Rotterdam, a town hall guaranteeing diversity

Rotterdam (Netherlands)

From our special correspondent

Life is in full swing in the popular district of Carnisse, south of Rotterdam. Far from the skyscrapers on the north shore of this “Manhattan-sur-Meuse”, the exit from the schools shows the faces of the five continents. The streets lined with shops bear witness to a city of 174 nationalities. It is there that the mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb, who this year received the title of “best mayor in the world” by the British organization City Mayors Foundation, promised to come to work at least one day a week. In fine weather, we take him to sit on a bench on the Wijnbar terrace and let people talk to them. “This district, he made it his laboratory”, emphasizes Gilbert van Drunen, manager of this café which gives way to jazz and poetry – one of Ahmed Aboutaleb’s great passions – and who has been publishing for eight years the Carnisser Courier, a neighborhood newspaper where the mayor often figures prominently.

“It has been his method for over ten years. Ahmed Aboutaleb was the first mayor to take to the city streets, talking to people as equals and asking them what they can bring. He sometimes does it incognito, cap on his head ”, explains Marcel Dela Haije, “city marine” in charge of the fight against racism and discrimination. This function, which he has held for over a year, has no real equivalent in France or elsewhere. This agent in sneakers and hoodie is both a super advisor and a field agent, like his mayor. In Rotterdam, there are eight “city marines”. Some look after a neighborhood, others are in charge of an issue, such as debt. “We are free electrons with our own budget. And we have this direct line with the mayor which gives us weight ”, continues Marcel Dela Haije, who has long worked against delinquency.

His new position was created in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. The wave of anger that started in the United States after the George Floyd affair swept through Rotterdam on June 3, 2020. Several thousand people demonstrated on the Erasmus bridge which forms the junction between the north and south banks of the Meuse, as a sign protest against American police violence. The port city resonated with the feeling of revolt expressed across the Atlantic. Marcel Dela Haije has a goal: “Redefining what it means to be Rotterdam, and to understand the potential and strength of a city that contains such super-diversity. “

The city marine is helping academics to build an indicator of inclusion between now and Christmas, on the model of the one that already exists for safety. “You have to know whether or not what we are doing is going in the right direction, and whether we are effective or whether we need to change our strategy. “ Peter Scholten, Erasmus University researcher warns of possible biases: “The city of Rotterdam has mainly approached the issue through the prism of employment, housing, and sometimes education, while Amsterdam has placed much more emphasis on historical, cultural and community aspects. “ The two rival cities have different approaches. In July, Amsterdam’s mayor Femke Halsema was the first to publicly apologize for the city’s involvement in the colonial and slavery past. Rotterdam, which has published three volumes of research on the colonial past and its subsidies, is still deliberating whether it should do the same. But already, the city has decided to open a space for debate in the South, so as to burst this abscess of the past.

Ahmed Aboutaleb does not always caress communities the wrong way. City marine Marcel Dela Haije holds back two memorable strokes of blood. The latest was addressed to the thugs of the anti-containment riots. The other dates back to 2015, after the terrorist attack on Charlie hebdo. “If you don’t like freedom, please pack your bags and go”, he had launched to the address of those who would be tempted by Islamist jihad. The mayor encourages newcomers to work hard, in return for which he promises zero tolerance for acts of racism.

On a daily basis, Marcel Dela Haije can accompany a victim of insults so that she dares to push the door of the police station. At the same time, the field agent opened a large number of sites, from the fight against abstention to hiring difficulties. It makes its network available to develop the 010 Inclusief association for diversity in the workplace. “Large groups with human resources departments have already started this process, but the port’s SMEs are less equipped, they don’t know where to start”, notes Alice Odé, from the organization. Marcel Dela Haije would like to increase the number of companies signing the diversity charter from 17 to 40.

Ahmed Aboutaleb, son of an imam born in Morocco, who arrived in the Netherlands at the age of 15, wants to set an example in human resources management. The mayor has integrated into the staff of the town hall a team of 26 “confidants” in charge of listening attentively to cases of discrimination. Meryem Fitiwi, the first graduate in her family – in sociology – is one of them. The young woman of Eritrean origin was hired to the nerve, by sending an email to the mayor. “I wrote to him that Rotterdam was the city I grew up in, that I wouldn’t want to work for anyone else, but that I didn’t have any network. “ This is how his career began on a work-study basis, under the most influential recommendation. She is now in charge of inclusion and diversity. “This story encourages me every day to see the potential in others, in a perspective where everyone can be themselves. “

But the mayor’s open policy is far from unanimous, and the approach of local elections next March is not helping. As evidenced by the last tweet of Maurice Meeuwissen, extreme right-wing opponent (PVV). The latter does not support a veiled woman making the front page of the city newspaper, he denounces a “Islamization of the municipal council”. Ahmed Aboutaleb no longer counts this kind of attack. When he was first inaugurated in 2009, his main opponent was Marco Pastors, leader of the local party Leefbaar Rotterdam (Rotterdam liveable). The latter himself had taken up the torch, after the murder of the Islamophobe Pim Fortuyn in 2002. Marco Pastors had offered the mayor just elected a postal envelope so that he returned his Moroccan passport to Rabat. “After living thirty-two years in the Netherlands, I refuse to have my loyalty questioned”, he had replied curtly. Today, Marco Pastors no longer howls with wolves. He even joined the organizational chart of Ahmed Aboutaleb, as director of the Rotterdam South National Rehabilitation Program. “In my mind, nothing has changed, but I prefer to put my energy into essential work, to make sure that people occupy their day well, that is to say at school for the children, and at work for adults. “ Two criteria that have been constantly improving over the past ten years.


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