This Infamous Amsterdam Prison Is Now A Creative Hub For Refugees

What once was an imposing gray building is now Lola Lik, a colorful public space where refugees can share skills and get to know other Amsterdammers.

On the night of January 20, a crowd of people gathered in a courtyard in Amsterdam. Under strings of lights, a circus performed for the children, conversation sparked around fireplaces, people shared bowls of warm food, and DJs spun electro, and live Syrian and African music blasted through the loudspeakers. It looked like any street party, but until last summer, the tall buildings that rose around the courtyard housed Amsterdam’s most famous prison, the Bijlmerbajes.


When the Bijlmerbajes closed–a not uncommon phenomenon in the Netherlands, where low crime rates and short sentences caused four other prisons to close in 2016–the city of Amsterdam took over the facility from the Dutch Custodial Institutions agency. Most of the site will eventually be demolished and converted into housing, but in the meantime, the city is turning the former prison into a local asset.

The nearly 100,000 square feet of available space would require a substantial creative overhaul to transform from prison to public space, and almost as soon as the prison ceased operations, the city of Amsterdam contracted with the foundation LOLA to reimagine the facility as a creative hub called Lola Lik, with space for startups, art studios, and offices.

But in another section of the Bijlmerbajes complex is the refugee center Wenckebachweg, where up to 1,000 refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, and Afghanistan have been living while seeking asylum. In developing Lola Lik, the city and LOLA saw an opportunity to further integrate the refugee population with the rest of the population. That attitude, says Cathelijn de Reede, communications manager for Lola Lik, is referred to as the “Amsterdam approach” and reflects the city’s policy of actively fostering and encouraging activities aimed at the inclusion of refugees.

Along with 40 professional partners, the city of Amsterdam also signed the “Amsterdam Works for Everyone” agreement, which pledges to help refugees secure work and educational opportunities–a crucial step in a country where only around half of job-seeking refugees succeeded in securing a job after five years of searching. The number of refugees shows no sign of slowing down: According to the Guardian, there are currently 47,500 refugees in the Netherlands–twice as many as there were at the end of 2014.

Video: A Look Inside Amsterdam’s New Community Space For Refugees

By forging a partnership with “a cultural hub next to a refugee center in a time of fear and division, Amsterdam offers a space for inspiration and connection,” de Reede says. Talent, not status or background, forms the core of Lola Lik. Anyone who enters the facility is invited to share their skills with others, and shape the development of the space. “Lik” is a common Amsterdam slang term for prison, but it also nods to the expression “a lick of paint.” “Everyone in Lola Lik is encouraged to add their own ‘lik’ of craft, ideas, or network to the hub,” de Reede says.

Along with some of the refugees from Wenckebachweg, global art foundation Favela Painting has already transformed the drab gray walls of the prison into a colorful patchwork. The transformation of the Bijlmerbajes is not unlike the warehouse conversion projects going on in former industrial neighborhoods like Brooklyn, where an old brick building just opened as a shared space for designers and artists to meet and share ideas. But the element of refugee inclusion lends the Dutch project extra significance.


Lola Lik is designed as a responsive space–as new refugees arrive and as new initiatives take root, all should be able to find a place in the formerly forbidding building. But for now, the organizers are looking forward to a handful of developments on the horizon. The Refugee Company, a creative recruitment and employment organization, will establish a coffee shop, and Solar World Cinema will host film screenings in the courtyard. A kickboxing school will teach old and new locals the sport, and the Startup Kitchen, founded by Jay Asad, an entrepreneur from Syria, will host food startups that will keep visitors supplied with food from all around the world. “The essence of Lola Lik,” de Reede says, “is to connect new Amsterdammers with the city and its residents in one’s own unique and creative way.”


About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.