Helen Patterson-Skinner – 71 years old

I was born in 1950 in the Nieuw Nickerie district of the former Dutch colony Suriname.
My mother, Maybel Patterson, was born in 1921 in Nieuw Nickerie, Suriname, but grew up in the British colony Guyana. When she was 19, she returned to her birthplace in Suriname. 

I come from a hardworking working-class family. There were few opportunities for self-improvement in our world. My family nevertheless thought it was important we kept doing our best to get ahead. Girls were especially encouraged to do so. They were told: “Your diploma is your husband.” It is a familiar saying in Suriname. The lack of opportunities for development was the main reason for us to go to the Netherlands. 

In 1973, my mother left for the Netherlands to stay with my two older brothers and help them take care of their children. By working part-time, she was able to save money to bring me and my youngest brother to the Netherlands. 

I arrived in the Netherlands in February 1974. It was a special time for Suriname, for on November 25, 1975, it became an independent republic. I was 24 then, nearly 25, and had a two-year-old son. When I came to the Netherlands, I had a ULO diploma (extended primary education) and work experience as a library assistant. With the many opportunities for self-improvement in the Netherlands, my motto became “Every generation has to do better than the previous one”.     

From my first day in the Netherlands, I walked into businesses to ask if they had a job for me. It was an unconventional way of applying for a job, but people could tell I really wanted to work. Within three days, I had a job. 

In the Netherlands, I worked full-time and studied in the evening. I began as a secretary at the Optische Industrie Old Delft on Van Miereveltlaan, while I took a VMBO (lower secondary professional education) correspondence course. After that programme, I was admitted to the MBO (intermediate vocational education) social work programme and did an internship with the city of Delft. After completing this, I trained as a community worker at HBO (higher vocational education).

With my HBO degree and a few extra lessons in mathematics, I was able to study sociology at Erasmus University in the evenings, in Rotterdam. I was given a permanent contract by the city of Delft, held various positions and ended up as a policy consultant.

My children, whom I had to raise on my own, followed a shorter path to university and are making positive contributions to society.