Welcome to Living Labels, where we look past preconceptions and listen to the human story behind the labels.
Success does not come to you automatically, otherwise everyone would be a millionaire.
In this collection of personal stories, interviewees talk about the stereotypes they encounter in everyday life. Others are quick to attach labels to them, but often forget that a person cannot be summarised in one word. This is the story of Beyhan Calim, Management Assistant at ABN AMRO. Beyhan came to the Netherlands with her parents when she was eight months old and has lived in the Rotterdam region for over 50 years. Still, she has often been called a ‘foreigner’ in her life. Her response on how she labels herself, is ‘Turkish’.
The first time I realized I was being discriminated against was when I was fourteen years old. That was when I wanted a part-time job in a supermarket in Kralingen. For those of you who don’t know: Kralingen was known as the nicest neighborhood in Rotterdam. It still is. People say it’s pretty posh. Well, in that supermarket a friend of ours worked as a stocker. I wanted to do that too, so I asked her if they were hiring people. She looked at me and said she was going to ask. But that I shouldn’t expect much, because they were only looking for ‘Dutch’ girls. So I asked her, ‘Dutch girls? I’m also Dutch.’ Seeing that I genuinely didn’t understand, she said it more clearly. ‘No, real Dutch girls. You know, blonde and blue eyes.’
When people ask me where I’m from, I say ‘from Rotterdam’.
That really hit hard. My hair and eyes might have been a different colour, but I felt like a real Dutchman. I still do. When people ask me where I’m from, I say ‘from Rotterdam’. I come from a real working-class neighbourhood, one where the neighbours are called ‘oma Boot’ and ‘oma Boer’ and, as a child, everyone always patted you on the head. We were no different there. When people ask me where I’m really from, I tell them that my parents are from Turkey and a large part of my family still lives there. I had a Turkish upbringing, but I have lived my life in the Netherlands. My parents came to this country when I was eight months old. I was formed here.
I do notice that I am treated like a foreigner in Turkey. There I feel like ‘that European’. But in the Netherlands I have a lot of conversations that are about being Turkish. Sometimes people ask that, they guess I’m from Turkey. When I want to know why they think that, they say it’s because they hear that I sometimes use grammer incorrectly. But that doesn’t make sense. If a white Dutchman slips up, they don’t get questions about their origin.
How did that conversation with your friend from the supermarket end?
Well, she said I wouldn’t stand a chance. But I was a stubborn girl, so I went and applied anyway. Then I was rejected. Another application, another rejection. And I kept asking myself why, because they hadn’t given a reason. In the end, I stubbornly went up to the owner of the supermarket and asked him straight out why I hadn’t been hired. I also simply asked him if it was because I was a foreigner, or was not blond enough. He didn’t know what I was talking about, and gave me a chance after our conversation. Later my sister also came to work for the same supermarket. And we tried our hardest. So when old colleagues from that time see me, they are so sweet to us. But they also say that as ‘Turkish sisters’ we did so well. ‘How do you mean?”, I ask them then. ‘I just did what I had to do. Not because I’m a foreigner.
My father believed that we should develop ourselves and not be left behind. Because if you don’t and are discriminated against or pigeonholed, you have nothing to hit back with.
Surely these people don’t see us as Dutch, I think. But that’s strange. For example, my father immediately applied for a Dutch passport when we came here. Because he thought that if we moved to another country, we should also participate in everything there. For example learning the language and voting in elections. He thought we should develop ourselves and not be left behind. Because if you don’t and are discriminated against or pigeonholed, you have nothing to fight back with. Many of his Turkish friends found that strange, and said that it meant he was distancing himself from his culture and from Islam. But he didn’t listen to them. He insisted on a future abroad, because it would be better for his children.
Better in what way?
He wanted us to study and work for a big company. Different from how it used to be. In fact, traditionally there were many entrepreneurs in our family. My grandmother was in the handmade carpet business for many years. She ran a business that was later taken over by my mother. What I found special about her was that she believed that women should not be dependent on their husbands. At the very least not financially. You have to realize, we’re talking about the 1930s here. It wasn’t all that common back then. But Grandma thought women should be able to stand on their own two feet, so they couldn’t be kept down. Without that independence, she said, they would remain rough diamonds. So my grandmother taught every woman she knew how to knot rugs, regardless of their background. She did get some opposition from men, who preferred their wives to remain stupid. But she didn’t listen to that. She kept doing what seemed right to her.
So my father didn’t send my sister and me to a domestic science school either. You know what I’m talking about, right? One of those schools that taught girls to be housewives. People around him had advised him to do that, though, because it would be dangerous if girls came into contact with boys in other schools. But he persisted, and said he was going to send us to mavo or havo. Again, thinking that we should not be economically dependent on a man, just as my grandmother had taught my mother. Get your diploma, he said. Then you can always fall back on that. He trusted us in that, but was strict with us. I remember him saying that he would shave us bald if we didn’t do our best. So even though I wasn’t into learning from textbooks, it was his encouragement that got me where I am today and now I’ve been with ABN AMRO for 32 years.
And your mother, what did she think?
My mother had the same attitude as my grandmother. But she helped my grandmother knot carpets from an early age, so she didn’t go to school and was illiterate when she came to the Netherlands in the 1970s. She didn’t like that, because she noticed that she couldn’t participate in a lot of things. For example, she could not go to the doctor or the municipality on her own, or register for school. She also didn’t want to keep waiting for her husband or children to come with her to translate. And in retrospect, it was also intense for me to have to go with her to the doctor. She was such a strong person to me, I didn’t want to see her sick.
So learning to read and write Dutch was top priority for her. A lot of things revolved around this. For example, she had agreed with one of our neighbors that she would clean for her four hours a week. The additional agreement they had made was that she would pay her for three hours, and that she would teach her to speak Dutch in the other hour.
People sometimes say that I’m not a Muslim because I don’t wear a headscarf. But that says nothing. I think that’s so short-sighted. Faith is in your heart.
Now my mother also knew that there was a community center in our neighborhood where they offered language courses. So my sister, my mother and I went there and told one of the teachers that my mother wanted to learn to read and write Dutch. Then the lady asked us whether that was necessary. She did this while looking at my mother in a certain way, headscarf and all. I was six years old at the time, so I didn’t think much of it and translated for her. But my mother then became furious. She took off her headscarf and said in Turkish that she wanted to be her own person, to be able to do everything herself so she wasn’t so dependent on her husband and children. And we translated that again, crying because we saw our mother upset. After that they set up a course in learning to read and write Dutch for migrants in community center the Westerpoort in Rotterdam-West, all because my mother kept insisting.
My sisters and I never wore a headscarf. My father didn’t want us to. He didn’t want us to be misfits at school. That’s why he allowed us to wear pants, which many of our friends did not. They wore those long skirts. Now people sometimes say I’m not a Muslim, because I don’t wear a headscarf. But that doesn’t mean anything. I think that’s so short-sighted. Faith is in your heart.
As a parent, I felt powerless. It made me cry.
I learned from my parents that you shouldn’t give up when you encounter bumps in the road. Because if you really want something, you will get there. But only if you don’t give up when you’re halfway there. These are lessons that I try to pass on to my sons.
In what way?
Well, I’ll give you an example. When my oldest son graduated, his goal was to work for the biggest law firms in the country. But he was rejected time and time again. “How can that be?”, I wondered. My husband and I had sent him to a school that was highly regarded, but where you had to pay hundreds of dollars in extra fees. Through that school he entered grammar school, then graduated from Erasmus University. He has always been so disciplined, always serious. But I saw him getting gloomier and gloomier because of the rejections. As a parent, I felt powerless. It made me cry. So we talked to each other a lot during that period to keep our spirits up.
What did you say to him?
That he had to keep believing in himself and not give up. Because success doesn’t come naturally to you, otherwise everyone would be a millionaire. In the end he kept trying, kept applying for jobs and found a place at the bottom of the ladder at an insurance company. He worked his way up and is now a financial expert at HDI. But his path was a lot longer than that of others.
What did your path look like?
For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated from secondary school. One day it occurred to me: I’m just going to work for the bank where I also have my account. It was very childish and simple, but when I applied I was invited for an interview for a desk clerk position. The man I had the interview with reminded me of our old neighbourhoud grandmas and grandpas. He wanted to give me a chance, but said that a group of ten would get hired. Of those ten only two would get a permanent position after a year. I told him that it was okay, because I wanted to stay for a year anyway. But deep inside I wanted to prove that I could be one of those two. And at the end of the year I got that permanent position. And I had enjoyed myself so much during those months that I stayed.
When it was announced that I was getting a permanent position, the gossip started. Others said that the bank had only made that decision because they got a subsidy for me. A subsidy to attract foreigners. But it wasn’t like that. It was nonsense. I was always the first to arrive, the last to leave, and never called in sick. The people who were rejected were the types who immediately took two weeks of sick leave when they got a cold. I thought they should look at themselves first before they started judging people. But on the other hand, I can understand it. That kind of reasoning was a way for them to ease their pain.
I thought they should look at themselves first before they started judging people.
At first, I didn’t care much about that kind of comment. I thought: whatever. When I was working at the counter, some of those posh grannies would come in and say they didn’t want to be helped by a foreigner. I didn’t see that as a threat or anything, but rather took it lightly. Then I said I was taking an extra coffee break, made a joke of it. That attitude changed when I started working here on Coolsingel. Then one day a man came back who had withdrawn money earlier. He accused me of stealing some of his money. He would have taken too little from ‘that foreigner’. Fortunately, the whole process was on camera, so that could be checked.
But I couldn’t breathe for a moment because of that accusation. I was devastated. I taught my children not to do crazy things. No gambling, no drugs, no breaking the law. Because if you do, it will be a stain on your personality. Moreover, a stain on your career. I myself was reminded of my father. Everyone knew me as that daughter who worked for the bank. If I got fired because of something like that, it would also be a stain on his record.
After that, I couldn’t be flippant about discriminatory remarks. If someone then said they didn’t want to be helped by me, I would insist that they should still stand in line with me. And I tried harder, because I wanted to prove something to those people. And my colleagues were behind me. They told the customer that they wouldn’t be helped at the branch if they didn’t want to speak to me.
I then also became increasingly committed to more diversity and inclusion within the bank, even when I was not doing so well. At one point, I was in a position where I was under a lot of stress. This got so bad that all my self-confidence was lost and it was difficult to eat. I lost a total of 15 kilos and my heart rhythm showed abnormalities. Yet at the time, for example, I raised the issue that there was too little diversity among front desk staff. I thought it was important that we were a reflection of society, so that customers would recognise themselves in us.
Under my current manager Bart van den Tol, I have returned to my old self. My colleagues say I have completely blossomed under him. And they are right about that. He said he saw a gem in me. Someone just had to give me the chance to shine.
Bart is gay, something I found out a few months after I was hired by him. He kept talking about ‘my partner, my partner’. So one day I asked about his partner, assuming it was a woman. Whether she wanted children. Then he asked me a question in return. ‘Why does a partner always have to be a woman?’ That’s when I realized it, and felt quite embarrassed by my assumption. After that we had very deep conversations, about his childhood and mine. About struggles with our identities. We have become real buddies now, everyone calls us the B&B team. Some think he is a very strict man, but we just click. He only wants good things for me and helps me in my development. He doesn’t see me as a ‘foreigner’ and I don’t see him as just ‘gay’. We are just two people who help each other.
And that’s the way it should be. Our aim at ABN AMRO is to be a company where everyone can be who they are. And the bank gives us that space too, for example by thinking with us about food preferences and activities around certain holidays. And I think that’s fantastic. Personally I think it’s important that everyone feels accepted within the company, just like I feel accepted by Bart.
That’s why I also think it’s important for people to know that I’m not a simple label, but simply Beyhan. I am a mother, a wife and a Muslim. I don’t smoke, don’t drink and fast during Ramadan. When Pim Fortuyn was shot, I also cried. I always carry an amulet of the evil eye and my hero is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
I am Dutch, a go-getter and someone who doesn’t take no for an answer. If life is an express train, I will do anything to get a place in it. Even if I have to sit in the last carriage. I will go along, at any cost.