When two of Vrejo Manoukian’s Dutch friends asked him if he would be up for helping new arrivals in Amsterdam to improve their computer skills, he didn’t even have to think twice.
“It’s very important here,” explains the 43-year-old Syrian-Armenian from Aleppo. “To make any request or appointment you must use a computer, and many of the Arabic-speaking women here don’t know how to do it.” Along with his two friends, a Dutch-Iranian woman and a Dutch-British woman, they decided to set up a three-pronged programme that would offer computer courses, English lessons and Arabic classes, with a focus on teaching girls and women.
While he was looking for a space, he came across Lola Lik cultural hub and instantly knew it would be perfect. Their programme began on August 1 and has since come to form the backbone of Lola Lik Academy, an initiative where everyone can teach all sorts of things, from IT skills to sewing, and classes are free for both new arrivals to the city and born-and-bred locals. The aim, as with Lola Lik in general, is to improve the lives of newcomers in Amsterdam through collaboration and co-creation. It’s a place where teachers can become students and students can become teachers.
“This way, we aim to foster interaction between people from different backgrounds, while practical skills are being developed for those who are interested,” says Arjan Rietveld, communications assistant at Lola Lik. “It’s a win-win situation, as teachers further develop their teaching skills, while students make use of available knowledge for free.”
For Manoukian, it was the perfect opportunity to keep busy as he learned Dutch and prepared to enter the Amsterdam job market. “I don’t want to spend my time in between on nothing,” he explains. “I want to be useful, and also to meet new people and have some experiences. The building is very sociable and you can meet lots of other people easily, which I really like.”
Manoukian left Syria back in 2015, spending some time in Turkey before seeking asylum along with his brother in the Netherlands, where he already has some family members who have lived here for 20 years. He spent a year and a half moving between four or five camps waiting to get his official refugee status, eventually ending up in the AZC (asylum center) in the Bijlmerbajes adjoining Lola Lik. He soon came across More than Les and started taking Dutch classes with founder Noémie Winkel, something that he is still working hard on so that he can start continue his financial career.
“I have to wait 6 or 8 months to get a home and finish my Dutch language course, then I can look for a job,” he says. “In Syria I had a brokerage company and worked on the international stock market. I studied economics and have always worked in the financial industry ever since graduating, so I wish to find a job in the stock market again.” “I have more than 14 years experience in this field,” he adds “and I enjoy it.”
In the meantime, he is keeping himself busy at Lola Lik Academy. He teaches regular Arabic classes that have attracted a loyal group of 7-8 people – nearly all of whom are Dutch. He also helps with translating during the computer and English classes, both of which are attended by a mixed group of Iranian, Syrian and Egyptian men and women.
He is full of praise for Lola Lik, and credits it with giving him a new sense of purpose during a difficult time. “I think its a very nice project because you can meet lots of new people and there are lots of activities and events,” he says with a smile. “For me the integration process has not been too difficult. It really depends on the people you meet, and I have met some great people here.”