Local Heroes #31 - Expat Community Champion - Rowinda Appelman

Meet Rowinda, the driving force behind some of Amsterdam's recent social initiatives and the city's most active expat community. This uplifting busy bee has a great drive, and shows genuine interest in other people. Thanks to her ongoing curiosity she can share some of the best Amsterdam expat insights.

Published by Robin on 19/06/2015

Hi Rowinda, thank you for your time. Please introduce yourself to the audience…

With a big smile on her face, she answers “A serial question asker”. Letting the words sink in for a moment, she slowly elaborates, “When I was a young woman, my mother would force me to ask questions.


"Every person has a story to tell. The butcher, the mailman, a mentally handicapped patient my mother would care for. Everyone." 


Who are you not to ask and learn?  It’s very difficult to ask questions. Genuine, deep questions, and get people to answer them. Now I cannot stop anymore; I became a question canon in a way, and use my question asking skills to connect large groups of people and build projects.”

You are the driving force behind some of Amsterdam’s recent social initiatives, such as your own Brunch Club, and are closely involved with large institutions such as the World Economic Forum, NATO and the US State Department. Still your passion seems to be the expat culture in Amsterdam. How come?

“I care about people. Asking so many questions throughout my life taught me to always root for the underdog. It’s very interesting to see the look on people’s faces when you ask them what they do to make the world a better place. Having lived in so many countries and being an air nomad for my work, I was the odd one out when I returned to Amsterdam. There is an extra sense of being when you return, and not all of my Dutch friends could relate to that. The expat culture felt like a warm bath, life was great. But with time I too saw the famous expat bubble take shape around me and my community, and I believed I could help break it.”

You have been organizing expat events for almost 3,5 years now, and last year started your own expat social network AMS Connected. What inspired you to start such a group?

“Amsterdam is an expat hub. In IT alone, we need 30.000 people annually, while only 3.000 students graduate per year. This city is dependent on expats for its success, and they have answered the call to come over in large numbers. But reality hits after the expat center has helped them get up on their feet. They remain within their own social networks, and cannot find access into the Amsterdam community the way they would want to. After the fifteenth email with the question if I could connect an expat to community service in the city, I saw how a bigger platform for active citizenship was missing, and I started one the next week.”

And how has it evolved until now and what are your main activities/ events?


“Believe it or not, but Amsterdam has one of the most active expat communities in the world." 


We are at the top when we look at the amount of events and Meetup groups. Most focus on the bulk interest: dining and networking. I try to challenge expats and show them Amsterdam in a way that makes them ask questions about what they see. My team works with social initiatives like the Voedsel Bank (food bank), Speelgoed Bank (toy bank) and homeless shelter Stoelenproject, to facilitate community work, which surpasses the demand to speak Dutch. We organize walking tours and events with a special twist, where you see the city through a slavery perspective, World War II perspective, or blind perspective, to name a few. We also ask iconic ‘Amsterdammers’ to come answer any questions expats might have. I want them to see the gritty, intense side of the city as well, and will never forget the rows of wide pierced eyes when tattoo icon Henk Schiffmacher told them about the Red Light District area of 20 years ago. Those looks make all the work worth it.” 

With over 2000 members, what has been the biggest challenge so far? What are expats after in connecting to other likeminded people?


“The biggest challenge has been to build community where community doesn’t exist yet."


"On a daily basis, I have to deconstruct cultural and societal barriers, in order to try to bring people closer. One year ago, people called me a dreamer when I started my platform. But we all seek the same thing in life: a small group of people around us who we can be our very best with, and overcome our very worst with. Why would we not do this together, surpassing fear of the unknown, and learn from the cultural knowledge and experience present? I will host my first big Iftar this year in Amsterdam with the Moroccan community, to celebrate togetherness during the Ramadan. I cannot wait to see the experience this will be for all of us as fellow human beings.”

Would you think that ‘Amsterdammers’ are open to connect to expats?

“Dutch people tend to stick to their own. We walk through our childhood and college years with a certain group of friends and stay loyal to them. The size of our country adds to this: whenever you have to move for a job, it takes you a couple hours to drive to your friends. I learned to respect Americans for that reason: they relocate every 05 years on average, and you see the flexibility and versatility in the notion of friendship that has grown along with that. To accomplish something big, you need to be a bit shaken.  Slowly Amsterdammers are witnessing how their city is changing, and how much fun it can be to have an out of the box experience. Still, around 70% of the Dutch people within the expat community has lived abroad before, and misses that sense of hyper connectivity and global accountability.”

What would be your advice to the city municipality on this topic? Any improvements needed?

“Everything comes back down to communication: how can we facilitate every group in society in the best way, and make them feel comfortable within and accountable to the bigger structure? One of the things I see a lot is a barrier in language. Not in spoken one on one communication: the Dutch are renowned for their English proficiency. There are however very few media sources on local developments for expats to follow in English, or non-profit organizations for them to reach out to with offers to help them. None of the expats I have spoken with knew about the new entrepreneurial developments at the big Navy terrain next to Central Station. This is a crucial group of people who you are misinforming, and which therefore remains disconnected in a bigger sense than they wish to be.”

Looking at social initiatives, the city is very active. What could still be added?

“Themes that never lose their relevance are Active Citizenship, Identity and Education. And stíll we only organize one-time events or short media campaigns to address them. The City Council is witnessing a slow but steady comeback in segregation. How do you stop these developments? It takes individuals who will stand up within their own neighborhood and start something. It is really that simple: just start. The rest and more importantly: the people will follow. My next project Language4Language will focus on literacy in Nieuw-West. No quick solutions, but small grassroots gatherings and lessons, together with the locals, community centers and governmental initiatives like Eigenwijks. Nothing for them without them, something which is still too often forgotten by Dutch officials.”

And how does the future look like? What do you wish for and what is the dream you’re after to catch? Any other cities around the world?

“Your time is just as valuable as mine”. John Hass – Interim President and Chief Executive Officer of Rosetta Stone – told me this very directly when I met with him in Washington DC 4 weeks ago. This difference in how we as a society perceive youth and talent shows me that there is still a lot of progress to be made in Amsterdam. What we do matters. And it will change lives if we do it well. Governments and city councils do not know how to solve the complex issues of today. It’s time to start asking the question where government responsibility ends, and what we should do as a people. Every day 02 million young adults move to cities. How will we deal with this change in urbanization, and the expat world that comes with that? Expats are here to stay, and integration is not a one-way street. Every job continues until it becomes obsolete. Let’s see if the day ever arrives when a social network for expats will no longer be needed. Until then, I will keep asking my questions, and connect people to help them find their core group for this period in life.” 

Thank you Rowinda for sharing your story. We wish you all the best of luck with your awesome initiatives! 

If you'd like to get connected up with Amsterdam's most active expat community visit the AMS Connected page. 

-Robin-

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