Let’s take a minute to imagine what a cultural community could look like, feel like, and even smell like: the location is Amsterdam, the community is Syrian, and the visual follows a Dutchwoman through the community (let’s call her Lotte).
Lotte and her four-year-old daughter, Emma, walk into “Little Syria” at 5:30pm and are serenaded by a street performer playing Syrian folk music on an oud. They’ve arrived early for Lotte’s 6:00pm cooking class at the Syrian community hall. Today she will learn how to make Mahshi, a traditional Syrian plate that consists of zucchini stuffed with ground beef, rice, and nuts. This is her sixth time attending the monthly Syrian cooking class and she always arrives early to get a strong, Syrian coffee and baqlawah from Olabi’s, a café she passes on her way to the community hall.
She’s become close to Tamim and Haya, the owners of the café, and they begin preparing her order the moment she walks through the door. They greet her with big smiles on their faces. Through their conversation over the past six months, Lotte has learned a lot about the couple’s life in Syria, their story as refugees, and the Syrian culture.
Tamim ran a café in Syria for over 20 years, and he explains that he regained his sense of purpose when he and Haya were able to open Olabi in Little Syria, thanks to the refugee-serving nonprofit organizations like Refugees Forward and government loans for small businesses. Haya never worked in Syria because it was discouraged for women to work in the town where she was born and raised. In the Netherlands, it wasn’t even a thought. She was motivated by the working women in Amsterdam and she wanted to do the same. Tamim never raised an argument and he sees how happy his wife is each time a customer walks into their café.
As Lotte and Emma are exiting Olabi, they stop in the doorway to allow a tour group to pass. The tour is led by an elderly Syrian couple who are enthusiastically sharing their culture and the story of Little Syria with about fifteen international tourists, almost all of whom have local Little Syria shopping bags in their hands. Haya is overcome with gratitude as the first couple of tourists order the elderly couple’s favorite coffee and pastry combination. She smiles and waves to Lotte and Emma as they exit.
When Lotte and Emma get to the Syrian community hall, Emma is kept occupied in the childcare center. The workshop costs participants €25 each month–or €35 with childcare–which is quite the deal, considering most of the produce is grown in the Syrian greenhouse and community garden, and participants take home a meal for their families at the end of the class.
Emma has gotten to know the young Syrian women and men who work at the daycare, and she is enthusiastic to play with the other children who are both visitors and residents of Little Syria. The women have a special liking for Lotte, as she is very enthusiastic about learning the Syrian culture and cuisine. At the start of the fourth class, they even began greeting her with the three ‘social kisses’ typical among Dutch women.
When the class is over at 8:30pm, Lotte stands at the childcare center door and watches Emma admirably as she speaks in Arabic with the other children. Lotte is proud and surprised by how quickly Emma has caught on, and very proud that her daughter is becoming multilingual at the age of four. They say their goodbyes and as they make their way back home, Lotte and Emma peer into the shop windows.
Lotte spots a beautiful piece of silk fabric at the Syrian fabric store and makes a note of the store hours so she could come back the following afternoon. She has plans to attend an open evening at TextileLab Amsterdam with Rasha, a young woman who watches over Emma at the daycare, and she would love to surprise her by bringing along a traditional Syrian fabric that was handmade right in Little Syria.
As they exit Little Syria, Lotte and Emma take one last deep inhale of the freshly baked Syrian Man’oushe bread coming from the corner cafe.
Using the urban living lab approach will result in a replicable model by which several of these communities could be created for different cultural groups. The visualization should allow you to grasp the potential of the proposed cultural communities including:
the cultural distinctiveness of the community compared to its surrounding areas (via sight, sound, and smell)
the commercial and tourism activity that draws visitors and residents away from the city center (culturally-specific businesses and activities that promise visitors a cultural experience)
the development of organic intercultural relationships (between Lotte, the café owners, and the daycare staff)
mutual intercultural exchange (Haya’s participation in the economy through Olabi; Lotte learning about the Syrian culture through cuisine; workshop leaders greeting Lotte in a Dutch manner; Emma speaking Arabic)