Settling in with a little help, especially for Expats
2021-06-02 | By Abbie Marsh Pumarejo
Being an international in a foreign country certainly comes with challenges. These have been compounded when a worldwide pandemic was added into the mix, and opportunities to meet others, socialise and network suddenly dried up.
Before Covid-19 arrived, many internationals (myself included) might have taken for granted a variety of organisations and methods to assist with getting established in our new homes away from home.
Before my husband and I moved to Rotterdam in November 2019, I had mapped out the usual strategies for meeting people. I investigated organisations online because I was traveling back and forth between Switzerland, where we lived, and the Netherlands, where we would soon live.
While I wasn’t exactly settled in the city per se, I wanted to get ahead of the game and start making contacts. I changed my region to the Netherlands for InterNations, an organisation for connecting internationals the world over.
Locally, I joined the International Women’s Networking Group (IWNG) which is more than a social group, and I was excited to meet professional women there and hopefully expand my professional network I investigated language courses, which are an excellent way to meet others and learn more about the new country, called on any friends and contacts already living in the Netherlands, and looked up acquaintances from previous assignments.
It takes a conscientious effort to put oneself out there. As an empty nester, I no longer had the security blanket of my sons’ school as a contingency plan. If I wanted to meet people, I was going to have to work at it.
I discovered an intriguing organisation called Venture Cafe, where “isolation is the enemy of innovation”. They host free community gatherings every Thursday for networking and with an interest- ing and well-thought-out programme. When I first arrived, these meetings were live. When Covid-19 happened, the meetings went virtual.
Little did I know that I didn’t have the time or luxury to shop around for the right organisations to help me get integrated. Little did we all know. Looking back, I don’t think I would do anything differently. However, I did experience how these types of organisations are helping their members and community during the pandemic.
The international experience
According to a report published by The Hague International Centre, data shows that most internationals felt informed about coronavirus measures in the Netherlands, using expat and Dutch media as well as the National Institute of Public Health and Environment (RIVM) as primary sources of information to stay abreast of the changing pandemic. This report utilised answers from 900 respondents to an online survey.
Respondents expressed concerns regarding a variety of issues, including travel restrictions, home-schooling children and healthcare for themselves and family. It is not surprising, however, that “about 75% of respondents reported that they had to work from home (using technology), and 27% of internationals struggled with social isolation as a result of the coronavirus measures.”
Adapting to the situation
I recently asked one of the co-founders of the IWNG about these issues. How did they manage when Covid came to town? Did they make changes and adaptations, or did they keep the status quo? Did they lose members or get stronger during that time?
The IWNG was founded in 2017 by Kristina Jackson to connect with other self-employed female inter- nationals in the city. As the group grew, other members organised regular lunches, dinners, coffees and get-togethers, an indication that expat women were seeking connections. The organisation recently passed the 1000 members point, an impressive number for a young group, having also faced one of its years during the pandemic. Sterling Schuyler is a freelance copywriter who’s been living in the Netherlands since 2018. She joined the group because she needed friends and wanted to get involved. As time went on, she took on more responsibilities and helps keep the IWNG running.
In order to help its members during Covid-19 restrictions, the group endured a learning curve. While they planned a number of Zoom events early on, Schuyler admits that fatigue quickly followed. In the end, they returned to an organic methodology. “We encouraged engagement in the Facebook group itself. We introduced some new ‘programming’ so that members could comment and interact with each other based on different topics. And, most importantly, we moderated the group so that the information was interesting as well as trustworthy.”
As things continue to evolve globally, this organisation is collaborating with other international organisations to help its members. “We always want our members to feel comfortable and confident within the community,” says Schuyler. Their online platforms help to bring people together and bridge the gap between sheltering in place and networking.
Schuyler points out that they are continually looking for new ways to speak with members and provide useful content and interaction. This is done in large part by connecting with other organisations like ACCESS and Rotterdam Partners to see how they can work together and support one another. “It’s been enlightening to learn from all kinds of people (especially new arrivals) about their experiences in the Netherlands.”
Due to the current state of affairs, in the beginning of 2021 the IWNG introduced more online workshops and programming so that members can learn and engage with specific purposes in mind. “It’s something that Kristina and I hadn’t prioritised as part of IWNG’s initial offerings, but with in-person events out of the question, we had to figure out what further value we could provide to our members,” admits Schuyler.
And if things eventually return to normal? “Building (and maintaining) a thriving community is hard work, and we can’t do it alone. If there are any groups, organisations, or companies that want to collaborate, we’re happy to chat. I definitely think our Facebook group engagement and our online workshops will remain. But I’m really looking forward to starting the networking dinners again!”
While the ongoing challenges are real, and getting established in a foreign country is more complicated than ever, it’s good to know there are organisations that support their members–not only to keep them afloat, but to help them thrive.
About the author
Abbie Marsh Pumarejo is a writer and editor based in Europe, who enjoys travel, reading, entertaining and spending time at the beach in Spain.