Buddy Project Sittard-Geleen interview

13 October 2022

International newcomers in Sittard-Geleen can apply for the Buddy System, a project introduced by Stadslabs Sittard-Geleen. A Buddy is a local resident, who can further help the newcomer, in English or Dutch, to get to know the city better. This can range from practical questions related to finding housing to help finding the nicest place to have lunch or make the best use of the city library. Increasing numbers of expats are exploring Sittard-Geleen with the help of a Buddy, but there’s always room for more.

We spoke to Noah Vladimir Hirsch Trembovolsky and Ellen van Brandenburg, 2 of the 11 volunteers at the Buddy System.

There is a large expat community in and around Chemelot, but how do you reach people outside the campus? After all, there are more Expats living in Sittard…

Noah: That's a good question to which we also don't have a clear answer yet. We started the Buddy System back then, well during Covid, with 8 enthusiastic, volunteer Buddies. We met every other week full of good intentions, but no expats came.’

Ellen: ‘In January this year, this suddenly started to change. We came into contact with Maud Strijkers. She is a real estate agent in the Sittard region and maintains the Facebook group Expats in Sittard-Geleen. She started promoting us a bit on her Facebook page. We organised something together, an informal drink, and suddenly about 50 people came. That was great!’

Noah: ‘By the way, the first people who asked for our help came from Chemelot. An HR recruiter alerted them to our group.’

Ellen: ‘Our goal was to help at least 5 people at a time. Currently, the counter stands at 11. That's good, but it could be a bit more. It's also a very varied crowd. Some people only need 1 appointment. Some people send an email with a few questions and don’t need further contact.’ 

Noah: ‘We were contacted once by someone who had been offered a job and wanted to explore the region. But in the end he didn't get his residence permit, so then of course the contact stopped.

On the other hand, when something is organised: a meet-up via the Facebook group Expats in Sittard-Geleen, for example, it is noticeable that a lot of Expats live in Sittard-Geleen and that they also like to mingle on a social level. At one such event, for instance, there was a couple from Aachen who were about to move to Sittard for work. They came to the event to get to know the region and its people. Incidentally, they have also been living here now for several months.

While this is a nice example, we would like to reach out to those who are still outside the Netherlands and have not yet taken the step to move. Those who are still getting their bearings. Similarly, via Facebook, a man contacted us from South Korea who had received an offer to start as a PhD at Maastricht University. He had a lot of questions about life here in Limburg – which will definitely be very different from South Korea. The type of housing available, schools, and so on.

The fact that we were able to inform this man in advance may have had a positive influence on his decision to move to this region. Which, by the way, he is going to do this month.’

How do you reach those people before they get here?

Noah: ‘We think employers could play a role in this. The formalities and practicalities for international employees are very well taken care of. There is also, of course, Expat Centre Maastricht Region, but we could perfectly help with the social aspect, help promote the region and make it interesting for any newcomers. 

We did have a few conversations with HR staff from large companies, but we haven't approached this systematically yet. Then you would really have to compare 10 big companies and investigate how the process goes from recruitment from abroad to moving to Limburg. Then determine from there what the right point might be for us to link up with this. So far we don't have the time or resources for that.

So now we are doing that with social media. We are trying to make our community bigger. Every now and then that has an effect anyway like with the man from South Korea.’

What are the most frequently asked questions?

Ellen: ‘Schools and housing.’

Noah: ‘Housing indeed. Although of course we are not experts in that. We can only refer individuals or maybe help them a little bit on their way by sharing our own experiences. Actually the questions are hugely varied. For example, there was a woman recently who asked for a female Buddy to show her the way in terms of shopping in Sittard and where you can have a nice lunch or coffee.’ 

Ellen: ‘We even had a Dutch 'expat' the other day. Someone who moved to Limburg and wanted to know how to start his own business here. ‘

Noah: ‘True, for us it doesn't matter who contacts us. The Buddy System is not exclusively for Expats but for anyone who is considering working or living in Sittard-Geleen, or has already moved here. There is another group that regularly approaches us, one you wouldn't immediately expect: the returners. Dutch people who have lived outside the Netherlands  for years and have become so integrated in that other country that they now need to be shown the ropes again in the Netherlands.’

Ellen: ‘The most important thing about the Buddy System, our core business so to speak, is the social aspect. The Buddy who really walks with you into town to show you the way to that shop or good lunch bar. That's what makes us unique.’

Noah, what did you find difficult when you moved to Sittard? What would you specifically have liked a Buddy to help you with?

Noah: ‘I moved during the lockdown. That was an unusual situation. Everything was extra difficult then. Institutions were closed. It was impossible to even get an appointment at Expat Centre Maastricht Region or the municipality. My wife was pregnant. It was not easy to find housing.’ 

And after that period?

Noah:'When an expat lands here, the first period, let's say the first year is kind of settling in. A new house, new job, new school. Lots of basic things to be taken care of.  After that first year comes the other questions. The questions you didn't expect to have beforehand: What is there to do here in the region? Where can I go for sports? How do I get more in touch with the locals?  

I attended a Dutch wedding last week. I would have liked some explanation beforehand about what a Dutch wedding is like. There were a lot of unexpected moments for me at that party.’

Did you move to this region deliberately? 

Noah: ‘Right. That had to do with Chemelot and the kind of work I do. But still, work is not always the main argument for choosing a particular place to live. For example, I know a woman who works for Brightlands and yet lives in Hilversum because her daughter studies there, but also because she knows that region. I doubt that the reasons for her to live in Hilversum cannot also be found here in Sittard. 

Zuid-Limburg basically has everything, but we need to promote the region better.’

You only focus on Sittard-Geleen?

Noah: ‘This is where we have our network. I was recently asked by someone from South Africa who wanted to move to Venlo. We can help someone like that in part, but of course I don't have any contacts in Venlo.’

What can Zuid–Limburg do so that people feel involved and welcome?

Ellen: ‘A lot has to do with the people you meet, but also with the type you yourself are. For example, there is also the type of expat who finds their way perfectly, within their own group of other expats from the same country. That person does not feel the need to integrate. After about 3 years, they travel on again with that same group to another city.’

Noah: ‘I think social events are very important. That's how expats get to know the locals.’

Ellen: ‘But sometimes you also notice at those events that local people join to get to know the expat community, but it seems that expats mainly want to get to know other expats.’

Noah: ‘I have already come across a group of about 5 people in the city, expats and Dutch who I recognised from one of our events. They told me they have been meeting regularly in Sittard since that event.

I think it's mostly about connection. Even us as a Buddy are not really friends of course. A Buddy can become a friend if there is a good click, but by rule a Buddy helps you on your way and after 3 months or so it stops. Friendships make you feel connected. 

There are people who just walk into a bar in their new hometown and the next day they have 10 new friends and often someone to help them move too (laughs). They don't need a Buddy System I guess. But not all people are like that. 

Could language be a problem?

Ellen: ‘At our events, everyone speaks English. But coincidentally, we recently received a request from one of our clients for a Dutch-speaking Buddy to practise his Dutch with.’

Noah: ‘People speak English just fine. But not all websites in Zuid-Limburg are translated into English.

I was once asked by a woman from the United States where she could find the library in town. So I told her I had no idea; I had never been there myself. Out of curiosity, I started looking for the library and, of course, ended up at de Domijnen. Apart from a fine coffee shop, I discovered that at the library you can learn Dutch for free. At certain times there are volunteers with whom you can learn to speak Dutch. 

A great initiative, but another perfect example that there is a lot in the region that is not being communicated. The library has no English-language site so how are people from the international community supposed to know about it? Unless, like me, they find out by accident?’

For more information visit the website of the Buddy System Sittard-Geleen.

Choose a Buddy Facebook - Expats in Sittard-Geleen
Buddy System Sittard-Geleen
Noah Vladimir Hirsch Trembovolsky and Ellen van Brandenburg