Omer Guler remembers the day in March, 1986, when, even though a Turkish citizen, he had the right to vote for the first time in Dutch local elections.
"It was a historic day, I still recall the feeling," says the 31-year-old linguistics research assistant. "I went around this city looking at people and thinking, 'I am one of them, I am of the people of Amsterdam.' "
Immigration commands increasing attention across much of Europe. Last week, ministers from 27 governments agreed on short-term measures to reduce the number of illegal immigrants pouring into the Continent's Western nations. The Netherlands was one of those governments.
Nevertheless, many countries are paying more than lip service to the issue of integration and to ways of helping often isolated populations become a part of the social fabric of the countries they now call home.
The motivation for the new interest in integration is not simply altruistic. Governments realize that the immigrants they might once have considered temporary workers are now in large part going to stay.
But feelings of isolation and second-class citizenship run strong in immigrant populations, either among the immigrants themselves or in their often European-born children. The resentment and alienation has taken its toll in worsening social climates, increased delinquency, poor academic results, and often explosive police-immigrant relations.
But the personable Guler says he believes that Amsterdam, with nearly one-fourth of its 700,000 population made up of immigrants, is something of an example for other European cities.
"Here they have given foreigners rights," he says, "and that is the basis for helping people feel like they belong."
Immigrants became eligible for public jobs in 1984, and in 1986 those who had lived in the Netherlands at least five years gained the right to vote in local elections. The right of foreigners to vote exists in three Scandinavian countries, but remains the focus of periodic heated debate in France, Belgium and Germany.
Along with the right to vote came the right to hold local public office. Although Guler did not run for office in 1986 "because my Dutch wasn't good enough yet," he did in 1990, winning a seat on a neighborhood council in De Pijp, one of Amsterdam's 16 decentralized districts. His district, home to 136 nationalities, has four other foreign council members: two Turks, an Indonesian and a Surinamese.
Political scientists and officials in the Netherlands say the right to vote for foreigners is no panacea for successful integration. Immigrant participation in the 1986 vote was well below 50%.
But supporters emphasize that participation topped 60% in the 1990 vote--even surpassing the Dutch national vote in some cities--and that, they say, is a sign that immigrants feel more involved.
"The right to vote has to be seen as a first step, as one part of a policy that includes employment, education, housing and other vital issues," says Dick Verspoor, director of the Amsterdam Center for Immigrants. "It would mean nothing by itself, but it does help people to integrate. There's a reason we haven't had the social uprisings of France, or Brussels, or Germany."
That does not mean friction does not exist with the Dutch population, he adds, especially concerning housing.
"We have our share of 'Dutch for the Dutch' believers," he says.
Candidates of far right-wing parties advocating mass repatriation of immigrants won elections in 1990, increasing their Amsterdam representatives from one to three.
The Amsterdam Center for Immigrants works as a bridge between immigrant organizations and the city, helping immigrants represent their interests with various municipal departments, as well as the private sector. Job training, police-immigrant relations, education--notably contact with the city's Islamic schools--language training, and local political involvement are among the topics taken up by the center.
"The philosophy here is to deal with problems before they become too hard to address," says Verspoor. "That is also pretty much the city's approach," he says, although he suspects that the city government and the Dutch in general who support integration are often most interested in "assimilation, making the immigrants just like us."
That concern is echoed by Abdou Menebhi, general secretary of the National Moroccan Workers Committee. "The Dutch want you to forget your identity, but integration should permit people to maintain their culture."
Still, Menebhi sees progress: He cites Amsterdam's Islamic grade schools, whose academic standards are under state supervision but which have the right to include Islamic teachings. He also points to the increased participation of Moroccans and other immigrants in the last local elections.
"Some of the political parties are starting to take immigrants seriously, opening up, meeting with the different communities, and encouraging (minority) candidates," he says. "It's a start."
Officials say making Amsterdam work as a collection of mutually enriching cultures is one of the city's priorities, as suggested by the mayor's frequent speeches on the topic.
"The tolerant atmosphere and willingness to embrace the reality of a multicultural society facilitates our task," says Francien van der Zee, a social-cultural administrator with the city.
Guler says he takes his participation in city government and the reception he has received since his election as proof of Amsterdam's openness to immigrants. But Menebhi says he still feels a "strong chauvinism" from many Dutch.
"In my eyes that remains the big barrier," he says. "The question is whether people can learn to accept another people from a world far away."