Thessa Lageman is a journalist, copywriter, photographer, and Arabist, based in the Netherlands. She has written for Al Jazeera, the BBC, The Age, and Middle East Eye, among others.
In The Hague, borrowed bicycles, skateboards, and roller skates knit immigrant communities together.
It’s a sunny day in the Schilderswijk neighborhood in the Dutch city of The Hague. A custodian with long dreadlocks stands in front of his Haagse hopje on the Jacob van Campen square.
It’s one of the 24 small buildings of its kind in the city. They’re located next to playgrounds, and offer children ages 4 to 12 the chance to borrow toys, games, and bikes. When the weather is good, small pools and bouncy castles are sometimes set up outside, and on rainy days the children can do crafts and games indoors.
This building’s custodian, Runaldo Overman, is a 62-year-old Suriname-Dutch man who seems younger than his years. He’s been working at this post for over two decades. That’s when the first Haagse hopjes (named after a typical sweet from The Hague) were erected in the city, following the example of Rotterdam. At first, these buildings were converted shipping containers; now, some are new structures built expressly for this purpose. They are open every afternoon on weekdays, are sponsored by the municipality and charitable funds, and are managed by several welfare organizations.
Most hopjes are located in deprived areas, like this one. The Schilderswijk and some of its surrounding districts have higher levels of poverty and crime than most other parts of the country. Unemployment and school dropout rates are high, too. Ten years ago, this led to the Minister for Housing, Communities, and Integration putting the neighborhoods on the list of forty Dutch “problem districts” to be allocated more attention and investment. The hopjes are a welcome addition.
While 22.7 percent of the Schilderswijk population was of native Dutch descent in 1995, it has now dropped to 8.5 percent, with most residents having migrated from Turkey, Morocco, and Suriname. For these newer arrivals, it can be difficult to connect with people from other backgrounds. Through the hopjes, the municipality hopes to generate more contact between people with different cultural experiences, facilitate conversation in Dutch, and ultimately help first-generation migrants find their footing. Some sites are more successful at this than others. “There’s definitely more interaction here than there used to be,” says Overman, explaining that he often asks parents to help during special activities. The hopjes are also a meeting place for the residents, most of whom live in small apartments without gardens, he says.
Last week he had trouble with some kids driving their scooters around the square. He points at the cracked windows. “I know they’re behind this, but can’t prove it.” But it’s better now than in the past, he says. “There are many fewer drugs dealers than a few years ago.” The custodians say they rarely have issues with toys being stolen, though a man did once try to make off with the bikes from Overman’s hopje.
Inside the hopje at the nearby Van der Vennepark, custodian Rachid Touzani, 54, shows the children’s membership cards on one of the walls. When a kid borrows a toy, the membership card is placed next to a picture of the toy, so it’s clear who is using what. At the moment, there are 980 active membership cards in the city, with members of the same family sharing one.
The procedures are simple. “A new member needs to bring in a parent and then we explain the rules,” Touzani says. The children have to tidy up before they leave, and aren’t allowed fight with each other. If children misbehave, their parents are asked to come in, and eventually they can lose their membership. Sometimes, custodians or volunteers notice that a child has problems at home or is lacking attention, Touzani says, and they try to discuss it with the parents or ask help from other organizations. Sometimes, especially during holiday breaks, the custodians will also take the kids on heavily discounted outings to amusement parks or other field trips, asking parents to kick in around €5. (“Some parents can’t even afford that,” Overman notes.)
A little farther along is the Hanneman square hopje. Three young girls with headscarves are trying to decide whether they want the roller skates, Frisbees, or hoops. Outside sits custodian Sonja Stoppelenburg. Now 62, “I’ve seen the children grow up here,” she says. “Hi, darling,” she calls to Saloua Talhaoui, who walks towards her.
The 36-year-old Talhaoui, who owns her own hairdressing salon, used to visit as a child, and now volunteers four days a week while her own children, ages 3, 11, and 12, play here. When she was 5 years old, she moved from Morocco to the Netherlands with her parents. At that time large numbers of people from countries around the Mediterranean were invited to work in the Netherlands. Many moved into this area because of the cheap housing.
Measuring the long-term effects of the hopjes is hard, explains a policy officer at The Hague municipality, because they influence the social and physical livability of the neighborhood together with many other factors. Similar initiatives, where children can use toys, now exist in a few other Dutch cities, like Delft, Arnhem, and Utrecht.
For volunteer Nassir Boudkabout, 28, who was playing badminton with some children at the Hanneman square, the hopjes are an example of the city stepping up. “A lot has been invested in this neighborhood since I used to play here as a child,” he says. “In the past, there weren’t so many playgrounds and parks.”