Last week the Multicultural Amsterdam Interest Group hopped on the metro and headed to the Bijlmermeer, otherwise known as the Bijlmer, for a tour focused on the role of religious institutions in the area. The Bijlmer is in the southeast of Amsterdam and known to be the most multicultural area of the city, with more than 150 nationalities. Upon arriving at the metro station our tour guide provided a quick historical overview of the area. The Bijlmer was built originally with the intention that middle class families could move out of the over-crowded city center to a more suburban style area: the Bijlmermeer. The Bijlmer was built with large high rise buildings in a condominium-style fashion, with several limited shopping areas. The trademark of the Bijlmer became the many underground parking garages and underground pedestrian and bike paths that were built, with raised streets for motor traffic. This two level approach to traffic (with slowing moving traffic underground) was designed to provide safer traffic patterns. However, our guide explained that this design left the Bijlmer feeling sparse and deserted so that most of the intended middle class families opted to remain living in the beautiful and bustling city center. With an increasing migrant population in the Netherlands, affordable social housing was also built in the Bijlmer and eventually it became an area where immigrants and lower classes lived. Resident’s lower incomes and social statuses eventually led to higher levels of crime in the area and for a time the Bijlmer was thought of as a place where most people did not want to live or visit. In recent years, urban renewal efforts including new shopping centers and improved housing have brought more socio-economic balance to the Bijlmer. In response to residents’ complaints about the traffic structure, the city got rid of many of the underground garages and walkways and lowered the roads and several new shopping centers have been built.
Our guide explained that the destruction of these underground garages was important to not when discussing the function of religious institutions in the Bijlmer. There were no pre-existing religious institutions (churches, mosques, synagogues) in the area as it was so recently developed, so new migrants and residents had to find other places to worship. With little or no money and in search of a dry place to worship, churches began to spring up in these barely used underground garages. With the many different nationalities that make up the BIjlmer, came different sects or branches of Christianity and Islam. We visited the Stichting Pentecost Revival Church, a Pentecostal church in the Bijlmer. Here we were granted a tour with one of the church elders who explained the role the church plays in the local community. Different sects hold services at the church both throughout the day and every day of the week! The elder explained that the church has played a very strong role in the community, especially when in regards to tackling youth problems. There are regular dialogues held at the church with police, city council members, and community members to address the high numbers of school dropouts and criminal activity. Many residents of the Bijlmer are grateful to have such new facilities, which we could better understand when we walked past a “garage church” during our tour. I think it took us all a minute to register the sign outside a big garage for another Pentecost church.
After leaving the church, we walked with our tour guide to see examples of the huge empty apartment complexes that are now finally being renovated and resold by housing corporations. We heard about the tragic accident from 1992 when an El Al airplane crashed into one of the apartment buildings, killing 43 known victims. Unfortunately the death toll of the “Bijlmerramp” or Bijlmer disaster as it is referred to, is most likely much higher as there were many illegal immigrants living in the building. We continued on walking through the neighbourhood until we came to the Djame Masdjied Taibah mosque that we would be visiting. Unfortunately we had not made an appointment to visit the mosque, but hoped to be able to quickly look around. However, the Chairman of the mosque came out to greet us and ushered us into the prayer room. We removed our shoes and the girls quickly threw their scarves over their heads as we walked into the large, light room. The Chairman, who is himself Pakistani, explained that the mosque was originally started by his father and has had to be expanded three times to accommodate all the people who pray there. We were worried about disturbing the people who were already praying, but the Chairman spoke loudly and clearly about the history of the mosque. Sitting on his heels, he explained that at this mosque many different nationalities pray. “I do not let politics come into this mosque. People from all around the world pray here. Politics is at the root of many problems in the Islamic world, when people fight for power. It has no place here.” Because so many different nationalities pray and live together this mosque is looked up to as an example for many others, he maintained: “there is no mosque like this in the Netherlands and not many like this in the world. The people who pray here all contribute money, but that’s it – there is no money from Saudi Arabia or Pakistan… this is our mosque.” After students asked several questions we thanked the Chairman and made our way outside. The very goal of the Multicultural Interest Group is to explore the many cultures and communities living in Amsterdam and to give students a chance to see areas of the city outside the city center. There is a strong contrast between the rich and historic city center where students live and the Bijlmer, where there is much more diversity and where religious institutions like the church and the mosque play a larger role in the community.