From Homogeneity to Diversity: A Journey of Love and Learning

Embracing Diversity: A Personal Odyssey from the Canals of Netherlands to the Hills of Bangladesh

September 18, 2023

Rob Stoelman is a project manager with UNDP in Bangladesh. His project prevents violent extremism, and promotes tolerance and inclusivity. Previously, he was involved with UNDP in conflict prevention in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Bangladesh) and Rakhine State (Myanmar). In different capacities, he was part of the Rohingya crisis response.

©UNDP Bangladesh

By Rob Stoelman, Project Manager, UNDP Bangladesh

How can we fully accept others with different identities and make them part of our lives? It is a challenge I have faced.  

I grew up in the Netherlands and cannot recall having any classmates who were not Dutch or white. I loved reading about the adventures of twin brothers Hielke en Sietse with their speedboat in Friesland; ask your middle-aged Dutch friends, I am sure they read it too. 

Until then, the only exotic person I had read about was White Feather, a Native American, who was a loyal companion of the cowboy Eagle Eye, the main character in these stories. At home, five days a week, we had a pot with traditional Dutch meatballs in gravy at the dinner table. 

My first exposure to different foods was when my father brought home a recipe for macaroni from his Italian colleague's wife. 

Later in life, my work abroad brought me to different places and exposed me to other cultures. This was both exciting and difficult. My worldview was challenged time and again, and I learned that there is and was so much more to life than the beliefs and values I was raised with. 

I was heaved out of my comfort zone when I met Rita, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. Her culture does not allow for any romantic relationships before marriage. My friends and family asked me if I knew her well enough. But, I had already proposed before we even kissed. We have been married now for 20 years. 

Looking back on my journey, I realize how my life was enriched when I embraced diversity. Overcoming challenges and stepping out of my comfort zone made me less rigid and more confident to deal with change. Working with colleagues from diverse backgrounds taught me that we see life and its problems, through different perspectives, that we can all learn from. 

So, what is this story about? 

Should everyone leave their bubble, travel the world, and marry a foreign spouse to become happy and more effective at work? 

I don’t have all the answers. But what I can say with certainty is that we should step outside our bubbles and comfort zones, and not only out of self-interest. Racism and discrimination are direct outcomes of people staying within their group and believing they have a superior identity. 

I am hard-pressed to find a current conflict or refugee crisis unrelated to identity issues. I do not pretend I have the solution to erase racism and discrimination and solve the world’s crises. But I believe that if you consider yourself a responsible citizen, you must leave your bubble, off and on, and embrace diversity. If not, you lie bereft of so much knowledge and wisdom. And sometimes, in some places that bubble living – where differences are viewed with fear and distrust – can breed exclusion, even hatred, and in extreme cases lead to violence.

I am still strongly connected with my childhood friends. We share similar experiences and need just a half-word to understand each other. Moreover, I am still grateful to my parents for infusing me with values like working hard, taking responsibility, and being direct. 

In our marriage, I have not turned into a Bangladeshi, and my wife has not become Dutch. But we understand and embrace each other's cultures and their nuances. She keeps inviting relatives over, I embrace that and I can still maintain my private space when needed. I have learned that there is much joy and merit in community and the deep bonds of family. 

By embracing diversity, I do not have to give up who I am. Instead, I am adding flavor and new dimensions to my life that I believe make me understand the world so much better. 

So leave your comfort zone, be open, be brave, don't shy away from challenges, and I can safely say you will count your blessings. 

Embracing diversity doesn't mean losing oneself; it means broadening one's horizons and understanding the world through richer, more varied lenses.