What I saw today – Not Just A Number, International Friends Play&Share

I don’t know if what I saw today matches our current Challenge, but for sure curiosity was what pushed me to jump into my car and go to “International Friends Play&Share” event. I already knew about the project and its importance, but I had never visited them. Curiosity is what you need to go out of your comfort zone and create connections in real life.


I joined them at their usual weekly meeting.
There was a medium-sized community hall.
There were carpets and toys on the floor.
There were hot drinks, cakes and snacks.
There were women, of different ages.
And there were their toddlers.
There was also a grandma accompanying her daughter, and there was me, a middle-age woman, whose children are definitively too old to participate.
A diversified group of women.
A young one, who clearly knew how to handle toddler educational activities, was leading the games.
And then, more toys, interactive games with children, music, singing in three or four different languages, dancing, and even a singing exercise for the adults.
A very pleasant and enjoyable hour.

children paintingIt could have been an ordinary well organized expat playgroup, like many I used to go to with my children in the past and in other countries.
In this group there were 2 people from Finland, 1 from Australia, 1 from Italy, 1 from Syria, 1 from Georgia, 1 from South Africa.
Two of them were refugees, but to anybody entering the room while we were playing with the children, it would have been difficult to understand who was coming from where.
All barriers were left outside the door: you don’t need cultural norms or a specific language to play with a toddler… just a carpet, some toys, materials to touch and manipulate, music, dance. That’s it.

The magic is done!

What I saw today was a group of women enjoying an hour of their time with their children, leaving their complicated lives outside the door for a while, relaxing and connecting with other women, most of them never met before.

Empathy is possible, it is real, it happens.
It happened this morning at “Not Just a Number”, it happens every Thursday morning there.
We can make it happen every day in our lives.
And it is not so difficult.

Cristina Baldan, November 2016


International Friends Play & Share
Emma and Poyer, both expats, are the souls behind this project and I asked them introduce it to you.

As newly arrived expats, we met in September 2015 at the Maastricht International Playgroup along with another dear friend, Christa Somers. This weekly gathering gave each of us a firm grounding and social outlet as internationals in this new environment. It allowed us to feel welcome, supported, and comfortable as we began to find our way in this new town.

We discovered we shared concern about the welfare of newly arrived refugees and together we envisioned welcoming refugee families into the fold of the international community using the playgroup concept. Our idea was supported by comments from a very active local social entrepreneur and Syrian refugee, Nour Khatib, who is a board member of the local refugee support NGO called Not Just a Number. He told us that while there were several local NGOs supporting refugees, none had managed to facilitate connection between local Maastricht community and a particular subgroup of the refugees living at the local shelter – namely mothers with young children.

what-i-saw-today2These women continued to be socially isolated and had little reason to leave the refugee shelter except to shop for food and clothing. Most of their time is spent indoors, caring for their young children without the aid of their own toys or care items, such as pushchairs/buggies and highchairs. We believed the playgroup concept would be a good way to reach out to these women and children. It also held promise of a way to pass on things like clothes, toys and baby-care items – things that are readily available from international families in our networks who are often on the move.

With the help of a large group of supporters — mostly parents of students attending the United World College Maastricht — we set ourselves up in the football clubhouse next door to the Maastricht Asiel Zoekers Centrum and began running weekly playgroup mornings from December 1stGrowth of the playgroup was rapid and it wasn’t long before people waiting to access the donated items overtook our comfortable play space. Our solution was to separate the arms of the project, thus creating International Friends Play and International Friends Share. We scheduled separate days and recruited a new team of volunteers.

International Ffriends Play is now a calm environment where mothers can enjoy a hot drink, snacks and a chat while our children play. The inclusion of music classes has injected high energy and fun, and serves as the perfect ice-breaker for new visitors. Professional musician Jana Debusk has brought great enthusiasm and a wealth of knowledge, sharing songs and rhythms from around the world through her collaboration with the Funikijam music program in New York.

International Friends Share attracts an average of 50 visitors every Monday within a 3-hour ‘shopping’ period and we pass on about 600 donated items within that time. About 12 volunteers help to run this event and collectively they work over 70 hours in that single day. Re-sorting the messy aftermath occurs on Tuesdays, with another team of about 6 collectively working 20 hours.

The wealth of wisdom, skill, and diversity on our volunteer teams has ensured the success of these projects and ongoing support of refugees in Maastricht.  Our shared commitment to serve community holds us firmly together and it is the broad skill set we can call on that ensures results. Our expat members have purchased supplies, shared freighting resources, provided multiple language translations for flyers and posters, given clothing and household donations, rejuvenated old discarded bicycles, fetched, carried, sorted and re-sorted many tons of clothing and most importantly they have given greatly of their time.

Our expat community is now an integral part of the cultural experience that is shaping the social integration of hundreds of refugees seeking a new life in the Netherlands.  In turn, our lives have been enriched as we each discover that we are all cut from the same cloth and by working together we can flourish.


Emma Bendall and Poyer Conforte
Co-founders – International Friends Play & Share
Not Just a Number