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Road of Hope

Empowering Refugee Women Through Experiential Knowledge in Amsterdam

-by Rik Moors

Women participating in the Breath of Hope project experienced significant boosts in their self-confidence and community belonging, according to the first report on ‘ervaringskennis’ (experiential knowledge) within the Breath of Hope project in Amsterdam. Researchers found that the women who viewed the intercultural facilitators participating in the project as role models felt more empowered and less isolated, illustrating the power of using this approach to support the integration of refugee women into Dutch society.

In 2023, the Kenniscentrum Ongelijkheid Amsterdam, KCO (Knowledge Center of Inequality), funded a neighborhood workshop (wijkwerkplaats) to explore how experiential knowledge helps refugee integration within the project. This collaboration between Road of Hope and the Sociology Department of the Vrije Universiteit (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, VU) aimed to see how sharing experiences impacts refugee women and improves their integration into Dutch society.

The Breath of Hope Initiative: Empowerment Through Shared Experiences

Breath of Hope focuses on empowering women through emotional support and community building. By sharing experiences and fostering hope, the project aims to help women gain control over their lives and encourages them to take new steps toward integration. This empowerment is critical for improving overall integration and reducing inequality.
Breath of Hope specifically seeks to address the unique needs of refugee women, who often face gender-related violence and discrimination on top of the challenges of adapting to a new country. These women frequently encounter barriers that traditional integration projects overlook. Breath of Hope bridges this gap by focusing on emotional support, creating a safe space for women to reflect, share experiences, and build new relationships.

Photo 1: The Intercultural Facilitator Samhar, from Eritrea (right), being trained by her coordinator | Photo 2: Intercultural Facilitator Berta Ordekian, from Syria, in action.

Intercultural facilitators, women with refugee backgrounds who have previously participated in Breath of Hope, play a key role in the process. They share their experiences, support communication, and serve as role models. These facilitators help participants navigate their new lives by providing cultural context and emotional support. This environment encourages women to open up about their struggles and aspirations, fostering a sense of community and belonging.

Research Findings: Building Hope, Community, and Self-Confidence

The wijkwerkplaats project examined how experiential knowledge is used in Breath of Hope. Researchers aimed to understand its impact on participants and the ways it contributes to the project’s goals. They conducted interviews with facilitators, participants, the project coordinator, and the director. Additionally, they analyzed project documents and scientific literature to gain a comprehensive understanding of the project’s methodology and outcomes.
The study revealed the powerful impact of sharing personal experiences. “By sharing experiences, safety and trust are established, prompting women to reflect on their own lives, embrace their emotions, and gain self-confidence”, notes the report. Participants reported feeling less isolated and more hopeful about their futures. One participant remarked, “For me, it showed me that I was not the only one who had these kinds of emotions, and it showed me that it’s okay to share your emotions and feelings”.
Many women developed friendships and social networks through the project, breaking the isolation often experienced in asylum seeker centers. One participant shared that her main goal was to meet other women. This sentiment was echoed by many, who found comfort and support in the group. These connections help women feel part of a community, reducing feelings of loneliness and increasing their sense of belonging. 
Breath of Hope clearly showcases the power of experiential knowledge in supporting refugee women. By fostering a sense of community and belonging, the project helps women build self-confidence and take control of their lives. The study’s findings offer valuable insights for further improving the project and highlight the importance of tailored support in addressing the complex challenges faced by refugee communities.

Challenges and Recommendations

Despite its successes, the project faced some challenges. Participants and facilitators sometimes found the role of the Intercultural Facilitators unclear. The study recommends better defining and supporting this role to enhance its effectiveness. Additionally, while participants were grouped by language and cultural background, considering other factors like motherhood and length of stay in the Netherlands could improve the project’s impact. The researchers suggest that these adjustments could help tailor support to individual needs more effectively.
While the project is tailored for women, similar initiatives could also benefit refugee men, although mixed-gender groups may not be advisable due to different experiences and dynamics. Researchers emphasize the importance of understanding and addressing the unique needs of each demographic to enhance the effectiveness of support programs.

Upcoming Panel: Discussing the Impact of Experiential Knowledge

To discuss these findings and explore future directions, a panel titled “The Impact of Ervaringskennis on the Integration of Refugee Women” will take place on July 16th at 15:00 at Ru Paré, Chris Lebeaustraat 4, 1062 DC Amsterdam. Organized by Road of Hope and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU), the event aims to raise awareness about refugee women in the Netherlands and the role of experiential knowledge in their integration. It also highlights the work of Kenniscentrum Ongelijkheid and Road of Hope, combining academic knowledge with field experience.

Panelists include Prof. Dr. Saskia Keuzenkamp from VU and Movisie, Louise Elffers, director of the Knowledge Center Inequality and professor at the University of Amsterdam, Patricia Barendregt, founder and director of Road of Hope, and Berta Ordekian, an Intercultural Facilitator. Tarik Ouaziz, Community Workplaces Coordinator for the Nieuw-West district, will moderate the panel. This event provides an opportunity for knowledge organizations and communities to learn about the research and its implications, fostering a dialogue on the importance of experiential knowledge in refugee integration.