Interview with the Maastricht chapter of Serve the City

Mariana Cardoso (Brazil) and Ingeborg Dijkstra (Netherlands)
13 June 2024

Recognised as the group of volunteers in blue T-shirts who ‘serve the city’, at its core it’s actually all about making connections. Aside from the Big Volunteer Day where they meet hundreds of volunteers each year, Serve the City Maastricht is founder of the NOAH Friendship Platform, set up for people with the aim of making friends.

We met with Ingeborg who has been a volunteer for many years now at Serve the City Maastricht and Mariana who has lived in the Maastricht Region since 2021. She moved from the United States with her husband who works for NATO in Brunssum, which lies 25 km north west of Maastricht.

Mariana: ‘The US citizens on the base get a 2-day introduction on arrival and that's where I heard about the Expat Centre Maastricht Region. That's also where I picked up a copy of your Maastricht Region Manual. It was handy and very informative, but what I missed was information about volunteering. The first thing I usually arrange when I move to a new country is volunteer work because it gives me a connection with the locals.

‘My husband was working, I was alone a lot, I felt alone. So I searched online, and I rang agencies. I got responses like: “you don't speak Dutch”, though I was willing to get involved and get to work. A lot of information is only available in Dutch. Then I came across Serve the City in Maastricht. They organised volunteer work and had an English-language website so I immediately contacted them and asked for more information. I was looking for something I could participate in with some regularity.’

Ingeborg: ‘When Mariana called, we were in the middle of the Covid-19 period so there were no Big Volunteer Days , but there were smaller initiatives and she was immediately interested in our NOAH Friendship Platform.’

Mariana: ‘The NOAH Friendship Platform was set up for people to be able to make friends. As a newly-arrived international, not knowing anyone here, I wanted to make some friends. I wanted someone to make friends with me, not necessarily to help me because I don't think help is the thing I needed. I was lonely.

‘The people at NOAH then were very busy organising the meetings in accordance with the restrictions at that time with the pandemic. However, I immediately saw it was a nice group of people and a positive initiative. So I started helping out. Since then, the NOAH Friendship Platform has expanded a lot, from just friend match-making to now organising events, community dinners, Night Out for Christmas or Museumnacht.'

‘The NOAH Friendship Platform is committed to social interaction and connection in Maastricht and that makes sense in the Maastricht Region. What always strikes me in the Maastricht Region is that it is difficult to connect both with the locals, who see me as someone who will leave anyway, and with the internationals. I personally don't understand how this is possible in a city where there are so many internationals. You start doubting yourself. While I always make new friends easily, it took 9 months here. This is really strange because I have already travelled all over the world with my husband and I am very sociable. No really, I'm the type who goes knocking on neighbours' doors right away to introduce myself.'

‘I have since heard from other NOAHs who, like me, have already lived in other places and countries that they too find it difficult to make contacts here. So maybe there is still work in the Maastricht Region in that respect. Although now I can honestly say that I love living here and have a wonderful network of friends, thanks to NOAH!’

Ingeborg: ‘I am not strictly an international, but I do understand what Mariana is saying. I am from Den Haag so not a ‘Limburgse’ and I lived for years in Australia, Germany and the United States. When I came to live in the Maastricht Region, I also occasionally felt that resistance where people emphasise that I am not “from here”. I never felt that way in other places. But, I must also say that with the NOAH Friendship Platform, we now also see that things can be different and that connection is indeed being sought.’

Background

Ingeborg: ‘Serve the City Maastricht is a stichting (foundation) and part of the international Serve the City organisation that was started almost 20 years ago in Brussels. A couple from the US came up with the idea that you can help the city you live in by making a connection. Serve the City has now grown to enjoy a presence in a lot of cities around the world, from the US to Russia and Africa. It is not a cookie-cutter franchise that is the same all over the world. The logo is the same everywhere, but the way we help people is different in every city.

‘We have 10 people in our core team which is made up of regular volunteers and employees who have been participating for years and are in charge of certain projects. During our Big Volunteer Days, there are 40 to 60 volunteers. Per year, we see at least hundreds.’

The Big Volunteer Days

Ingeborg: ‘Here in Maastricht, we have 2 big projects. I often call them our babies: NOAH, the friendship network that keeps growing and the Big Volunteer Days that we have been organising for almost 10 years now. These have become quite a household name here in the city. We are organising 7 of them this year.'

‘Our next one is scheduled on 22 June, but more will follow in September, October and November. The volunteer days always take place on a Saturday, where you can sign up for a morning or afternoon. Sometimes they are very practical jobs like helping at Groene Poort Oost – the community garden between Scharn and Heer – to weed or plant small bushes. You can also do something more social like playing games at Radar with people who have mild intellectual disabilities or you can play volleyball with people from the asielzoekerscentrum, AZC (asylum seekers centre). There’s also  stoepkrijten (drawing on the pavement with chalk) that you can do with the children there. Those of us wearing the blue T-shirts from Serve the City are always there to keep everything on track.’

Mariana: ‘Personally, that's what I always enjoy about this event. You can select from very different volunteering opportunities. My husband and I both love gardening so we usually select an outdoor activity or the kinderboerderij (petting zoo). As a result, we get to know other people who also love gardening and animals. That's how friendships are formed. You also see that there are people who join the Big Volunteer Days again and again. This is how a Serve the City community is created.'

Mariana: ‘My first visit to Serve the City was during one of those Big Volunteer Days and that was the first time as long as I'd lived in the Maastricht Region that I felt I belonged somewhere. Everyone in that same blue T-shirt. We were standing there working together. I didn't know exactly where the location was, but I could recognise other participants. It gives you a sense of community.’

Ingeborg: ‘In the afternoon, there is a communal lunch in The Social Hub in Maastricht  where the morning volunteers finish their part and the afternoon volunteers start theirs. By then, the participants from the morning’s activities share their experiences. That lunch is an important part of the day and always very enjoyable.

‘Participants include internationals, expats, international students, local students, pensioners, middle-aged people and also whole families who, for example, like to participate in the family activities like helping at the petting zoo or playing games at the AZC. Most participants are internationals but we would love it if more Maastricht-born residents joined in.

‘About 95% of our volunteers speak other languages than Dutch. We do not require every volunteer to be able to speak Dutch. There are always volunteers present who can help translate if needed. We make it as inclusive as possible. We also have volunteers with physical disabilities, people who cannot see or hear, for example.’

NOAH

Mariana: ‘At NOAH, we match you with a friend. This is 1-to-1 and we do this after an extensive interview. Who are you, what are you looking for, what do you do in daily life? Based on this interview, you are matched with another NOAH and then they have their 1-on-1 interviews.

Ingeborg: ‘A NOAH is a friend, which is different from a Buddy. Here in the Netherlands, we have Buddy systems. We see a Buddy as someone who accompanies a person for a certain period of time until that person finds his or her way. We thought long and hard about the name NOAH. In this context it stands for ‘friend’. You are a NOAH of another NOAH and this is how you are then introduced at a community dinner as well and gives you the opportunity to find even more friends. We hope that in 10 years' time, everyone in Maastricht will have a NOAH!’

Marianna: ‘What we also notice now is that people are starting to make their own clubs because they have a common interest like cooking or because they want to learn Dutch together. We encourage that. It shows us that the NOAH programme is working.’

What they organise

Ingeborg: ‘The first Friday of the month: also in summer, we organise a Meet & Greet from 19:00-21:00 at The Social Hub. Registration is free, but not compulsory. Every second Tuesday of the month there is the NOAH community dinner to make new contact in Maastricht. Every first Wednesday of the month you can join us for a walk with the refugees from 13:00-15:30, starting at the AZC.

‘There are also the other events such as the Big Volunteer Days and the NOAH Club trips to, for example, Museumnacht or the cinema. We also do odd jobs for agencies like Radar, Envida (for the elderly) or Trajekt (a volunteer organisation). However, we are selective with the types of work we offer ; we are not a handyman team that can do everything for free, and we work with a very clear schedule. This is because most of us are volunteers and offer our time up alongside  our paid work, family commitments and careers.

‘Everything we do is about connection, making friends and feeling at home in Maastricht. We serve the city with our volunteer help, but those jobs have the side benefit of connecting people. That connection is the most important thing.’

Mariana: ‘My husband and I are so often greeted now in Maastricht by people we once met at a volunteer project. That gives a sense of belonging and I am immensely grateful for that.’

Serve the city Maastricht, Newsletter Expats, interview
Serve the City Maastricht: Mariana Cardoso, Ingeborg Dijkstra and Greet de Rechter
Serve the City NOAH NOAH Club Big Volunteer Day Meet & Greet