Female Change Agents

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Asma: structurally fighting poverty in Tunisia and Holland

“A friend was heavily pregnant while caring for her mother, who has dementia. Her husband is from Pakistan and his application for asylum was rejected. Therefore, she was considered to house an ‘illegal immigrant’ as well as her mother. As a result, all her benefits were stopped, and her income was seven euros above the eligibility threshold for the food bank,” Asma Ben Nejma recounts how it all started. In a search for help for her friend, she came across the Utrecht branch of Food Parcels from the Heart. Before she realized it, she had not only helped her friend, but had also started the South Holland branch of this organisation. In addition to her daytime work and alongside the Beb Al Rahma Foundation, which she had started in Tunisia ten years ago.

Asma was born and raised in the Schilderswijk district of The Hague and visited their homeland Tunisia every year with her brothers, sister, and parents. “My father is my role model, he taught me to take responsibility. You have to help where you can help. You work for yourself, but also look around you. My mother is my lifeline, without her I couldn’t do all this.” Because Asma grew up between two worlds, she can, as she puts it, “compare well. I saw the Tunisian government playing games while people and especially children were dying. I thought ‘what is this? Why is nobody doing anything?'” At the same time, Asma stresses, “The Netherlands is a constitutional state but even so there are people who fall through the cracks.”

Inhumane conditions in Tunisia
In Tunisia, Asma saw people living in thatched houses, without running water, gas, or electricity. She witnessed children walking barefoot and overcrowded, unhygienic hospitals where children were abandoned by their parents, tied up in beds: “This is not just poverty, this is not humane anymore!” Back in The Hague, Asma joined her parents to a meeting place for people from Tunisia. I thought ‘look how many people, what if everybody participates!’ I asked them to write down their names and how much per month they could donate.” That was the beginning of the Beb al Rahma Foundation, which has since grown to a team of 10 employees in the Netherlands and Tunisia. Reports on people in need the foundation receives via Facebook. Beb al Rahma then helps with whatever is needed: school bags, winter clothes, food, or separate collections for medical treatment of children. “Families from here, sponsor families there,” Asma says.

Poverty in the Netherlands
The situation of her pregnant friend who, despite the circumstances, did not qualify for help from a regular food bank nearby, opened Asma’s eyes to poverty in the Netherlands. Twice she arranged a package for her through Food Parcels from the Heart Utrecht. Subsequently, this organisation started referring other people from the region of South Holland to her. “At one point, my whole living room was full of food,” she says of what happened next. “People rang the doorbell with questions at all hours and I was always reachable by phone.” The situation became untenable. With a family of her own to care for and her full-time job, Asma had to take a different approach. She arranged for an abandoned house due for demolition to store and distribute food parcels from and got a business number.

Food for 63 families
“Thursday is food bank day,” Asma continues, “and sometimes on weekends too. I use the evenings for administration.” Raising and keeping track of donations, purchasing food, conducting intake and follow-up interviews with people, all of these are tasks Asma takes on. “We get donations from individuals or from a foundation that has disbanded, for example. People also bring in perishable products and when food runs out, we post a call for donations. On Thursday, fruits and vegetables, cheese and bread come in. We buy products from supermarkets where they are discounted. And we collaborate with a greengrocer who buys from local farmers. Since we need large quantities, he gives us a mate’s rate.” Once all the food is in, Asma and her sister Rabab put it into boxes: “We work like an assembly line around the table and every week put together over 30 food parcels that we give out through the window.” With Food Parcels from the Heart The Hague Asma in total serves 63 families, who can come and collect a parcel every other week.

Getting people to work on long-term solutions themselves
The families Asma helps are people from The Hague, Rotterdam, Vlaardingen and Katwijk, with a Dutch, Surinamese, Moroccan or Turkish background. What they have in common is that they do not qualify for regular food bank assistance. Because they would earn too much, for example. “We include people’s monthly repayments of debts as an expense,” Asma explains about her alternative approach, “and household insurance and a mobile phone subscription if people already have one, but,” she stresses, “if it ends in the middle of our trajectory, people are not allowed to take out a new subscription.” The `trajectory’ at Asma’s organisation spans a maximum of a year. During that period, people can pick up a food parcel fortnightly while they work towards a long-term solution. “We have guidelines,” Asma insists. “People have to demonstrate that they are enrolling in an educational program, learning the language, looking for work. Every three months we have a conversation about how things are going and then they must be able to prove that they are applying for jobs. With letters and phone numbers of people they have spoken to. Once someone has found a job, our help stops.”

Strict but fair
Among her clients, Asma counts many single parents and undocumented migrants. Or, for example, a man who has just had open-heart surgery and cannot work. In a case like this, Asma also discusses the matter with his wife who does not speak Dutch: “If he drops out, make sure you get by. Why do men have to do everything? In Islam, women have rights! Be an example to your daughters, consider what you teach them!” ‘Strict but fair’ is what typifies Asma’s approach: “I had transferred money to a mother for nappies and milk for her child. She soon called for more, but I did not do that. Instead, I arranged the items for the child and talked to the mother about how she could save money by not buying branded nappies next month. That’s how you work towards a long-term solution.” Asma sometimes runs up against prejudices people have about her as a Muslim woman: “It happened to me twice that people came to see me after a telephone interview, noticed my headscarf, and then did not want to proceed any further. I engage with these people. One woman decided to try after all. At the end of the trajectory she followed, she cried while saying sorry.”

Interviewer and author: Lisa Koolhoven
Translation: Saskia Hin

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