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United Way Blog

Refugees Joining Forces with Elderly in the Netherlands and Spain

From young kindergartners to retired veterans, evevery person faces challenges that alter their way of life. However, elderly people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, which intensifies its physical, emotional, and psychological challenges. The isolating nature of the response to the coronavirus impedes their ability to maintain their financial stability, health, and wellness, especially in times like these. 

Recognizing the effects of isolation on both their nation’s elderly and on refugees sheltering in the Netherlands, United Way the Netherlands (UW-NL) conceived and implemented an innovative and intersectional approach to connecting people via technology. The Joining Forces Initiative, designed to meet the needs of two distinctly different groups, is an example of recognizing how finding a common thread amongst people can bring individuals of different identities and backgrounds together to support one another. By using video call technology to connect a refugee with a senior citizen, United Way fosters a sense of belonging and skill building for refugees and a connection to the world for the elderly.

Since its founding, United Way the Netherlands has recognized the importance of supporting senior citizens and refugees as part of its mission. This work has taken on greater visibility in recent years when the Netherlands and other countries in the European Union (EU) saw climbing numbers of refugees. These asylum seekers have increasingly turned to the EU for assistance as they are forced out of their homelands of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, etc., due to internal conflicts, economic and political factors.

To add on to existing challenges that refugees must face in a foreign country, new refugees are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19; they face mounting obstacles in establishing homes and community during a time when social interactions are inhibited by the virus. COVID-related restrictions hinder their ability to improve their grasp of the Dutch language, which is necessary to finding employment and attaining higher education. Without a social safety net and proper connections in place, asylees are on their own as they navigate a new environment.

The Netherlands is also facing a growing aging population fueled by more Dutch nationals heading into retirement. The coronavirus poses a severe health risk to this growing elderly population, who are more vulnerable to the virus’ effects. The virus-related restrictions put into place contribute to the acute isolation and loneliness that the elderly experience. Restrictions on visitations in long-term care facilities are particularly detrimental to the elderly’s mental health, further escalating the impacts of isolation. Older adults also face challenges in navigating the faceless world of virtual services, a big step away from in-person interactions of the past.

To counteract the challenge of isolation and building on work they were already doing with the elderly and refugees, United Way the Netherlands purchased the initial tablets with funds from the 2020 United Way Worldwide Day of Action. UW-NL further developed the Joining Forces project with COVID-19 response donations from the 3M Company and three different Dutch foundations, and implemented the initiative with 250,000 USD dollars from the Internet Society Foundation, split between UW-NL and Fundación United Way España, to help 300 elderly and 300 refugees. UW-NL, in addition to conceiving the Joining Forces initiative, completed the application for the funds, piloted and implemented the program in the Netherlands. Because of staffing constraints at UW-NL, the Fundación United Way España absorbed half those funds and implemented UW-NL’s Joining Forces program in Spain.

Take a look at Joining Forces in the Netherlands

To find both senior citizens and refugees to participate in the initiative, United Way established partnerships with Dutch organizations in the community who are well-versed in the work of supporting either refugees or the elderly. In Joining Forces, refugee volunteers are matched with an elderly Dutch person. The volunteers regularly connect with their elderly partner via video chat, which introduces the refugee to Dutch culture and helps them practice the language, while creating a bond and opportunity for conversation with their elderly partner. The three critical components for successfully executing the Joining Forces initiative were: recruit participants, develop resources for participants, and invest in tablet technology.

In the Netherlands 85 elderly have been matched with 85 refugees, a further 60 elderly have been matched with volunteers from all walks of life. In Spain another 75 elderly and 75 refugees have been matched for a total of 220 volunteers.