A Decade in The Netherlands: A Story of Resilience and Empowerment

Text and photos by Olga Tokarczyk

A decade ago, I made the journey to the Netherlands. Unlike other migrants fleeing war or political turmoil, my reasons were personal. I sought change, following someone I trusted at the time. You might say I came from a position of privilege.

Upon arrival, I encountered a reality that diverged from the idyllic image I had imagined. While literature often romanticises new beginnings, the truth can be starkly different. I was unprepared for the harsh reality of encountering nationality-based discrimination in Europe.

I vividly recall Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004. As someone who lived through the constraints of the communist regime, the promise of belonging to a greater entity and the freedom it symbolised was a beacon of hope. Yet, six years later, my arrival in a new country marked the beginning of one of the most profound shocks of my adult life.

Despite my professional qualifications, I found myself marginalised and disrespected. Shockingly, I even received job offers in sex sectors that demeaned my skills and identity, simply because of my Eastern European woman identity. These experiences led me into a spiral of depression and burnout, where even the simple act of photography, my passion and profession, became a distant memory.

It took a minor bicycle accident to jolt me out of my numbness and rekindle a sense of purpose. Faced with limited access to therapy and support, I refused to succumb to despair. Instead, I embarked on an artistic journey—a self-help project that continues to this day. 

My project aimed to cultivate mindfulness in my daily life. Armed with nothing but a smartphone with a camera, I set myself the task of capturing a single image each day, a visual reminder to stay present amidst life’s chaos. This simple practice transformed my perception of my surroundings, revealing beauty in unexpected places—the subtle hues of the Dutch sky, the intricate patterns of everyday life.

Now, I pay forward the lessons I’ve learned to other migrant women battling similar mental barriers. I show them that with nothing more than a smartphone and the willingness to see, they too can find solace and inspiration in the world around them.

As Europe grapples with a resurgence of far-right ideologies, our stories—of struggle, resilience, and empowerment—are more important than ever. They remind us that no one should be made to feel unwelcome in the place they’ve chosen to call home.

Let this story serve as a reminder of the impact we can make through our participation in the democratic process. On June 6, let us all make our voices heard by voting for a Europe that stands united in its diversity and strong in its commitment to empowering every individual. Your vote is crucial in building a more inclusive, empathetic, and resilient European Union.