No two months following the closing of Amsterdam’s infamous Bijlmerbajes prison, the space reopened as a refugee center and creative hub named Lola Lik. With art studios, a restaurant, a museum, and a hammam, it is hard to imagine that the city’s most notorious criminals were once housed here.

Sign at the entrance of Lola Lik
Welcome to Lola Lik.

Only few vacant structures have the spookiness of an abandoned prison. But when the infamous Bijlmerbajes jail closed its doors in June 2016, it did not foster sceneries of doom in Amsterdam’s southern suburb at all. In contrast, it served as a perfect playground for Lola, a collective of urban hackers, activators, innovators, fighting vacancy in Amsterdam’s urban jungle.

Before locking up into their newest project, Lola had already given new life to several buildings spread throughout the city, that otherwise would have been dead and unused spaces. The organization’s goal: to provide an alternative to traditional property management by reimagining empty buildings as colorful spaces for the surrounding community. Transforming the former prison should turn out as one of their keystone projects.

“When we walked into this place for the first time, we couldn’t imagine we had to work in such a grey and bland environment. But look at it now, how it has changed in such a short time”, says Lola Lik’s General Manager Maria Gomez.

One of the first steps to sweep out the air of crime was christening the project “Lola Lik”. ‘Lik’ not only refers to Dutch slang for prison, but also to ‘a lick of paint’.

Former prison becomes creative hub and refugee center

Today, Lola Lik is an incubator space for starting entrepreneurs, creatives, artists, and social initiatives. It is located in the former main building of the prison complex, that used to house the laundry rooms, kitchens, offices and cells for solitary confinement.

The 9,000 square meter space is now filled with 86 so-called borrowers. The term renter is intentionally avoided. Rather than paying rent, costs are shared within the community. The most important selection criterion for borrowers is the possibility for co-creation and interaction between Lola Lik and the refugee center next door.

The center, separately run by the Dutch government’s refugee organization COA, is located in the former cell block towers looking down on Lola Lik. Already, they opened up the pop-up restaurant ‘A Beautiful Mess’, that is run by The Refugee Company and is solely staffed by residents from the refugee center who are being trained by professionals from the Amsterdam restaurant scene.

opening of Lola Lik
Symbolic opening of locks and borders.
three men performing at a concert at Lola Lik
Concerts in the courtyard gather the crowds.

Transformation meets integration in the former jail

“Lola Lik is a safe learning environment for newcomers, where they can develop their skills, gain experience in a new environment and build a local network,” Maria Gomez passionately states. “We provide a springboard to the outside world – to their new society. Lola Lik is unique in that way.”

In merging creative, adaptive transformation of an urban area and connecting it to the need for housing and social integration of refugees, Lola Lik is not only that special space. Moreover, it plays a very important role in a very urgent, topical matter.

woman teaching crafting to a male and a female refugee
Art studios offer courses like screenprinting.

“We see it as a very bottom-up way of empowering refugees, activating and facilitating them to stand their own ground.” Maria shares the story of one of the inhabitants, a deaf man from Jamaica, who is struggling to connect with people. His dream was to create his own rap music video in sign language.

Now, he is realizing his dream with a whole network of creatives from Lola Lik, including an art director, songwriters and music producers. “That is the true strength of this place,” says Maria. “All this creative energy, this diverse network of people. That is one of the most important assets for newcomers, who don’t know anyone here.”

colourful chairs in front of a location called Refugee Company in Lola Lik
Refugee Company opened a pop-up restaurant.

A hammam, boxing school and art museum under the same roof

As we walk past the former solitary confinement cells, we witness the construction of another creative project. Dutch artist Teun Castelein is building a Syrian-style hammam, or bathhouse, together with entrepreneur Moe Al Masri from Syria.

As the tiles are installed on the walls, it is suddenly very hard to see the space as the former prison it was. Instead, it feels like this room was always there to some day become a hammam. The project is still in development and a crowdfunding campaign is running, hoping to make the complete hammam a lasting reality.

Mixed up with office spaces for small start-ups, you can find language schools for refugees to learn Dutch. Arabic classes are offered as well. “Integration goes both ways,” Maria points out. “There is also a man from Syria who gives lecture courses on the geopolitical situation in Syria. Even I hardly know where Damascus or Aleppo are on the map.”

In the basement of the complex you will find another surprise: A boxing school has just opened. It offers classes for outsiders as well as refugees, free of charge.

This June, the ‘Tijdelijk Museum’ opened its doors at the ex-jailhouse too – a temporary museum in collaboration with Amsterdam’s famous contemporary art museum, the ‘Stedelijk’. Exhibitions are developed entirely with migrants and refugees, and hope to shed new light on their stories.

Maria Gomez proudly explains that it was set up in less than a month, what she finds “super inspiring!” The museum is open five days a week and tours are provided by refugees. The call for contribution, as put by Maria, is clear: “Everyone should be able add their ‘lick of paint’ to this place.”

a group of people sitting in the community garden of Lola Lik on a sunny summer day
Amsterdamers enjoy the new, open space.

Next challenge: connecting to the city

Looking into the future, General Manager Maria rolls out a plan for Lola Lik than continues to impress. “First we really focused on our own club in here and managed to build a very positive connection to the refugee center. The next stage is trying to open up more and more to the whole city.” To her, the ‘Tijdelijk Museum’ is a good example of an initiative that hopes to attract more day-to-day visitors.

Yet, it is unclear for how long Lola Lik can continue doing its work. Most of the site will eventually be demolished and converted into housing, and the refugee center has already announced that it will be leaving in 2018.

Whilst the former no-go zone of Amsterdam will eventually become a densely populated neighborhood of the city, the unique spirit of Lola Lik and the refugees will have to move to new places. But who turns a prison into a place of new hope has proven more than strong enough to tackle the next big challenge.

For more information on the project, visit their website.