Senior citizens from the Dutch Caribbean living in The Netherlands turned up in large numbers at the seniors congress of grass roots organisation OCaN in Rotterdam on Saturday to discuss issues like remigration, declining social services, health care, participation in society and the need to have a good local network. With more than 300 persons, the congress was completely sold out and extra chairs had to be added for last minute participants, said congress chairman Jacques Hermelijn, a former treasurer and current chairman of the senior committee of OCaN, the consultative body for Dutch Caribbean persons in The Netherlands.
Seniors from the islands don’t always have an easy time in The Netherlands, contrary to what is often thought. Social facilities and health care are crumbling and the Dutch Government will continue to cut cost in this area. Like most people from the islands, they are homesick and dream of returning to their island one day. Former Rotterdam Alderman Lionel Martijn said that many seniors had come to The Netherlands to study and work for a better future, and the well-developed social and health care facilities years ago. “We have double feelings. We miss our island, we are not from here, but we do live here. We stand here with one leg and the other leg is over there.” He said the solution was to choose the best of both worlds. Returning home very often might not be a good idea, since it hinders the process of acceptance in the community where you live, suggested Martijn. “Visiting your island may be a nice escape, but by going back often, you may make it harder on yourself. One thing is true, though; our travels have made airline company KLM very rich.” Per year, some 4,000 persons migrate back to the Dutch Caribbean to live, the vast majority to Curaçao. Finding suitable housing is a major obstacle. On Curaçao alone there is a shortage of more than 11,000 homes. Other obstacles are the generally lower level of income, health care and social facilities on the islands. Social and cultural life is also more restricted on the islands compared to The Netherlands, where elderly are more independent, explained Martijn, who wants to establish a residence on Curaçao where seniors of Antillean descent living in The Netherlands can enjoy being back home for a few months.
One lady in the audience recounted the difficulties she had faced when she returned to Curaçao a few years ago. She said that people on the island had often made her feel unwelcome and had treated her as an outsider. “I felt like an intruder. When thieves stole my new windows and kitchen from the house that I was building, I came back to The Netherlands. Curaçao is now my vacation destination. I feel happier in The Netherlands.”
Remigration was one of the several workshop topics. Former Member of the second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament for the Christian Union party Cynthia Ortega- Martijn facilitated the workshop on migrating back to Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba. In attendance were some seniors from the three public entities, but the majority came from Curaçao. Ortega-Martijn explained what had happened to social services, taxes and the cost of living on Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba since they became public entities on October 10, 2010. She said senior citizens were worse off with the new constitutional status and that the cost of living hike had resulted in silent poverty. People often have double jobs to sustain their families.
Joan Simmons from Saba was one of the participants in this workshop. She came to The Netherlands with her two sons almost ten years ago. Four years ago she returned to her island for vacation. “You create a different mentality when you live in The Netherlands. People often have a hard time accepting that and sometimes you feel like an intruder.” The Netherlands has many advantages for elderly people like herself, said Simmons. “Here I am independent, I have more freedom. You don’t have the facilities on Saba like you have here.” Simmons said she hadn’t made a decision yet whether she would ever return to her island. She was very positive about OCaN’s seniors congress. “The issues were very interesting and up-to-date. It is always good to hear things for yourself.”
According to congress chairman Hermelijn, the success and large turn-out at Saturday’s event not only showed that the Dutch Caribbean group of senior citizens living in The Netherlands wants to be informed, but that there is also the need for information about this group, which has grown steadily over the last years. It was the first time a congress of this kind for the Dutch Caribbean elderly in The Netherlands was held. OCaN Chairman Glenn Helberg said that the elderly were very important to society and that it was important to hear their voice. Elderly transfer knowledge and culture to the younger members of society. The idea is to create a community together, where everyone feels safe, he said.
One step ahead
The planned cost cutting measures of the new Dutch Government were a main issue at the congress. Director Henry Breeveld of SWA, an organisation which aims at improving the wellbeing of Antilleans and Arubans in Rotterdam, said that it was important to be innovative, to be one step ahead and to remain actively involved. “We have to be part of the solutions, otherwise it is a missed opportunity.” Breeveld said that volunteers and networks would have to assume the role of professionals, as established organisations were being cut back as a result of diminishing government funding. Contacts and interaction with other networks would become increasingly important, he said.
Jan Booij, a specialist on social facilities and the elderly, said that an increasing appeal would be made on the self-reliance of senior citizens and their network. He said that this also had its advantages, because it meant more own initiative, responsibility and a greater participation in society. According to Booij, every group in society will have to adapt with the ageing of the population and the growing number of elderly. An increasing number of elderly in The Netherlands were born elsewhere. He said that senior citizens of Antillean descent have an added value with their life experience of having lived in two continents. He encouraged the participants of the congress to let their voice be heard and to get actively involved in their district. (Suzanne Koelega)