves, seeing as we don’t know anyone in Luttelgeest, but by centralising the supply and demand via the platform, people find each other regardless!”
Being at the 'right place at the right time' proves to be an important factor for success for many companies. How applicable was this for Welcome NL?
“It was and it wasn't. No, in the sense that, had we been able to focus on the project on a full-time basis some 3 to 5 years ago, this would have presented a more favourable financial situation to begin with and ride the ‘hype’ around immigration. On the other hand, we’re convinced that the need for more meet ups remains extremely important to this day. The largest chunk of newcomers has lived in the Netherlands for about 3 years and has received language lessons, as well as housing. This is oftentimes the moment they’re left to their own devices by other organisations and that building up a social network becomes all the more important. If this doesn’t happen, they’re likely to fall into loneliness.”
Restrained mindsets, polarisation and skepticism. What’s your remedy?
"An inspiring encounter with someone from a completely different background or culture can break through the toughest sceptic and mindsets. It's up to us to reach these people and convince them of this. Polarisation is a huge societal challenge and something that, with our app, we continue to go against. But this is an exciting challenge!”
“The theme of refugees and integration loses its urgency in daily media coverage and conservative, right-wing parties continue to grow. At the same time, the challenge for newcomers to integrate becomes larger. Despite the majority of newcomers having been here for a while and speaking the language, it continues to surprise me how few of them actually know one Dutch person. How can we expect someone to really master a language, find a job, and thus, integrate?”
“It is up to us as a society to show that it is in everyone’s interest that the large group of newcomers living in the Netherlands should be able to join our society and could, in fact, be of great importance. This is how we make a true difference. Something as simple as inviting someone for lunch can truly make an impact.”
Besides countless successful meet ups, what are you looking forward to this year?
“We need to make this our year. Over the past year, we’ve truly had the time to learn, experience and build a large network. The Welcome App works and proves that there’s a need for a platform where newcomers and locals can easily get in touch and meet up. We’ve established a number of crucial partnerships and know on which piece of the integration process we should focus. In May, we will be hosting the Meterhuis in the Westerpark and will be rolling out a broad program as an extension of our app. With a liberty dinner, music events, film nights, art expositions, workshops and a walk-in language cafe. This way we’ll keep track of how many locals meet each other at this location, just like the app does. We hope to provide attendees with a refreshed perspective on migration, integration and cultural diversity. And of course, generate a lot of attention towards the app!”
“This summer we’ll have a food truck at different large festivals, also as an extension of the app; a mobile meeting place. If all of this goes well, the app will not only be active in Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, but hopefully in another European country! Fingers crossed.”