Humans of Amsterdam: the author has been telling the stories of the city's residents for 10 years

Thousands of stories were told. More than half a million followers follow the project on various social media platforms
6 min
April 12, 2024

Amsterdam is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. More than 180 nationalities live here today, and about a third of the residents are foreigners*. The influx of immigrants began after World War II and continues today. In the Netherlands, there is a saying, "Leef en laat leven" - "Live and let live." Society is open and tolerant of expats, although the issue of integrating new people comes up year after year.

Ten years ago, Debra Barraud decided to launch the project "Humans of Amsterdam". A platform where ordinary people, passers-by that we meet on the streets every day, would tell their stories. Debra is convinced that everyone is unique. Hearing their life story is very important. It helps create a dialogue between different people and creates a community where everyone wants to see their future.

Thousands of stories were told. More than half a million followers follow the project on various social media platforms. National Geographic suggested Debra publish a book "Humans of Amsterdam".

"I have always had a strong desire to document life around me", says Debra Barraud, founder, photographer and author of Humans of Amsterdam.

"Even as an eight years old I would not go anywhere without my disposable camera. Somehow I was very aware of time passing by and therefore I felt to responsible to capture it. Later on, I learned that capturing a moment in time also meant telling the story that went with it. At the age of twenty one I moved from a provincial town in the middle of The Netherlands to Amsterdam. In Amsterdam I was studying to become a social worker and after three years I went left for the Middle East, Israel to do an internship. I worked for an organization, which stands for dialogue and storytelling.

I participated in story telling workshops and there I saw how people from totally opposing backgrounds would sit in a circle and share their life story. To see how people with different nationalities and religions could relate to each others stories made me realize how powerful a story can be. When my internship was over and I’d moved  back to Amsterdam I decided that his time things were going to be different. I had the desire to create a platform where people could share their story and that’s how Humans of Amsterdam was born".

The Humans of New York blog inspired Debra to create Humans of Amsterdam:

"I remember scrolling through the page for hours. Even though I had never met any of these people, they felt familiar. To me, that's the magic of Humans of New York. Months passed, and I kept thinking that Amsterdam deserved a 'Humans of Amsterdam' project. As I studied social work, I didn't consider myself for the job. I started looking in my network for people with experience in photography and writing. After several failed attempts to get suitable people involved, I concluded that I was the only person willing to commit to such a time-consuming project. During the first two years of Humans of Amsterdam, I earned nothing".

Аnd since then over a 1000 stories have been told on the HOA platform. With a supporting community of more than 430.000 people worldwide the blog reaches more than two million people a month.

The project has become more than a collection of photo stories. "Humans of Amsterdam has conducted several charitable projects:

"Through the years, we helped raise several funds, for example, to help Nadia cover her legal fees in India. We bought hundreds of winter coats for refugees, and last year, we helped Bader to buy a little electric car for his Hummus delivery business".

If you want you can support the project at the site

Here are some stories (it was very hard to choose!)

You can read more stories here: Instagram, Facebook or website.

'I tried other colors but I always come back to pink. People will always try to tell you that only a few can pull off pink but that is a lie. Pink is for everyone.''

"Michelle is the love of my life—the purest woman there is. Once she came home upset one day and said that her bike got stolen. Her Epilepsy was causing short-term memory loss. As a result, she forgot where she had parked her bicycle. She cried the third time it happened: ''Somebody stole my bike.'' I went and got it—nobody stole her cheap bike. She chained it to something. That's an Amsterdam rule-you; chain it to something! So I stopped at Hema. They had fake sunflowers. I loaded her whole basket up with sunflowers. After that, she never lost her bike again. Then I got jealous of all the compliments she was getting. We would ride around, and people would say: ''oh, pretty flowers'' or ''pretty bike'' so I put some on my bike too. Since then, I've kept making them and placed them all over the city. I tend to put them in places where something terrible has happened. Like when those American tourists got stabbed at the central station. The next day I took ten flower bikes and parked them around the station. Love is always the best response to hate". (Read more)

"It's pretty confusing being in your early 20's. You are an adult, but also not really yet. It's a weird stage in life. My friends and I still say things like: "when I grow up.." Immigrating here made me think a lot about who I am. Last year's invasion of Ukraine provoked a lot of talk about the Eastern European experience at my university. Many students were surprised to see how much Slavic people were emotionally affected by it. So this year, I thought a lot about my identity as a Polish woman. And now that I'm an immigrant, I'm adding another layer to my identity because moving abroad changes your outlook on how you view things back home. It made me aware of the things I like and don't like—the things I want to associate myself with and whatnot. So, this year I have learned that even though being Polish is a deep-rooted part of my identity, I get to sculpt my identity. It's the privilege of being an immigrant. That can be isolating from time to time, but I don't mind being one of a kind.''

''He was traveling through Indonesia and he was looking for a family to spend the month of Ramadan. He found me through couch surfing. Usually I only accepted girls but because he was interested in spending the holy month with us, we invited him. We had a good connection but the last thing on my mind is that I would marry this man from The Netherlands. However we became good friends and we ended up falling in love. We got married twice, one time in Jakarta and one time in Holland. After we got married we moved to The Netherlands. Then he got offered a job in Antwerp so we decided to move here. Because I was still in the process of getting my residence permit we were not able to leave the country.We both love traveling so staying in one place was a little hard. However soon I will receive my permit and I will be able to finally travel back to Indonesia with my husband to see my family.'' (Read more)

– Eight months ago I became father of a little girl. She is a beautiful sensitive girl. Whenever I feel grumpy or emotional, she feels it and it reflects of her mood. When I realized that, I started working on improving myself.
– What would you recommend other future dads?
– Don’t believe all those baby books, they all say something else.

''I've always been someone with a lot of ideas. At seventeen, I moved to London because I felt that a metropolis like London would be a good foundation for my entrepreneurial ambitions. A specific idea came to me when I photographed one of my friends at night while standing in front of a bike. I noticed that the bike's reflector manipulated the flash and obscured her face. I remember she said that it ruined the photo. I remember thinking, ''who could benefit from their photo's being ruined?' The answer was: Celebrities. That's how I came up with the idea to design the anti-paparazzi scarf. I had no idea where I would get the money from, but I started making a plan. I sent thousands of emails. I worked for years to research it and get the right design. I spent months abroad in China, Turkey, and Portugal to find the proper manufacturer. In 2015, I finally had my finished product. In the beginning, people didn't get it, but in the summer of 2016, I got a phone call from Cameron Diaz.

Cameron Diaz had heard about my scarf. She was in London and asked if she could see it. I went over, and she bought eight scarves in total. The next day, she got photographed wearing my scarf, and it went viral. Suddenly I saw celebrities like Justin Bieber and Paris Hilton wearing my product. From that moment, my life went into speed mode. I worked continuously. A few months later, I opened up my first pop-up store in New York during Fashion Week. I had never even been to New York. Jay-Z and Leonardo Dicaprio were there for the store's official opening. Every media outlet was there. I remember thinking, ''how is this possible? I'm just a kid from The Netherlands''. It felt unreal. Until this moment, I had thought that success was a place in time, where you arrive, and from that moment on, your life will be complete. After the event, I remember leaving the store with my suitcase, thinking that this should be my arrival moment. It ticked all the boxes, but in fact, nothing had changed. I realized that this was only the beginning. The anti-paparazzi scarf opened up so many doors. Through the years, I managed to build a strong brand. I worked non-stop until the beginning of this year when London went into lockdown. For the first time, I got to slow down. Sit in silence and think. My entrepreneurial mindset is always present, but his year, I learned not to chase what I don't have but instead appreciate the things I do have.''

''I was attending a pilgrimage in Paris when a lady from The Philippines approached me out of the blue. She had prepared some rice and asked if I wanted something to eat. I was hungry from all the walking, so I didn't hesitate and gladly accepted her offer. I figured she was probably worried about all these Filipino kids who had joined the pilgrimage and had to eat baguettes all week instead of rice. While I sat down, I noticed she was observing me. I asked her why but she didn't answer. Instead, she asked me how old I was. I replied: ''Sixteen''. When I finished eating, she asked if she could hug me. I answered: ''of course, but why?'' She said: "Because you remind me of my son. I haven't seen him for over sixteen years." I realized she was far away from her family and, like many Filipinos abroad, working as a domestic worker. I remember feeling incredibly sad but, I also felt a deep connection. That day, I decided I wanted to become a diplomat to help people like her one day." (Read more)

– One day I decided to let go of other people's opinion about me.
– How did you do that?
– I am not sure, I just did.

Photo: «Humans of Amsterdam».

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Yulia Bykova
Immigrant and writer
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