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In Amsterdam, Refugees Find Shelter From the Storm

Posted on Mar 10, 2016

By bart plantenga

  An activist at a recent pro-refugee demonstration in Amsterdam. (bart plantenga)

Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me.
                                                              —Carlos Fuentes

AMSTERDAM—Hassan, the Syrian with the contemporary wave-of-bangs-sweeping-across-the-forehead haircut, maybe 19 years old, went out for exercise at the local pool, where people can swim for free on Sundays. He cut a fine figure, with his tight jeans, his T-shirt fitting just right, a calm smile neither reserved nor ostentatious, and an air of innocence not yet crushed—despite everything.

Some names have been changed in this article to protect personal safety.

His mates met him at the revolving door in the lobby of the refugee center. They were gesticulating, arms flailing in disbelief and indignation, and yelling in Arabic. Then someone held up a smartphone so Hassan could see for himself. A video showed his brother being beheaded by Islamic State troops. All color drained from Hassan’s face as he sank into profound grief.

For three days, Hassan accepted condolences from everyone connected with the refugee center: the other refugees, volunteers, management, security guards. Afterward, he withdrew deep inside a very private self.

You can imagine why I get angry when Europeans—a minority of them, but a very vocal and irritating one—claim that the majority of refugees flooding Europe are fortune-seeking, economic refugees faking their misery.

This obstinate, fact-free stance was evident in February during an anti-refugee rally in Amsterdam by the German-rooted, anti-Islam movement Pegida. Organizers tried to pass themselves off as righteous victims after counterprotesters rejected their message of hate as immoral. They scurried toward the news cameras to pose with their German flags as innocent practitioners of their democratic right to, well, hate.

This followed rancorous public protests against the establishment of temporary refugee centers in various small Dutch towns—the NIMBY phenomenon. Meanwhile, Geert Wilders, far-right leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, proposed that Muslim male refugees be incarcerated in asylum centers as a precaution in the wake of the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany.

That same afternoon, pro-refugee forces held a rousing counterdemonstration a few blocks away that included fiery speeches and inspired chanting and drumming at the “Dockworker” statue, erected in honor of the first uprising against the Nazis by Amsterdammers, in 1941. The site is right across the street from the Jewish Historical Museum.

The pro-refugee demonstrators showed that they’re not just some polite, apathetic majority. Many, however, prefer a low-key, pragmatic approach to the crisis, and we all know that philanthropy and good deeds are not sexy news.

Twice weekly, I bike to work at a large refugee center in Amsterdam’s Zuidoost, the southeastern district, which has a large immigrant population. It is one of the city’s four areas of not-so-temporary refugee residency.

In September, when I began working here, the center housed 600 refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, plus a few from Albania and Mongolia. Since Christmas, families have moved to better facilities; now a more comfortable population of 200—mostly Syrian men and a sizable group of Eritrean women and men—remains at the center.

Enter the refugee center lobby and you enter a whirlwind of activity: food being sorted, public transportation tickets and aspirin being handed out, medical staff offering prognoses, interpreters resolving misunderstandings, donors dragging in big bags full of used shoes, refugees slouched in chairs and fixated on their smartphones.

The work I do is interesting, but not heroic. For heroics you turn to two indefatigable volunteer coordinators: Billy Jean and Erik.

Billy Jean, named after pioneering tennis star Billie Jean King, is always willing to lend an ear and a smile and is seemingly on call 24/7. She’s Dutch-Surinamese. An agnostic, she grew up curious about the faiths of others. She works two jobs, as a social worker and as a barmaid. Add her 35 hours at the center and she’s clocking over 70 hours a week. “I sleep maybe four hours a night,” she says.

Erik is 50-ish. He worked with disabled kids until he decided to travel at his own expense to Greece to work on the front lines, helping refugees arriving by boat. When he returned, a friend tipped him about a position at our refugee center, only blocks from his home, and he leapt at the opportunity. He was so enthusiastic that he refused a paid position in order to be freer to coordinate volunteers and help refugees in a more flexible, intuitive, hug-and-joke manner that this kind of work requires as antidote to insensitive bureaucracies. He is the refugees’ best advocate, therapist, counselor and consoler.

Tragic tales lurk inside the heads and hearts of each refugee. One older woman is recovering from a telephone conversation with her husband, who is back in Syria. She’s lived here for months with a secret: Her teenage daughter died of dehydration en route to Amsterdam, and she buried her in the Libyan desert. She didn’t tell anyone at the center and she didn’t dare tell her husband because she knew he’d be emotionally shattered. When she finally did, there was an immense outpouring of grief on both ends of the telephone line.

In working with refugees, you need good people and stories to buffer the tendency to be disillusioned by mankind. One day our tailor, Moustafa, who’d been begging for a sewing machine so he could do something, received two. So there are now two tailors, and they can alter jeans in about 10 minutes and do hundreds of alterations per week. One day, Moustafa was slumped over his machine. He needed a new belt and oil for it or he’d risk going from playing a role of importance at the center to being a nobody. Erik placed a request for the items on the Facebook page Wat is nodig (What is needed), dedicated to coordinating refugee needs and donation offers. A day later, a belt arrived, someone delivered a small bag filled with tubes of oil, and Moustafa, with a proud grin, went back to altering garments for a long line of refugees.

Jiad, an artist, was terribly depressed when he asked Erik if he could make a mosaic for the lobby. Everyone reacted enthusiastically, including the “shrink,” who said there was no better way than art to pull an artist out of a depression. Someone made good on Erik’s post requesting art supplies, delivering an entire shopping cart full of tiles. Jiad became a new man overnight. His mural, along with one made by Firas and Nadeem, is now the spot where everyone at the center goes to pose for selfies and group shots.

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