The political group We Are Here [Wij Zijn Hier] is the first large-scale organization of refugees in the Netherlands to protest the structural denial of its members’ rights to citizenship. The organization’s members come from a variety of different countries, though most hail from Africa and live in a juridical and political limbo, as their countries of origin either refuse to allow them to return, or international law and other reasons prohibit the Netherlands from sending them back to their homelands.
The group started with support of the diaconate in Amsterdam, the overarching structure of Protestant churches, which in September 2012 allowed a small group of seven refugees to build a temporary camp in its garden. What began as a marginal encampment soon evolved into a continuously expanding collective, aided by the support of citizens who provided donations in the forms of food and clothing. Through collective organization and solidarity between the group and civil society, the refugees began to move out of obscurity and gain visibility.
Soon after their initial gathering, the group’s rapid growth led them to search for a new space, and they moved to an abandoned piece of land located on the Notweg, a street in the Osdorp neighborhood of Amsterdam. At Notweg, the group continued to grow until authorities evicted it in November of the same year. As a result of a collaborative effort between Christian activists and the squatter community, a temporary solution was found by taking over an abandoned church, which immediately became referred to as the Vluchtkerk [Church of Refuge].
By the time they were moving into the Vluchtkerk, the group had grown to approximately 120 members, and thus it became clear that We Are Here was more than just a loose collection of individuals, but rather a political organization. Its collective demand is to arrive at a permanent residential solution for the whole group, not to break up at any cost, and to bring to public attention the plight of the many more invisible refugees living in the Netherlands. In the spirit of the famous slogan, “I Am A Man,” with which the African-American community took to the streets of Memphis in 1968, the We Are Here protests are based on the most existential and political claim: they demand that their existence be acknowledged by civil society and governments.
The Vluchtkerk quickly gained national attention and received enormous public support from members of the local neighborhood and countless volunteers who travelled to Amsterdam from all over the country, as well as from various politicians, journalists, writers, and artists in the media. We Are Here organized protests and gatherings, and developed a precise internal political structure that represented its members based on their respective national backgrounds. During the period of the Vluchtkerk, the foundation and action group We Are Here to Support was also created to oversee the large volunteer network.
In March 2013, the group moved once more, this time to an empty office building that quickly became referred to as the Vluchtflat [Flat of Refuge]. This allowed for a brief moment of rest and relative privacy, in contrast with the large shared space of the church, while the group prepared for another move in October 2013. During this time, the group spent its evenings at different cultural institutions in Amsterdam, in order to bring its issues to the attention of the public and the municipality once more, before finding residence in another empty office building, the Vluchtkantoor [Office of Refugees] that same month, where it currently lives, having now grown to over 200 members.
We Are Here has been active now for more than a year and has developed not only its own unique political structure, but also made visible the vast network of civil society that opposes current immigration laws in the Netherlands. Together with the Dutch artistic community they explore new models of political representation, for whereas the undocumented members of We Are Here are prohibited from performing labor, they are not banned from engaging with forms of creative expression. This strange inconsistency in the Dutch legislative system has allowed the group to develop new forms and techniques of political visibility and protests, as well as new forms of social mobilization. Art has played, and continues to play, a significant role in all of the organization’s activities.
The “art of protest” forms one of the main tools that continues to expand the movement, gain support in society at large, and pressure local and national politicians to come to structural solutions. We Are Here strives not only to secure rights for its members, but also, in the spirit of internationalist solidarity, to secure them for all paperless people whose existence is structurally denied and unacknowledged in today’s world.
This second reader of New World Academy (NWA) explores the development of this new political organization and the role of similar initiatives worldwide, all of which at- tempt to build alliances between refugees and civil society. We Are Here opens with its collective manifesto, which sets out its main demands and goals, followed by We Are a Political Organization, an interview with We Are Here spokesperson Yoonis Osman Nuur, in which he describes in detail the formation of the movement as well as his own experiences as an asylum seeker. We Exist, a speech delivered by Nuur on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the organization, lays out the group’s various successes and challenges for the future, and Savannah Koolen and Elke Uitentuis’s collaborative narrative, We Are Here to Support, provides an insight into the formation and role of the volunteer network of the same name. Campaigner and spokesperson Thomas explains the common urgencies of his fellow members in Why We Are Here and lead singer of the We Are Here Band Kouenou Cyriaque’s Tout est un [Everything Is One] offers a lyrical interpretation of the organization’s aspirations for a united humanity. The manifesto of Immigration Movement International, founded by artist Tania Bruguera, demonstrates support of international solidarity between immigrant communities and artist Ahmet Öğüt lays out the framework of his project, The Silent University, which gives refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants the opportunity to teach their skills and providing professional training to a wider audience. Lastly, Audrey Chan’s interview, Artists at Work: Patrick Bernier and Olive Martin, describes Bernier and Martin’s long-term research into the possibilities of expanding immigration laws through specific artistic projects and interventions.
On behalf of NWA, I want to thank the generosity of the contributors to this reader. It is an honor for NWA to host We Are Here and its political and cultural representatives, all of whom I believe will be able to engage participants to expand their knowledge of not only one of the most terrible political dramas of our time—the structural, administrative, and existential denial of a people’s existence—but also of the potential of artistic and cultural practices to imagine new horizons and create visibility and agency where it is truly needed.
Last but certainly not least, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Maria Hlavajova and her team at BAK, Arjan van Meeuwen, Gwen Parry, Merel Somhorst, and Ivo Verburg, for their incredible commitment in co-establishing NWA. Further, my special gratitude goes out to BAK’s editor, Seyma Bayram, for her tireless and precise work. At the onset of this project, the question “What if democracy was not a show?” was posed by BAK. I believe that the organizations we have brought together through this project have begun to answer this question by demonstrating new critical alliances between progressive politics and the field of art. It is only through these types of coalitions that we might not only imagine another world, but also act on this world and reclaim it as our common world.