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From a small language class to a much-valued community centre

Social mission in Rotterdam South

31 January 2023

Area development is a lot more than just stacking bricks. In Rotterdam South, Heijmans is also implementing a social programme under the banner of Hart van Zuid. Part of this involves helping young refugees with residence permits to find a job, an internship or simply broaden their network. For 22-year-old Abdulsatar Saleh from Syria, this was a very welcome boost.

Admittedly, the location of the Hart van Zuid social programme was far from welcoming at the start. Or, as programme manager Nina Cranen puts it in a pure Rotterdam dialect: “It was a right bloody mess.”

The old bowling alley on Rotterdam's Zuidplein, around the corner from the metro station of the same name, is indeed a somewhat run-down space with very few windows, a system ceiling and lots of concrete. Once upon a time, heavy bowling balls rolled across the floor here; these days, the oblong space is home to the information point and project office for the Hart van Zuid area development. It houses large-scale models, its own theatre hall and a much-appreciated ‘living room’ for lots of young people from the neighbourhood.

One of these young people is 22-year-old Abdulsatar Saleh, who came to the Netherlands from Syria two years ago. “I'm here every day. To study, to coach or just hang out with other people. It doesn’t feel like an institute or an office or anything like that; it feels like home, with my family.”


Rotterdam South is currently undergoing a major metamorphosis. Heijmans has been working with Ballast Nedam since 2016 to turn the area around Ahoy and the Zuidplein shopping centre into a vibrant city centre. A swimming pool, residential area, conference centre, theatre, library and the Zuidplein shopping centre have already sprung up. Currently, the Gooilandsingel is being transformed into a green, car-free city boulevard.

But area development is a lot more than just stacking bricks. One of the criteria our client, the municipality of Rotterdam, uses is social return on investment and they specifically asked the Hart van Zuid project to set up a social programme on top of the redevelopment. This is how Nina Cranen came into the picture. She has been involved in writing and coordinating this programme for Hart van Zuid since 2018.

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Broad remit

“At the start of the project, that was quite a broad assignment, which included us providing employment, talent development and participation,” says Nina. “A lot of vulnerable people live here in Rotterdam South, and they are facing all kinds of challenges. For them, it’s not enough to say: here’s a supermarket, go and find work. So what exactly do you do? The social programme had to help us find an answer to that question.”

Nina set to work. She conducted more than 40 interviews with people from the neighbourhood and, together with a number of social partners, looked at what was needed in the neighbourhood. This is how Djawad Ahmadi got involved as a coach from the De Werkshop foundation.

Djawad: “I’m a refugee myself and I suggested: maybe we should do something especially for refugees? They’re often ambitious, but need help learning the language and building a social network. So in late 2019 I started a small language class here. First for four people, but that soon grew. From four it became 10, 10 became 20, that became 40 and so on.”


Nina: "I should just add that Djawad did that with incredible commitment. It was not a standard language lesson; it was about everyone’s culture, about similarities and differences. He arranged sports activities, helped young people if they had problems with an internship, their studies or whatever. That’s where people really connected. And, very importantly, they served pizza.” Djawad laughs: “Yes, that was the crowd puller.”

The language class became a regular part of the official talent development programme called Social Service Time (in Dutch: MDT) in Rotterdam South. Partly because of Covid-19, the numbers of participants ‘exploded’, Djawad says. In the end, a total of about two thousand youngsters stepped into the old bowling hall. One of them was Abdulsatar. “I remember Djawad struck up a conversation with me and asked me how old I was. I didn’t speak Dutch very well then and answered ‘Spijkenisse’. Then he said: do you ever come here to eat pizza?”


Djawad eventually arranged for Abdulsatar to do an internship at MDT in Rotterdam South. Abdulsatar is now officially employed by MDT as a coach, guiding young people just like himself. On the other days, he studies IT engineering at MBO level 3 at the ROC Albeda school, a regular partner and indispensable link in Hart van Zuid’s social programme. Nina to Abdulsatar: “Excellent , eh, level 3!” “And he’s only been in the Netherlands since January 2020,” Djawad says proudly.

Later, Nina adds: “How Djawad and his colleagues at De Werkshop have taken this on has been a great lesson in community building for me. From eating pizza to celebrating a birthday together or wearing the same shirt: it all helps to create that sense of family and a safe base. A base that many of these young people actually lack at home.”

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In the end, MDT in Zuid became one of the most successful parts of Hart van Zuid’s social programme. But it wasn’t easy, and no, it wasn’t fixed after a year either. This is why Nina’s tip for parties like Heijmans would be: make sure you create the right expectations among your clients about the fact that setting up a social programme simply takes time.

“Having a social impact is something that takes a long time. You’re dealing with complex issues: if they weren’t complex, we wouldn’t have vulnerable neighbourhoods in the Netherlands. So to have an impact in these types of places, you first have to thoroughly map out the area and then you and your partners need to put your heads together and ask yourselves the question: what is the best thing we can do here? That alone can take maybe one to two years.”

In addition, Nina would also advise building firms to not set excessively tight targets and KPIs for something like a social programme. “Unlike building a brick infrastructure, building a social infrastructure requires flexibility. You have to make sure you have a good mission and vision, and from there you can discover, together with your partners, exactly what kind of social programme is right for that place, without wanting to lay down all the parameters in advance.”


The MDT in Zuid programme is here to stay. Despite having more than achieved its goals, Heijmans decided to continue the social programme in partnership with the municipality of Rotterdam.

Djawad says he’s just heard that their grant application has been approved, so they can continue for another three years. But if they still have time, shouldn’t the MDT home move to a nicer location? No, says Djawad. “That’s the joke: it might not look particularly welcoming, but we’ve embraced this place and now it’s simply our home.” Nina adds: “Thanks to the help of our partners, I think it’s safe to say we’ve really succeeded in our mission.”