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What is it really like for minority communities in the Netherlands?

Dutch voters head to the polls on Wednesday in the first of this year’s closely watched European elections. Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom party (PVV) has slipped to second place in the polls, but xenophobic and anti-Muslim sentiments have been a central theme the campaign.

We spoke to ethnic and religious minority voters about the often vicious campaign language, and what life is really like for them in the famously tolerant and liberal country.

‘I’m not sure if we still deserve to be famous for a liberal spirit’

Idris Noor, 26, is a lawyer in one of the country’s largest corporate firms. His father is Syrian and a devout Muslim, and his mother is a Dutch-born atheist. He says his background often surprises people, but that it has protected him from discrimination.

“People usually assume I am Dutch, but I have friends who are Turkish and Moroccan, with dark hair and dark eyes and no university-level education, who do not experience this.

“Usually any first conversation is about my supposedly ‘strange name’. When I applied for my first student job, I was not invited for an interview. After applying with the same CV but a Dutch name I was. I had my friends do the same, with the same result. I filed a report with the police, but two years later they said that they were not acting on it,” he says.

Idris says Wilders is promoting an “us and them” mentality. He says there’s a trend among his friends to disassociate from Dutch society and connect more with their heritage.

“I’m not sure the Netherlands still deserves to be famous for a liberal spirit. If it concerns LGBT rights, abortion policies, drug policies, I do not think we’re that special anymore. If it concerns acceptance of other cultures or religions, that spirit has dampened – if it were ever there,” he says.

Like many people, Idris has moved his support away from the main political parties. He will vote for the progressive Democrats 66, but hopes to see them in coalition with GroenLinks– whose leader is half-Morrocan – and the prime minister Mark Rutte’s VVD. Pollsters predict a record 14 parties will end up with at least one MP, eight of whom will have 10 or more. Six parties, including the PVV, are expected to win up to 25.

“I’m not sure if this is a very realistic hope, considering GroenLinks and the VVD are opposites in a few essential policies. I hope we stay in the EU, do not raise income tax … less afraid of what is foreign, as well as helping refugees. Too many policies are a reaction to whatever happened yesterday, rather than with a sound long-term vision.

“The Netherlands means freedom. We have a stable and functioning democracy. And things are really, really well taken care of.

“Ironically, the reason I feel this way is because of my Syrian roots. I know what dictatorship means, it has destroyed my father’s family,” he says. “At the core I am very proud to be Dutch and very thankful for all the opportunities this country has given me.”

‘Wilders knows how to use fear to get to fragile people’

Jamila, 27, was born in the Netherlandsto Moroccan immigrant parents. She doesn’t wear a headscarf which, she says, means she is not seen as a typical Muslim in the eyes of “an average Dutch person”.

“I never have been verbally or physically attacked, because for some Dutch people I am the ‘good one’, which sometimes hurts. But my sisters have been discriminated against, due to the fact that they wear a headscarf and that they live in Noord-Brabant where the average citizen is not that world-experienced. My sisters would not curse back even when for the hundredth time someone makes ill comments. I think they are not the only ones,” she says.

Wilders has caused outrage with his extreme rhetoric, which has included describing Moroccans as “scum” and calling for the Qur’an to be banned.

“I can honestly say that the climate for muslims before 9/11 was much better. With the rise of attacks in the west and the way the media frames violence used by some Muslims, a lot of Muslims here feel like second class citizens,” she says.

Rutte published an open letter last month in which he wrote that people who “refuse to adapt, and criticise our values” should “behave normally or go away”. It was generally viewed as a bid to win over voters drawn to Wilders.

“I am worried the hate against Muslims will rise and we will live in a divided country. It does not mean that I will lose hope, but I am not looking forward to a society where people stop having conversations and turn to violent measures.

“I have to give it to Wilders, he knows how to use fear to get to fragile people,” she says.

Jamila says she is lucky to be surrounded by well-educated people who revile the far-right campaigning, something she puts down to the work done by her parents to make sure she integrated.

“My parents, who are traditional practising Muslims, aways urged me to seize every opportunity to make it here. They chose the Netherlands because of its chances and tolerant culture. We studied and worked hard, contribute to society, be patient, loving and caring – even to those who don’t like migrants,” she says.

“Integration here is a success when you have goals and dreams, work hard for it and find people who support you all the way.”

‘Wilders has made me aware of how people really feel about us foreigners’

Hind Abdulaziz fled Iraq as a refugee almost 20 years ago along with her parents and three-year-old brother to start a new life in the Netherlands. She says her life is good, and that her family has assimilated well. The PVV’s rising popularity recent growth has, however, given her a different sense on how some Dutch people view “foreigners” living in the country.

“I’m aware that I’m not 100% Dutch. I try to prove to everyone around me that we are certainly able to adjust and we are as Dutch as everyone else” she says. Her brother finds it more difficult, she says, because “being a foreign man is more of a problem than being a foreign women with no headscarf”.

Hind lives with her two children and Dutch husband in a predominantly white neighbourhood in Utrecht. She says she has never experienced any discrimination and is treated as an equal, but that she remains cautious and mindful over some of her decisions.

“I have become very careful when speaking Arabic with my children, and I have consciously chosen Dutch names for my kids. I speak fluent Dutch, so people on the phone are not aware that they are speaking to a person of migration background,” she says.

She says she is not worried about Wilders’ party because he is unlikely to win a majority, but she is concerned about larger countries such as France that have only two or three main parties.

“The liberal Dutch spirit is no more … it is only getting worse. But it is not in good shape worldwide. We need to change economics to be fair for everyone. People are losing their jobs, while companies are making profit,” she says.

Like an increasing number of Dutch voters, Hind has moved her support away from the main parties and will vote for D66, GroenLinks or the Pirate party. She says she is happy in the Netherlands, and hopes to enter politics.

“But if Wilders wins the elections with more than 75 seats, I will be considering migrating to Canada,” she says.