Secret Garden: especially for Arabic immigrants

One of the less well-known organizations in Amsterdam is Secret Garden. Set up in 1998, it has been helping gay men and women from Mediterranean (mainly Arabic) countries, and organizing parties and other events.
Time for a small interview!

Emir Belatoui of Secret Garden
Emir Belatoui of Secret Garden

We have talked to Emir Belatoui. He is the founder of Secret Garden and the current manager. Originally he is from Paris, France, with an Algerian background.

Since when does Secret Garden exist?
It all started in 1998, the year I moved to the Netherlands. A group of Moroccans and Egyptians had set up regular dance evenings in the Amsterdam department of the COC (the main Dutch gay lobby organization). They also organized Arabic evenings.
I stepped in with organizing with discussion evenings and information activities about STD’s and HIV. That was the start of Secret Garden.
In 2001 we had to move out of the COC building and moved to the Schorer Foundation in PC Hooftstraat. After 3 years I had to stop to do other work. Between 2005 and 2008 there were no activities for the target group.

What happened next?
In 2008 Secret Garden re-started, funded by the City of Amsterdam, as an independant organization. Secret Garden moved to the offices of Foundation Gala in Eerste Helmersstraat. After 6 months we moved to a location in Spuistraat, and then, in 2009 we moved to the beautiful 17th century tower the Montelbaenstoren.

Montelbaenstoren @ Oudeschans
Montelbaenstoren @ Oudeschans

Here we stayed from 2009-2013. There we had a daily consultation service, for gays and lesbians with an ‘immigration background’, as it is supposed to be called nowadays. Topics were coming out, family issues, housing, acceptance of homosexuality, religion. About a third of our clients are refugees. They often need social, legal and psychological support, apart from practical support. Gay refugees often have extra problems because they are gay. They face discrimination and rejection from their families.

Corvershof
Corvershof

What happened after 2013?
We then were lucky to be able to get a space in the Corvershof building, for a year, at Nieuwe Herengracht 18. Unfortunately, after a year we had to move out again. Then we moved to our present location at Oudezijds Voorburgwal. This building is owned by the Salvation Army. Many of the social workers here are gay them selves. They let us use the main room from 9-1 on Monday – Wednesday, after 1pm the room is needed for homeless people.
Beautiful as this building is, and we are grateful to use it, it is not ideal. The Secret Garden archives and administration are at another location, plus we have our Wednesday evening activities at yet another location. That is not very practical – I’d prefer one location where we can do everything.

Current location of Secret Garden @ Oudezijds Voorburgwal
Current location of Secret Garden @ Oudezijds Voorburgwal

What are the Wednesday evening activities?
We work a lot with immigrants from Arabic countries, but also from other Mediterranean countries, Iran etc. About a third of our clients are refugees.
On Wednesday evenings we have various theme nights, located at 125 Oudezijds Voorburgwal.
On the Wednesday evenings we try to address all kinds of topics that may be relevant for immigrants.
1st Wednesday of the month: for gay and bisexual men
2nd Wednesday of the month: for gay women
3rd Wednesday of the month: for transgenders
4th Wednesday of the month: about STD’s, HIV, sexual health in general

Especially due to the big influx of refugees, e.g. from Syria, there is a great need of sexual education. For example, they may know about Aids, but not about HIV. In Syria, if you get HIV, you are sent to a special hospital where you’re locked up. In the hospital you’re nursed without anti-retroviral treatment, until you die. Often they don’t use condoms. I often have to explain that in Holland, due to good and widely available treatment, Aids hardly exists any more.
These people come here with a trauma because they think they’re going to die. Then they learn here that they don’t have to die, which may result in a second trauma.

Packaging of Secret Garden condom
Packaging of Secret Garden condom

 

Secret Garden condom with instructions in Arabic
Secret Garden condom with instructions in Arabic

For this target group we started a campaign. We had posters and special condoms packing produced, with explanation in Arabic. This was combined with 4 information evenings in a rowk, in 4 languages: English, Dutch, Arabic and with a special interpreter for Farsi (that’s what they speak in Iran).
Sometimes on the 4th Wednesday we deal with a special topic, such as creating a resume for job applications. Refugees who have received residence status sometimes have trouble producing a grood resume.

How many staff does Secret Garden have?

Secret Garden is a volunteer orgaization. There are about 9 fixed volunteers, and a pool of 23 volunteers who we can call upon if needed. We can always use more volunteers.

To contact Secret Garden you are advised to visit the website on http://www.stichtingsecretgarden.nl/.

 

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