Posts by Annette

Covid-19 and empty streets


“Blijf Binnen!” Rutte tells the nation.
Despite the general call for social distancing and remaining indoors, Amsterdam’s municipal medics advise that both documented and undocumented homeless citizens, who constitute diverse groups, should spend their days outdoors. My daily urban activities now revolve around this group, compelled to be on Amsterdam’s streets, and I am part of a diverse support group that accompanies them. The homeless lead me to makeshift shelters and tents in empty garages or chilly parks, where they stay day and night.

Me and the Empty City
As a supporting activist and artist, I cycle through the desolate city, feeling disconnected from the lives others lead indoors.

I reflect on my artistic life and how distant it seems. Creation is now only in my mind. I ponder what the other artists are doing. Are they creating content in their houses? If so, what does it all mean?

I feel physically detached from my artistic expression. I feel angered, fired up by this exclusion of homeless people that is visible to me. While cycling, I wonder how the city will change in the coming years, will it affect my role and motivations?

Will the homeless eventually be expelled from the citylimits and its facilities moved to some distant place, after these extraordinary pandemic times? Will this pandemic be used as an excuse to cleanse the city, allowing gentrification to proceed? And fo me: Being part of this homeless lifestyle, will I also be kicked out?

And what if public buildings, museums, and events become increasingly inaccessible? Will people’s social rights be further diminished? What if you need to show your ID everywhere, to prove that you are healthy. What does that mean for undocumented people?

Or will we address the necessary physical space – inside and outside – per person for a healthy urban life, including for these vulnerable groups? Will we all feel connected to other citizens outside our own peer groups?

Questions, questions, questions.

I feel like a solitary thread, biking too quickly through the city, unimpeded by tourists and Amsterdammers. I wonder if only those artists who obey authorities and don’t advocate for the unjustly treated will remain here. Artists should now be even more cautious of becoming mere decoration. We must reclaim the streets as open public spaces.


Tackle the issue that housing is a human right.

Continue to make space public.

A warm bath

Concepting and dreaming with my friend and colleague Cor Ofman, of a better system for undocumented refugees in Amsterdam. Give people time to think, reflect on the past and on the future. What are the legal options, what are the next steps. What is a customized approach if people would like to return, or what to do if people want to continue a life without documents in NL. Discuss all options, build the trust, give ourselves time to reflect. To change and research.

Greece and Turkey


On the beach, I conversed with a group of men from Afghanistan and Pakistan, nonchalantly swimming and drying their clothes in the sun. They told me “We are ten friends heading for Germany or France. After registering with the police, we are planned in for a transfer to Athens.” Their dangerous journey from Turkey across seven kilometers of water, after a failed first attempt, was facilitated by an unseen organizer who bid farewell at the Turkish coast.

“We’re temporarily housed in an abolished hotel,” they gestured, where laundry was visibly drying. Their journey, organized by a human trafficker in Afghanistan, was a desperate escape from the Taliban and IS they told me.

Nearby tourists cast judgmental glances, to me as well. The refugees, still over the top from their perilous crossing, seemed oblivious to the scrutiny.

Kos City
Mahmoud from Syria, who survivd the treacherous crossing after having failed to reach to shore twice, spoke about the terrible risk, the dying, drowning people. He acknowledged that the Coast Guards, both Turkish and Greek, did not prioritize saving lives. He criticized refugees for their naïveté and lack of purpose to come to Europe. Mahmoud empathized with the struggling Greeks on the island of Kos, he was amazed with their assistance to refugees. Being a mediamaker he would make a documentary out of it.

I headed back to the ferry. For me it was a simple boattrip from Turkey to Kos and back, but for others not.

Back at the Hotel in Turkey.

The barman, upon inquiry, spoke of “a refugee influx” due to war. “They arrive from Syria, through my country Turkey, finding a ‘safe’ passage here on the shore. Then they leave in the middle of the night. Some don’t make it.” “Why?” I ask. “Boats are sabotaged” By whom I ask. “The Greeks!” he said. Interrupted by a customer, the barman excused himself, I had the impression that he wanted to cut off this conversation.

1 am at night, I am on the beach near the Hotel.
I spotted erratic lights at sea – smugglers or Coast Guard? Earlier, my sons witnessed a rubber boat battling the currents. The shoreline was dark and windy, lights in the distance of Kos. A foreboding gateway to Europe.

Locals, queried via Google Translate, were uncooperative and fearful. This area is rife with contradictions: Police patrols, trafficker operations, local aid, and alleged illegal pushbacks by Greek authorities.

Back in the hotel at the bar, I learned of a tragic incident. The manager’s friend, charging €1000 per passenger, drowned when his boat carrying 100 refugees was hit, possibly by the Greek police or a rival trafficker. He fell off the boat. The boat was towed back to the shore.

This Turkish coast harbors harrowing, untold stories, waiting to be told once in safety. It is pure survival at the borders of Europe. Violation of human rights. I hope Mahmoud will document this from the inside, for us all to see.

Brian Roy to train We Are Here FC


Football team of undocumented migrants leads the way

While speakers and attendants are flying in tomorrow for What Design Can Do, another international gathering of a different kind will take place in Amsterdam as well. Wednesday afternoon football international and technical trainer at Ajax Amsterdam Brian Roy will train the We Are Here football team formed by asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected.  We Are Here FC is part of a more extensive project by designer / artist Annette Kouwenhoven.

The football team, led by Yusuf Adam, recruits players from the We Are Here group of rejected asylum seekers who are wandering about Amsterdam for more than two years now. The group inhabited different vacant buildings in the city. Without the possibility to return to their countries of origin the group confidently manifests itself under the We Are Here banner.

Designer Annette Kouwenhoven, currently following a postgraduate course in the System D Academy programme at Sandberg Institute, accompanies We Are Here FC as part of a bigger plan for next year. ‘Next year in May design academies from all around Europe will gather in Amsterdam on the occasion of the European Summit that will be held here,’ she tells. ‘I intend to organize a sports event for the design students in which we will invent a new game based on communication. We Are Here FC will play an important role in this, because there is a lot to learn from undocumented migrants when it comes to communication.’

We Are Here FC is sponsored by Wereldhuis, a centre for undocumented people in Amsterdam. The training on Wednesday starts at 14:00 hours at VV Spartaan in Amsterdam West. ‘Anyone who wants to come and support us is more than welcome,’ Kouwenhoven says. ‘We can also use any football shoes or shinguards people want to share. Additional sponsoring is welcome too’, she adds with a grin.