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Grassroots and Government Initiatives in the Community of Slotervaart/Overtoomse Veld


While exploring possible solutions addressing problems within the Moroccan community of Amsterdam, our research naturally took us into the heart and minds of the Moroccan community. Our original intent was to use the case study of the buurtvaders, or Neighbourhood Fathers, as a basis upon which we could draw concrete conclusions as to the prospects for the Moroccan community of Slotervaart/ Overtoomse Veld. What we discovered however, was that in order to fully understand how the Moroccan community of south west Amsterdam can improve their situation, we first must enmesh ourselves into the community as fully as we could in the little time we had to produce this essay. By photographing various members of the community we were better able to immerse ourselves and to gain the trust and support of the community. And for this we must thank all of our subjects for their support and willingness to aid us in this difficult endeavour.   

Through the use of photography we are able to put a human face on the diverse elements of the Moroccan neighbourhood. It was our desired intent to portray young and old Moroccans, as full and complete members of Dutch society. Through the expressive lens of the camera we intend to humanise a stigmatised group. We want to share personal stories of individuals who through the support of community and government programs were empowered to ameliorate their own situation and that of their fellow community members. In doing so it was our clear purpose to use photography as the means of displaying humanity in action within the buurt.  


The reputation of the Moroccan community in Amsterdam has become severely tainted in recent years. Disproportional high crime rates, a negative portrayal in the media, and a general disconnect between expressed attitudes of the Dutch establishment and actual policy, all serve to further this stigmatisation. While integration and tolerance of Moroccans is the goal of the Dutch government and society, in practice many policies of the media and government serve to further alienate Moroccans from the Dutch mainstream.  

According to Dutch criminologist Frank Bovenkerk in his book Policing a Multicultural Society, “The second generation does present a criminality problem if and when two conditions are met i.e. it is poorly integrated into the new society, and it is in a weak socio-economic position." (Policing a Multicultural Society page 27) Underemployment, particularly among youth, and a feeling of alienation from Dutch society are themes that have consistently reappeared in our many discussions with diverse members of the Moroccan community of Slotervaart/Overtoomse Veld. For the residents of this neighbourhood, a predominantly Moroccan neighbourhood to the west of Amsterdam, these two preconditions for second generation criminality are a matter of fact.

Compounded with the problems of criminality among Moroccan youth is the media's portrayal of them as a dangerous element of society. Mention "Moroccan Youth» to your average Dutch person and you likely to hear about robberies on the train to Schiphol Airport. Much of the attention from the press the Moroccan community has received in recent years has been far from complimentary.

For the Dutch media, crimes committed by those of Moroccan descent are not that of Dutch citizens, but of Moroccans, thus contributing to their alienation from Dutch society. Fatima Elatik, a city council member of Amsterdam, reflected upon this situation to us, "When you hear about a mugging on the street, if it is a white kid then it was just a youth, but if it was done by a Moroccan kid the word 'Moroccan' always comes before youth…Similarly when I am referred to by my colleagues or in the paper, I am always called the 'Moroccan' council-women. I have lived here for 28 years! (her age) When will I be Dutch?"  

Most recently, in looking for ways in which to portray positive developments within the Moroccan community, the press have besieged the buurtvaders with requests for interviews. The buurtvaders, or neighbourhood fathers, are a group of 26 Moroccan men who took it upon themselves to combat the problems in their neighbourhood of Slotervaart / Overtoomse Veld. They set up a system of patrolling the streets every night from 8pm-1am and have recently begun a Scouting troop for their children.  Articles about the buurtvaders have recently appeared in numerous journals including, De Telegraaf, Vrij Nederland and De Volkskrant. Despite the flood of positive attention the buurtvaders are currently enjoying, this has done little to quell their inherently critical view of the media's reporting on the Moroccan community. One buurtvader we talked too nearly repeated the words of Elatik when he told us, "We are always treated as allochtonen (non-native or foreign). We get kicked in a corner, people only look at things that going wrong…Its really like this: If an autochtoon (white Dutch native) rapes a child it's put in the paper very small, somewhere towards the end.  But if a Moroccan guy steals a bottle of soda, it's on the front page and always referring to 'Moroccan'… That's not fair!"  While this anecdote may be an extreme case, this sentiment of distrust of the press is something we found quite prevalent in the Moroccan community.    

This problem extends well beyond politics and the media and is so deeply ingrained in the Dutch psyche that even Dutch language is cluttered with terms that serve to alienate and disenfranchise. Two terms "allochtonen" and "second generation" are particularly troubling for a society claiming to be multicultural.  Allochtonen roughly translates as foreigner and it connotes any non-white Dutch minority group. This term is troublesome because it creates a distinction between autochtoon (or naturally Dutch) and allochtonenthereby creating a distinction between what is really Dutch and what is merely diluted Dutch. 

The term "second generation" denotes the children of immigrants to The Netherlands.  If your parents were Danish and they moved to the small town of Bemmel, Holland before you were born, you would be considered a second generation Dane and not first generation Dutch. You may have never been to Denmark, illiterate of Danish language, and despise "Dogma" movies, but to your friends at school, the mayor of the town, and to the writer of the police blotter section, you would be a second generation Dane. While not explicitly xenophobic, this use of language does little to advance the situation of an already stigmatised section of society.  

Not all government policies are bad, and not all media attention negative. This photo-essay is in large part an exploration of mainstream Moroccan Society which has successfully succeeded in restoring civility and calm within their neighbourhood.  It is our purpose to examine how the Moroccan community has been able to combat crime in their neighbourhood and take proactive steps towards integration.  Conversely, we also explore what current obstacles are preventing the full and complete integration of Moroccans into Dutch society.

A Profile of Slotervaart/Overtoomse Veld

April 23, 1998 is a watershed date for those living in Slotervaart / Overtoomse Veld. Reacting to the seemingly unnecessary arrest of one Moroccan man, youth in the neighbourhood began a small-scale riot, smashing windows and setting garbage cans ablaze. No one was injured in this disturbance, but what resulted was an increased awareness, by both the government and the community itself that the needs of the community and in particular, the youth, must be quickly recognised in order to prevent a similar social disturbance in the future. 

For its part, the police department quickly changed its strategies within the community. The position of buurtregisseur, or neighborhood director, created in 1997 to act as a liaison between the police and the community.  This position was formerly filled by an unpopular man who was distrusted by the local youth.  His interpretation of the so-called “no-nonsense” policy handed to him by his superiors was disallowing loitering in public places by groups of youth and his combative approach to policing earned him the nickname of “Jerry Springer” from local youth.  The riots were in large part due to the youth’s animosity towards his style of policing. After the riots he was replaced with a kindly man named Ton Smakman, whom the children of the neighbourhood affectionately call "Long Ton" because of his tall stature, currently fills this position. His interventionist style of policing in which he often times speaks to the parents of young offenders instead of arresting them, has earned him the trust and respect of the community. Young Moroccan boys wanting to give "Long Ton" handshake or "high-five" repeatedly interrupted our interview with Smakman.  

The most glaring example of collective action and self-organisation within the Moroccan community thus far has been the buurtvaders. In April of 1999, a group of Moroccan fathers organised in response to rising crime rates among their youth and a perceived expanding sentiment among the autochtoon population that the Moroccans were a potentially dangerous group. They began by patrolling the streets every night from 8pm to 1am and crime rates in their neighbourhood soon declined.  While they are most celebrated for their role as a neighbourhood watch group, the true value of the buurtvadersis that they are a network of socially conscious fathers who meet daily to discuss issues of importance for their community. They contemplate a wide array of issues relevant to them ranging from organising a Scout troop for their children to ways in which they can better integrate into Dutch society.  


This first generation of Moroccan immigrants does not understand why Moroccans, in general, are stigmatised. Their generation is an honest and hard working group who left Morocco for a better life in The Netherlands. Because of a problem with their youth they feel that Dutch society treats all Moroccans like criminals and that they are unwelcome members of society. They experience what one buurtvader called "Indirect apartheid." In his view, and in the opinion of many others we engaged, while the government says that it really wants to help the Moroccan community become full and equal members of Dutch society, frequently government policy does not reflect that sentiment.  

The buurtvaders were particularly dismayed by the recent import of nurses from South Africa. Employment in the service sector is a problem within the Moroccan community and they saw the shortage of nurses as an opportunity to develop a niche within the economy. They argued that instead of importing these nurses, why not use their daughters and wives who have a long tradition of nursing in Morocco.  

According to Mohammed Errami who is the director of an organisation called MARVO which acts as a liaison between the school system and the Moroccan community, the government should take more active steps in addressing underemployment in Slotervaart / Overtoomse Veld. Most first and second-generation immigrants are industrial labourers and he feels that employers necessarily discriminate against Moroccans. He suggests that a system similar to affirmative action in the United States should be used in The Netherlands. Businesses in Holland should be compelled to hire a certain number of minorities and according to Errami, this would certainly help advance the economic status of Moroccans and further the goal of integration into the greater Dutch middle class. This kind of reform is something that many members of the Moroccan community feel is needed as a structural solution to their economic situation

Of the various theories on why there is a disproportionately high crime rate among Moroccan youth, Chris Wetjens, the director of Justitie in de Buurt (translated as justice in the neighbourhood) and creator of a documentary about the life of Moroccan teenage criminals, the most central reason for criminality among Moroccan youth is their inability connect in a meaningful way with their family. Justitie in the Buurt is a branch of the Prosecutors office and it seeks to intervene in situations where there is a high risk of a particular youth committing a crime. Wetjens and his office receive a list of names of youths in Slotervaart / Overtoomse Veld who have had encounters with the law. He then meets with that young man, his family, and his friends, and seeks a solution that is tailored to the particular circumstance of that individual.  

His work takes him inside the lives of young offenders. From this unique perspective he developed the concept of the film "Get It." The film profiles the lives of five Moroccan youths who have had trouble with the law. Two of the three are still in prison and describe how awful the conditions are on the inside, serving as warning to any budding criminal who thinks prison may be a path toward machismo. The other three are reformed offenders who show that a life of street violence and petty crimes do not pay. A viewing of the film is always accompanied by a group discussion lead by trained youth workers.  

Of particular interest for our exploration of the Moroccan community, Wetjens described what he called, "A huge education gap" between immigrant parents and their children. While the children learn to read and write in school their parents are often illiterate and cannot answer the questions of their kids. This creates great tension in the household, says Wetjens, and the frustration sometimes takes the form of verbal abuse. According to Wetjens, "The culture between parents and youth are different, the youth live between two worlds and pick the culture which best suits him." In the cases he has studied this tension between parents and also between cultures is what drives children out of their home and onto the street to make their reputation. Wetjens however, is quick to point out that only 400 of a total population of 50,000 in the neighbourhood, “or less than one percent of the entire population”, are considered by the Prosecutors office as "high risk" cases.  Sociologist Frank van Gemert agrees with Wetjens when he claims that culture should have a central place when explaining crime within the Moroccan community. It is difficult, he claims, for outsiders and the media to catch cultural nuances within the Moroccan community. The role of the father and the independence of the male child at the age of fifteen or sixteen are examples of two particular cultural idiosyncrasies which need to be understood before one can begin to draw conclusions about the community as a whole. A misunderstanding of cultural peculiarities can lead to convoluted theories about the causes of crime in the Moroccan community which could result in misguided solutions.       

Whereas, Justitie in the Buurt was the response by the government to prevent the spread of criminality among the youth of the neighbourhood, the program "And Now Something Positive" was created by concerned members of the Slotervaart / Overtoomse Veld community as a different approach to intervention for high-risk youth. "And Now Something Positive" was created by a motley crew of concerned citizens of the community as a way to directly change the lives of young offenders.  The project chose 30 of the most hardened Moroccan youth and gave them the opportunity to work, receiving 750 guilders, to build hospital beds, repair wheelchairs, and make crutches and other useful items that would be given to hospitals and orphanages in Morocco. For the final stage of the program they would travel to Morocco and hand deliver that which they had built. We interviewed four participants of this program and it would be nearly impossible to overstate the success of this program.  

Youssouf, perhaps the most hardened of all the youth we talked to, reflected on his days as a young hooligan in the same sentimental way that an older generation may reflect on their wild teenage years. "I was once stabbed by ten Turks when I was really drunk. When they stab you and you are drunk you don't even notice you are stabbed. The doctor told me that I was very lucky to survive this. I have scars all over my body." (Which he proudly showed us) 

Since participating in the program Youssouf has completely turned his life around. He now is a youth worker for Impuls, mentoring and counselling those he fears may travel down the same path as he had. For Youssouf the value of the program was that it showed him how easy his life in The Netherlands was compared to that of his "Moroccan Brothers."  "We live very easy here," he told us, "Food and drinks are easy to get"…"It really makes you think. I mean, we go out robbing, while these people can barely make any money at all." For Youssouf, seeing the desperately poor conditions of others was what made him want to change his lifestyle and do his part to positively contribute to his neighbourhood. 

Fatima Elatik and Ton Smakman, both of whom were organisers of this program who went to Morocco with the youth told us that, among other things, their hidden agenda was to give these youth a taste of what life was like in Morocco. According to Smakman, "When they were in Morocco they were viewed more as Dutch than Moroccan.   Because of that they felt discriminated against and experiencing that sort of discrimination completely changed their perspective. They now realise more clearly that they have to build a future here in Holland."

The program also was intended to build trust between its older sponsors and younger participants. Both Elatik and Smakman told us that through a conscious effort of positive reinforcement by the older guides, the youth were able to develop a deep trust between themselves and the mentors. Smakman recalled that one youth whom he shared a room with, a young man with a particularly bad reputation, entrusted him to hold onto his wallet and passport and, although he was a smoker, the youth would not smoke in the room as a courtesy to Smakman. Similarly, Elatik developed quite a trusting relationship with many of the boys to the point where she gave them all her personal home number and instructed them to call, at any hour, if they needed anything.  It is a telling statistic that of the 20 youth who participated in this program, 18 now have steady jobs, and one of the most hardened of all is now a youth counsellor.  



Integrating into Dutch society for a minority group is not much different then the process by which a delicious Hollandaise sauce is created.  Butter and cream make up the majority of the sauce, but lemon-juice and cayenne pepper are what really give it some taste.  All fine chefs know the motto: A recipe is only as good as the quality of its ingredients, and the quality of those ingredients wholly depends upon the conditions in which they were grown.  Not enough nutrients in the earth below and too much or too little rain from above will spoil the plants and create a foul sauce.   

The buurtvaders and "And Now Something Positive" are examples of grassroots community based initiatives that create an environment friendly to integration. Collective action and a sense of communal responsibility nurtured by these organisations spread to those whom they reach. The buurtvaders provide a social network that can be tapped if and when a social movement is necessary to advance their needs. "And Now Something Positive," as a community based youth intervention program perpetuates the seeds of community responsibility and replants them in the next generation.  

Seeds in fertilised soil alone however, do not produce cayenne. The ground can be full of the world's best fertiliser, but without some rain from the sky above, the seeds will never grow. Governmental involvement in the Moroccan community changed from drought to flood in a short period of time.  According to the COT report, a study of the causes of the small riot in Slotervaart / Overtoomse Veld in April of 1998, the widespread social disturbance was, in large part, due to the absence of government based initiatives aimed at integrating the Moroccan youth population. The lack of government support fuelled this sense of alienation and frustration felt by the youth and perpetuated the riot. Following that incident there was a flood of government programs producing mixed results.

Government sponsored initiatives aimed at helping the Moroccan community, like Justitie in the Buurt, are representative of the aims of the municipal and national government's desire to create an environment friendly to healthy integration. Too much government support however, is like too much rain, spoiling the fruit. Impuls is the quintessential example of when good intentions prove problematic and when an overdose of government support can hinder the effectiveness of a program. Impuls was created as a sport and recreation board designed to organise activities for the youth in the neighbourhood. It soon became the oversight board for all youth oriented activities in the area and, in the eyes of many people we interviewed, it also became unnecessarily bureaucratic and over-funded to the point where it became less and less effective. 

What makes the buurtvaders such a unique example is that they have refused offers by the government for more funding. They are happy with their free coffee and cell phones precisely because it gives them the freedom to do what they see fit without having to answer to some sort of overseeing authority. According to Fatima Elatik, one of the key supporters of the buurtvaders in the city council, "a certain amount of distance from the government is necessary for the sustainability of these institutions." 

At this time, one of the biggest complaints of the Moroccan community is that much of the government's funding is misdirected to inefficient programs. Mohammed Errami, director of Marvo, echoed the sentiment of many people we interviewed when he said that that one of his chief concerns was the inadequacy of suitable enough public space to hold community functions. Residents, if celebrating a circumcision for example, must all pack into one small house and for the ceremony. There is a serious need for more public spaces, more mosques, and more youth centres. It is a curious irony of Dutch society, that while it historically would readily support the building of churches, building a mosque in Amsterdam is a most difficult endeavour. According to Elatik the lack of government support for youth councils in Moroccan communities is also a serious obstacle to integration.  Neighbourhood youth councils, she argues, would give the youth of ethnic minority communities a voice and would be a giant step towards integration because they would feel that they are active members of a system which works for them in addressing their needs. Elatik is continually lobbying her colleagues, but as of yet there are no youth councils in these communities and far too few proactive initiatives by the government to integrate ethnic minority youth into the Dutch political system. She warns that not enough government support (too arid a climate) will prevent, or at least stall, the process of integration.      

There is a strong desire among the Moroccan community of Amsterdam to be considered firstly as Dutch, and secondly as people of Moroccan descent. Through the collective action of community improvement groups like the Buurtvaders and "And Now something Positive" the soil is ripe for sowing. The government, for its part, is still trying to find that perfect balance between too much and too little support, between drought and flood. Through our case study of the neighbourhood we can positively say that although there still exists certain obstacles to integration, the general movement in recent years has been towards that ever-perfect balance between community activism and government support necessary for integration to become realised.



Ton Smakman, Buurtregisseur Overtoomse Veld-Zuid

Fatima Elatik, City Council Member

Houssein Mouhmouh, Assistant Buurtregisseur Overtoomse Veld-Zuid

Chris Wetjens, Director Justitie in the Buurt.

Buurtvaders: A. Benyahia, Mr. El Mourabet, Mr. Gatabizian, Mr. Fariani, Mr. Naamane

And Now Something Positive Participants:

Youssouf El Morabet

Omar (name protected)

Abdelilah Asbaa

Incident en ongeregeldheden Amsterdam West , 23 april 1998. Marokkaanse jongeren, politie en bestuur. Crisis Onderzoek Team. Rijks Universiteit Leiden. 


F. Bovenkerk, M. van San S. de Vries Policing a Multicultural Society, 1999 Apeldoorn

Frank van Gemert Ieder Voor Zich: Kansen Cultuur en Criminaliteit van Marokkaanse Jongens

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Netherlands Netherlands 2001


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