International Center Tilburg: the living room for Tilburg internationals
Since its opening in 2018, the International Center Tilburg has built a name for itself as the cozy home of internationals. It is exactly what Thom Engelhart and his fiancée Zoë Joan Franz had in mind when they started their initiative. “It’s about creating a sense of belonging for the people that are new in Tilburg”
“Serendipity,” says Thom. “Meaning to find something beautiful you were not looking for.” It is the word he uses to summarize the start of their adventure. After six months of tryout and gauging the needs of internationals in Tilburg, they were offered to renovate and rent the all-glass building on the corner of the IJzerstraat, which to this day is their home base. Thom: “It was lucky that we got the chance to bring all our plans to fruition.”
But luck can’t do without a proper vision. The seed for that was planted during their joint masters in Cultural Anthropology at Utrecht University. It was then that the couple found each other in their shared interest in globalization. Also, it was the first time they were confronted with the issues internationals face in the Netherlands. “Many of our international classmates told us about the lack of proper housing or that they got scammed by landlords,” Zoë says. “That really shook us up.”
After having graduated together, Thom decided to go with Zoë to her hometown Tilburg, which she had previously left as she couldn’t really identify with the city. Upon arrival, they were both positively surprised by how the city had changed for the better. Particularly striking was how internationalization in Tilburg had seriously taken off.
However, the cultural change needed to support this rapid transition had not yet come about. Therefore, they saw a great need for an international meeting spot where everyone could just walk in, feel welcome and where different cultures are celebrated. After six months, their dream became reality and the doors of the International Center Tilburg (ICT) opened.
Sense of Belonging
“Our purpose is to create a sense of belonging,” Zoë explains. “Especially for those who are new in the Netherlands or Tilburg.” Drawing on their own travel experiences, Zoë and Thom know what it is like to arrive somewhere new. Nevertheless, they have often felt at home in the many hostels they have visited along the way, due to the relaxed and open atmosphere they found there. It is something they try to recreate at ICT.
Though ICT is set up for everyone who craves for some good company, it is mostly directed towards the international community. This includes all the international students, migrant workers and expats living in Tilburg. “Nowadays we see two types of expats,” Thom distinguishes. “On the one hand, you have large companies that bring in highly specialised expats from all over the world who are facilitated optimally. On the other hand, we have former students who have just graduated and want to stay here to work – the so-called young professionals. This group has to arrange everything themselves, and that is where we come in.”
Two of ICT’s most regular visitors are Angel and Sabuhi, who both first set foot in ICT during their studies and then stuck around. What makes the center so special to them? “It honestly feels like home,” Angel answers. “Here I found out that I was not alone in the city and that there are other people who are in the same situation as me. That made me relax.” Sabuhi adds: “ICT is one of my gateways to meet people in Tilburg. You don’t just go out on the street randomly to meet new people. You need a platform and an environment for that, which ICT provides.”
More to offer
According to Thom and Zoë, the city of Tilburg organizes a lot of events, but too many are only offered in Dutch. For that reason, ICT hosts a variety of internationals-friendly events themselves. “We have a weekly potluck dinner at our center, so that people don’t have to eat alone,” says Thom. “Besides that, we have community drinks every once a month in a different bar or restaurant in the city. But we also have things like movie and comedy nights that are often pretty well visited.”
The concept of the drinks is plain and simple, says Angel. “You just show up, drink hot chocolate and talk to the person on your left and right.” He goes to these nights as much as possible, as does Sabuhi who hasn’t missed a single potluck dinner so far. “Everyone brings something they have prepared, this can be a meal, a drink or a dessert. It is the perfect way to meet each other.”
But ICT is more than only a place to find like-minded peers. They also offer internationals help with both big and small practical matters, such as where to find a job or a specific product. Sabuhi: “Whenever I have a question concerning the rules of this country, I know whom to approach.”
For those internationals who feel lonely or have trouble finding their comfort zone in Tilburg, ICT organizes walk-in sessions where this group is given the opportunity to talk to a professional. Zoë: “Mental health is a huge problem amongst international students, to which Tilburg University has responded by offering counselling services.” This is, however, not always sufficient for struggling students, Thom notes. “Some students are reluctant using those services out of fear of being seen by acquaintances.”
One of ICT’s sources of income are the Dutch language courses that are on offer every semester. Since they want the teachers to get their fair share, only a small part is left for them. “That is okay,” says Zoë. “As long as it is enough to pay our rent and keep things running.” Thom adds: “Someone once told us that so many beautiful initiatives die in splendor. They are so pure and wonderful in their ideology, yet they don’t get the business side done and die out. We want to prevent that at all costs.”
This month, ICT celebrates its fourth anniversary. Many internationals have found their way to the center in this period, leaving again with new contacts and friends. Also Angel, who says some of his friendships wouldn’t have existed if it were not for ICT. “That is why they mean a lot to me.”
In the past four years, not only have their visitors found each other, but Zoë and Thom have also forged personal relations that go beyond the center. For example with Sabuhi, who stayed with them for a couple of weeks after finishing his masters. “While I was looking for a job and a room,” Sabuhi says, “they took me into their house. I was allowed to stay until I had found something, and they didn’t expect anything in return. To me, that says it all.”
When asked about the highlight of their four-year existence, Zoë and Thom respond synchronically: the graduation of Angel. He invited his ‘Dutch parents’ as a thank you for how much they helped him during his time in Tilburg. To Zoë and Thom, the emotional ceremony meant the world because it symbolizes everything ICT wants to be. According to Thom, Angel literally said that ICT is the only place where he feels at home. Proudly: “How amazing if you can mean that to someone.”