10 February, 2010

Let's Get Integrated

So, back to the letter from three months ago. I was summonsed to the Gemeente Almere at a completely inappropriate time, which of course I could not make (working swinging shifts between 8am and 7pm has a bit of impact, you could say), so we rescheduled without any issue.

I met with my consultant who was kind enough to ask if we would prefer to speak in Dutch or English (what a relief! The consultant at the IND refused to speak English, so I was expecting the worst). However, she could not give me very much information. Basically she told me that as a condition of my residency I would be required to pass the inburgering exam within five years of the interview date. This was also good news, because I was under the impression that it was within 5 years of landing in the country (more that 18 months previously). Basically, your 5 year requirement to become integrated does not begin until the Gemeente begins the intake process. Depending on your local Gemeente, this could be a fast process, but it could also take a couple of years before you are contacted.

I was told that I have a couple of options. I could either accept their offer of paying for my education via their preferred language and integration school (the ROC Flevoland), or I could learn independently at my own expense (I have since received some conflicting information, but I'll get to that later). Now the only useful information that I had so far been able to find was from the forums within the Expatica website, but what was there was not consistent with what the consultant at the Gemeente was telling me. According to the Expatica forum, I could pass the NT2 level language course which would exempt me from having to go through the arduous portfolio (which I will have to clarify down the track when I know exactly what is involved), but according to the Gemeente I could study and pass the exam, but I would still be required to pass their inburgering curses, hence double the amount of work. So, of course I was not going to volunteer to study alone at my own expense and still follow their courses afterwards, so the NT2 course was crossed off the list.

Now I was back to only one option. Study at the ROC for minimum two classes per week at three hours per class and an absolute minimum of six months (before I was allowed to take the exam). It would be the sole responsibility of the teacher to ascertain when I would be 'eligible' to take the exams. None of it sounding particularly inviting. I really was not prepared to commit myself to a minimum six hours per week in classes in the evening in a location that is not "convenient" to either my home or my work, especially when there was the possibility that I would not be allowed to leave work until the same moment that the classes were scheduled to begin. Oh, did I mention that we were also in the process of moving house and planning a wedding?

Several blank looks (her) and cross words (me), we agreed that the Gemeente would contact me again in January to get the process rolling. However, I had to agree that my five years begins now, rather than in January. Fine. What's three months? In five years I might not even still be living here. Contact me in January. Just leave me alone right now.

Fast forward to January. No letter. Maybe (hopefully) they have forgotten me.

No such luck. The letter arrives on my door mat on 02 Feb with a summons for this coming Thursday (that's right, the day after tomorrow according to the letter) at 9am back to the Gemeente. This is where the fun really begins....

We arrived at the Gemeente in time (traffic slowed us down, as did lack of parking), but we were standing at the reception in the main hall before 9.00. There was one receptionist on duty. Helping a woman plan her wedding. All I wanted was a number and confirmation that I was there for my agreed appointment. There were three others in the queue ahead of me. All of a sudden a second receptionist appears, with coffee for everyone (on staff. She didn't ask me if I would like one). And another man decided to slip in front of myself and another person waiting for the only other receptionist. Nice. Luckily for me I am engaged to a big tough man who does not have any qualms taking on a hells angels wannabe. So while they were arguing, I was lucky enough to make it to the front of my queue and check in (it was now more than 10 minutes past 9). Oh, it's not necessary, I need to go to the Social department. Nice to know. Especially as every other time I have been forced to visit my local Gemeente I had to check in at reception first.

So, we almost sprinted down the corridor knowing that we were late, and we all know that the Dutch definition of late is waiting for the clock to finish chiming the hour before ringing the door bell, so I was automatically assuming that my appointment was cancelled an I would be expected to return home to wait for my nasty letter. However, I was in luck! I explained why we were late, and it seemed to be an acceptable reason. Perhaps I wasn't the first to fall foul to waiting in the incorrect location....

In sweeps Anita* who is my new consultant. My original consultant has since had a baby, and is not at work. I missed her already. She may not have been a wealth of information, but she had a nice vibe, and offered me a drink at least. According to Anita, there were no interview rooms left, so we were led to a cubicle amongst everybody else with space for only one person each side (interviewer and interviewee), although there were four of us. Anita immediately introduced herself and a colleague (all in Dutch and with no consideration that I may not understand everything) and we sat down to begin the interview.

I thought that this point would be most appropriate to point out that although I understand some Dutch, it is not up to the level of discussing this type of issue (i.e. what is expected of me in the inburgering process and how it all works), so Anita stated (in English, bless her) that she would continue in Dutch, and at any point that I did not understand, I should interrupt. So I interrupted. Which she did not appreciate. Anita was quite insistent that we continue the interview in Dutch, and I was just as insistent that we did not.

Eventually we moved past the language barrier, and were able to get on with the purpose of the visit. Unfortunately, I cannot volunteer much information on what is expected of me as part of the inburgering process, because there was no written information, and no explanation of the three branches that I could choose from. From memory (forgive me, it was difficult to figure out), there is a Work branch, a Family branch, and a Community branch, where you complete a 30 unit portfolio on the basis of which branch you choose. Anita decided that the work branch would be the most interesting and least difficult branch for me as I am already working, but could not tell me what is involved in this branch. I questioned her on the different options for the portfolios, because from what I understand, I will be expected to visit particular businesses or companies, and pretend to require their services in one way or another. For example, opening a bank account, or submitting a police report, or visiting a job agency. There is the option of taking an exam to cut the number of portfolios necessary in half, which is essentially a role play, with written and spoken assessments. There does not appear to be anyway to avoid the portfolios altogether, which quite frankly terrifies me!

We also discussed the methods of study. There were basically three options available to me from the Gemeente. 1. I could study at the ROC Flevoland. 2. I could study with Ttif Company, who are a specialised inburgering school, or 3. I could learn independently, the Gemeente giving me a budget of 6000 euros and I would be required to arrange my education myself, and ensure I pass the exams within 18 months (of this interview date). This option was touted as something that would be beneficial for me as I work full time. I asked Anita to provide me with information in the form of written documentation that I could take home about each option, but she could not. There was a small leaflet for the Ttif Company, but nothing about the ROC, and nothing to point me in any sort of direction for independent learning (obviously very independent!). Oh, and I had to accept their 'offer' then and there. Anita recommended the Ttif Company because of their more flexible teaching hours and methods, which to be perfectly honest was the only constructive point to come out of the entire meeting. However, the Ttif Company cannot officially test my Dutch levels, so I would need to go to the Geldergroep for that. However, Anita nor her colleague could tell me where this was located...

So, to recap, there was 1. no information regarding which branch would be best suited to me and my learning, and 2. no informations regarding the institutions that I would need to use, but I was still expected to make a choice and sign their offer on the spot. Nothing like feeling pressured into something. In all honesty, I do not know how you can avoid this situation. If you can enlighten me on your own experiences in this situation I would be very grateful!

In the end of this story, I signed the offer. Mostly because I couldn't understand what other option I had, and was sent home to await my invitation from both the Ttif Company and the Geldergroep, both of which have already arrived since! So, this Friday I'm off for my intake at the Ttif Company, and next week I have my Dutch level exam. I'll keep you posted on how they both go.

*Name changed


Maarten said...

Again: the horrors we go through!

Thanks for calling me a big though man *looks proud*

Unknown said...

Nerissa, very interesting and terrifying post! I will be moving to Holland probably in one month and my nightmare will start!
Greetings from Buenos Aires! Leti

Unknown said...

Hi Leti,

It will all depend on your visa how quickly you have to go to the city council. Are you coming as a knowledge migrant, or for a partner? Have you had to do the MVV?

Anonymous said...

Wow! The inburgering process in Almere sounds MUCH more involved than the one here in Utrecht. I've never even heard about the portfolio thing. Best of luck to you! Can't wait to keep reading :)

Valentijn said...

I think I got lucky by inburgering in Amersfoort! Instead of the gemeente trying to handle it, they pay a non-profit org to do it. Most of them don't speak much English, but at least they all know what they're doing and enjoy it :-P I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the problems you had stemmed from a gemeente employee that had very little experience dealing with inburgering.

Unknown said...

Valentin, you're exactly right. The consultant who interviewed me (the friendly "Anita") was indeed new in the position. Her attitude however, was not something she had picked up recently. I'm glad that after that first appointment I never had to go back to meet with her. I would even be surprised to hear if she was still in the position to be honest.

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