“One can learn from the courage with which Ukrainian people fight a stronger enemy.” Interview with the mayor of the Dutch city of Oosterhout

Mark Buijs, Mayor of Oosterhout, Southern Netherlands, talks about the war in Ukraine, refugee assistance and the flexibility of local self-government.

Text by: Dmytro Syniak


Oosterhout is a small town in the Dutch province of North Brabant. It has a population of 57,000, about the same as in pre-war Boryspil or Irpin. Oosterhout is governed by Mayor Mark Buijs. Under Dutch law, mayors are appointed for a term of 6 years by the King and the Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations on the recommendation of the city council. However, a mayor is not the sole ruler: deputies of the local council can initiate their dismissal if they wish. Mr. Buijs can be called a professional mayor. Prior to Oosterhout, he governed another Dutch city, and his total ‘mayoral’ job experience is 9 years. Mark Buijs loves his job: sometimes he even operates heavy municipal machinery, cleaning city streets or doing other work. As is the case with most Dutch people, Russia’s attack on Ukraine stunned him, so he readily responded to the regional government’s request to accept Ukrainian refugees. In fact, Decentralization started our conversation with him with refugee assistance.

“Ukrainians are our guests”

The support of ordinary Dutch towards Ukrainians is amazing. Strangers threw envelopes of money at my wife’s door, who also now lives in Oosterhout, and sent her food. Is this attitude towards strangers the exception or the rule?

The Dutch are very hospitable, and this quality in their character is extremely important. When we see war at the gates of Europe, we feel it in our hearts. We think: What would happen were the Netherlands to be attacked by another country? That is, our people emphasise with Ukrainians and therefore want to help them. Moreover, helping other people increases our chances of helping ourselves should some disaster happen to the Netherlands. If we do not help all the time, we might end up powerless during such a disaster.

Right after the war began, the Ministry for Development of Communities and Territories of Ukraine organised the International Marathon of Local Governments, which united representatives of local self-governments of Ukraine and 35 other countries. Marianne Schuurmans, Chairperson of the Dutch Association of Mayors, then said, “My heart is with Ukraine. All Dutch mayors have joined forces to ensure that Ukrainian refugees are accommodated decently. Ukrainian flags are flying all over Holland. We have opened the doors of our schools for Ukrainian children, and we are doing our best to make Ukrainians feel at home here.” It seems to me that for the first time in its history, the Netherlands has opened its state to others. What is the reason for such an unprecedented step?

No, we have done it more than once. For example, during the First World War, the Netherlands stayed neutral, but neighbouring Belgium* has found itself in the centre of fierce hostilities.** At that time, about 1 million Belgian refugees fled to North Brabant. At another time, after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, many Hungarians came to Holland to escape persecution. So, we have experienced similar situations many times. And we always tried to do whatever we could for people who sought refuge here. You can see many Arab, African and Asian men and women on our streets. People from all over the world come here because of wars, as well as because of the climate problems that often lead to these wars. Just in our city, you can see Syrians who came to us because of the war that began as a result of dictatorial policies, as well as a result of the intervention of the Russian army, which backed this dictatorship. The Netherlands is a safe country with opportunities. It is a great place to live.

But the arrival of Ukrainians means new challenges for you.

A person who comes to Holland for work usually has to take many steps to stay and live here, and it often takes a long time. Ukrainians do not have time, so they must get everything as soon as possible. It was very difficult for us to transform our own system for this, to make sure that all our Ukrainian guests could fully access healthcare, schools and all services. We asked the police to take special care of these people because we do not want anything bad to happen to them. These are our guests! I personally have dedicated almost 30% of my working hours to Ukrainians since the beginning of the war. We simply consider it our duty to help those who have lost their homes. We strive to provide them with normal life without shelling and missile strikes. This is the main reason why we care about refugees. We help them get to their feet as soon as possible and start taking care of themselves. Eventually, they have to decide for themselves whether they want to stay in the Netherlands or go elsewhere.

64 Ukrainians are living in the city hall and 88 are staying in the hospital.

What was the first day of the war like for you?

That morning I turned on my TV to watch the news, with my twelve-year-old son next to me. We heard horrible noise from the engines of tanks and planes, we saw the bombing of peaceful cities and many horrible things. War is not for children, I thought then, and imagined how Ukrainian children were now asking their parents to protect them, but they couldn’t do it. I decided that I should act immediately. Fortunately, during the coronavirus crisis, Oosterhout merged with other municipalities into a so-called security region, and our crisis management staff learned to cooperate very efficiently. So when the war started, everyone in our organisation already knew what to do to help Ukrainians. The government then announced that the country needed to accept 50,000 people from Ukraine. This figure later increased to 75,000 and then to 100,000. But we took everyone who needed it.

What did the war teach you as a mayor?

It taught me that the municipal structure should be very flexible. After all, society is changing very quickly, new challenges are different from the previous ones, and we need to respond to them quickly. Local self-governments always work for the people, so if the world is changing fast, they need to change even faster so as to stay relevant. Flexibility is exactly what we need to embody in our visions and plans for the future.

How many Ukrainian refugees now live in Oosterhout?

About 250 people. That’s a lot for a small town like Oosterhout. I will not name the exact figure, because some Ukrainians live in private houses. The entire country of the Netherlands is now in the so-called real estate crisis, that is we lack housing even for our own citizens. Despite this, we have found it for Ukrainian refugees and will find more. Coronavirus has taught us to work from home, and now about half of the municipal staff continues to work remotely. Thanks to this, we managed to vacate a lot of communal apartments and offices to house Ukrainians there. For instance, in the first days of the war, we rebuilt part of the city hall to accommodate 64 Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children. Of course, there were no showers or kitchens in the city hall, so we had to build them for our Ukrainian guests. We also rented and rebuilt three empty floors of our Amphia Hospital. There are now 88 people living there, and we have also installed kitchens there so that Ukrainians could cook homemade food for themselves.

Did the people of Oosterhout collect humanitarian aid?

They did! They responded instantly, providing Ukrainians with everything they needed. Because when you lose your home, you usually have nothing but the clothes you have on you. In the first days of the war, we announced the collection of things and clothes in our main square, and later a lot of things were collected and sent to Ukraine. Some of our residents provided their own transport for this purpose. And that was the least we could do.

Mark Buijs visits Ukrainians in their temporary accommodation, which has been converted from a wing of the City Hall

 

The trend to help Ukrainians

How much money does the municipality of Oosterhout allocate to help Ukrainians?

Hundreds of thousands of euros are spent on housing for them, but the state must then return most of this money to us. That is, we finance the project to help Ukrainian refugees in advance. We pay EUR 260 a month to each of them if they are unemployed. Many ordinary Dutch people also donate to Ukrainians or help them as volunteers. Some of them come to clean the corridors and hospital rooms, some bring clothes and various things, some work as guides or interpreters, take care of Ukrainian children or organise certain events for them. Our whole society believes that Ukrainians must be helped. This is a trend.

But you also have a lot of refugees, say, from Syria, and they also came to the Netherlands because of the war…

… and, we can say, also because of Russia’s actions. We try to take care of all people who need our help and seek refuge for themselves and their children. But the main thing is that refugees from all other countries including from Syria, rather than coming to us all at once, did so for months and even years. In contrast, the Ukrainians arrived in a matter of weeks, and it was quite a challenge for us. We had to help them in a very short time. Everyone needed money to buy food. After all, the Netherlands is an expensive country, and if you do not have at least some limited money to live here, it can be a big problem. That’s why we collected a lot of things for Ukrainians such as furniture, utensils, household appliances, toys and even computers for teaching children.

Don’t you think that the Netherlands is too far from Ukraine to invest this much in helping its people?

We do not divide Europe. We look at everything that happens to its inhabitants as if it were happening to us. This feeling distracts us from normal life and forces us to help Ukraine and Ukrainians. I will say one more thing. If you help others, they may be able to help you in your time of need. This view is based on the Christian tradition. You can argue with it, but in any case, this is our mentality here in the Netherlands. That is why we always take care of those in distress, and we always do our best so that they can get back on their feet as soon as possible and return to normal life. This applies to everyone, not just Ukrainians. But if, say, the Dutch people can usually wait for help, the Ukrainians cannot. After all, many of them lost everything to this war. In addition, it would be unfair not to mention that Ukrainians make a significant contribution to our society. I mean first of all their work and their culture.

“Hard work is in the DNA of your people…”

What are Ukrainians like?

These are very good people. On Orthodox Easter, my wife and I were invited to celebrate in their wing at our City Hall, as well as at the Amphia Hospital, and these were wonderful parties. I had many a conversation with our Ukrainian guests and realised that our cultures are very similar. But I repeat, it doesn’t make much difference for the Dutch what nationality the people who came to them are, where they come from and so on. If these people need help, they should get it. No two ways about it.

Do you often visit the Amphia Hospital?

Sometimes I go there just to talk to Ukrainians, to see how these people cope and, of course, to bring them some gifts. I was told that Ukrainians like to drink a lot of tea, so we ordered special greeting packages with branded thermos flasks for them. Each of our Ukrainian guests received a thermos flask, a picnic blanket, ice cream coupons and tickets to our zoo, as well as a map of our city to learn about tourist routes and interesting places of Oosterhout. Ukrainians thanked me profusely for these gifts and told their stories. I must confess that I often could not hold back tears while listening to them.

Could you tell the stories that impressed you the most?

I have no right to share private tragedies. But I can tell you about two women who live in a small village near Oosterhout with their children. It was difficult for them to contact the municipality, so I went to visit them myself. We drank tea and talked to each other. I said I would like to help them. But in the end, they helped me themselves, because it turned out that they speak English much better than me! These women later translated a lot into Ukrainian for our municipality. So the conclusion: if you help people, then people help you. That’s what the story of these two women is about!

What makes Ukrainians different from other nations?

These people are much more likely to ask about work than about financial assistance. Hard work is in the DNA of the Ukrainian people. Ukrainians have been working in the Netherlands for years, so we know a bit about them. But in any case, I would prefer not to focus on nationality. I often say to my subordinates, “When you see a person, ask yourself if they need your help.” So when the Ukrainians arrived, it turned out that we were ready for it. But nationality does not matter here.

Do you have jobs for Ukrainians who do not wish to live off financial assistance?

Yes, indeed. I understand perfectly well that thinking only about the war can make you lose your mind because you can’t stop it anyway. In this case, it is always good to do something, because the work brings some mental escape. That is why we organised a job fair for Ukrainians in our municipality. Several HR agencies were invited, and our consultant helped everyone to find the job that suits them best. That is why many Ukrainians now work successfully in various private companies in Oosterhout.

The mayor helps with cleaning the office. For the Dutch, the lack of arrogance in their leaders and egalitarian attitude are the normal things

 

European nation

Does Oosterhout have partnerships with any Ukrainian cities?

We are looking for such an opportunity as a member of VNG — the Association of Netherlands Municipalities — which, roughly, acts as an advisor to the government and municipalities. VNG’s activities include building bridges between cities around the world. A few weeks ago, the mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, came to the Netherlands, and we talked about the possibilities of rebuilding Ukrainian towns and villages after the war. I think that cooperation between cities is a great opportunity to learn from each other. Municipalities are often busy mowing lawns, cleaning the streets, etc., but there are more important things in the world. When we see other situations, other cases, it often opens up new perspectives. What do I mean in your case? We cannot offer a lot of money to rebuild Ukraine, but we have a lot of connections and expertise. We can work as an intermediary between Dutch investors, experts, volunteers and Ukrainian towns and villages. And we will also benefit from such cooperation. Because one can learn from the courage with which Ukrainian people fight a stronger enemy. Sometimes we ask ourselves, “Could we defend our country with such perseverance?” This question is not easy to answer.

Oleksii Arestovych, Adviser to the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, noted that the unprecedented assistance to Ukraine from the EU countries shows that its residents recognise Ukrainians as Europeans. What is your stance on this?

Ukrainian people, of course, are just as European as the Dutch. They have always been Europeans based on their history, culture and values. We see and feel it, so we don’t even need to discuss it.

On 6 April 2015, the people of the Netherlands voted against Ukraine’s Association with the EU in a special referendum. How did you vote then and has your opinion changed since then?

I think that if the Dutch voted now, they would support Ukraine. We have heard many good stories about your country since that referendum, and I can say that we are proud of it now. So, our opinion has changed. We help your people and your country in the fight for justice. We are happy to support your people. I do not know what needs to be done to end this war, but I do not think it was necessary. Give people a chance to talk to each other and see what they have in common. Bombs and shells are destructive. This war is the first on the European continent after 70 years of peace. I never believed that this was possible in Europe: murdered children, mass murders, destroyed cities where many victims led a peaceful life until recently. This is a mind-boggling, horrible, crazy situation, and I hope it will come to an end very soon.

Mark Rutte said in Davos that Ukraine would not be able to join the EU in the coming months. What do you think about Ukraine’s membership in the European Union?

This should be decided by the government. However, personally, I believe that if Ukrainians feel like Europeans, if our values are also their values, then Ukrainians are already EU citizens in their thinking and in their beliefs, and the rest is mere formality. I am convinced that, given the war, it is fair to provide Ukrainians with certain exemptions to join the European Union. The timeline for this is another issue, however. But I believe that in any case, both Ukraine and the EU need to prepare for this. And I hope it will happen as soon as possible.

The Netherlands provided over 200 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, 4 Panzerhaubitze self-propelled howitzers and 7 fire trucks to Ukraine. Do the Dutch support increasing military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine?

I think we must do everything possible to stop this war. And if the supply of weapons can do that, it must be supplied. I am against war, and it seems normal to me that everyone should think the same. But I understand that defence can also be a way to stop the war. So supporting Ukraine with weapons is a good decision. Unless we do this, unless we help Ukraine, it will end very badly for us as well. The Netherlands is called one of the freest countries in the world. But we know the price of freedom very well.


* The main language of Belgium is Dutch. The Belgians and the Dutch are basically one ethnic group divided as a result of the eighty-year struggle of the Netherlands for their own independence from Spain in 1568-1648. Seven provinces managed to escape foreign oppression, but ten more did not. These ten provinces, called the Southern Netherlands, became part of the Austrian Empire in 1713 and gained independence and became known as Belgium in 1831.

** Due to its special role in the First and Second World Wars, Belgium is often called the ‘battlefield of Europe’. This makes it similar to Ukraine, which also experienced many a fierce battle in both world wars.

 

 

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