A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Report from inside a Refugee Center in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
I’ve been helping two lovely, self-assured women volunteers, Aniya [Dutch-Moroccan] and Wens [blond Dutch], with their strong, determined gazes, their bright faces, serve 100+ refugee men lunch. The men on the third floor wait in line, sometimes for 15-20 minutes, while one of us places four slices of whole wheat [bruin] or white bread [most of them] onto a saggy plastic plate, a couple of slices of cheese, single-serving packs of jam, peanut butter, and chocopasta plus a piece of fruit [tangerine, banana or apple] or cup of olives, sometimes a boiled egg, milk and/or yogurt and unlimited tea and coffee. That’s lunch pretty much every day. And the flimsy plates? Well, they’ve learned to balance the pile of unwieldy items as they shuffle gingerly to an empty seat at the lunchroom tables. One might even act drunk as he carries his plate, looking over his shoulder to see if I am fully appreciating his Buster Keaton-style slapstick.
The men and boys are hungry and some come back for seconds, some of the younger kids come back for thirds – I never say no but do let them know with a look and a forefinger that they’re not getting anything over on me. This usually wins me a naughty smirk and some may say “honger” or “hungry” while patting their bellies. We guard the packets of chocopasta carefully, placing them behind us to prevent a grab-a-thon. Aniya hands them one; they want two – “Een” she says with a resolute smile.
Some of the men save the extra bread and anything else they can horde for later in the afternoon as a snack – it’s a long time till dinner time. That they sometimes say “thank you” or “dank je wel” does melt not-always-accessible parts of your heart when you hear it as you’re midway through pouring 125 plastic cups of milk.
There is a shortage of almost everything today and it is unclear to us why. Although there are, after all, seven separate organizations operating here, criss-crossing logistics and services, aiding and sometimes getting in each other’s way and yet, despite everything, a lot of earnest people manage to do a lot of necessary and satisfying work.
I know they have to stretch what they have until the next food delivery… And yet, I run down three flights to get more milk and margarine because the men are hungry. But then we run out of fruit. Some of the men from Syria, Eritrea and Iraq may give you one of those disappointed faces, like what’s up with that, which you can only respond to with an I’m-sorry shrug. Others adapt without a word, dropping a lump or three of sugar into their milk, sweetening the philosophy of this-is-what-it-is and nothing more.
The main modes of communication consist of hand and facial gestures to indicate more coffee, a shopping bag, pants that fit, crazy in the head, sympathy, as are enunciated one- or two-word utterances in pidgin English or Dutch or maybe I’ll show off my limited Arabic with an āsif [sorry] or äafwan [you’re welcome], which wins you their stare of pleasant surprise. “Mafti” means finished, gone, no more, an important word in the store for those seeking basics such as socks. Or ‘bukra”: tomorrow, as in check tomorrow, maybe we’ll have more winter coats, or shukran: thank you.
Ironically, the floors of this former city DWI [Employment & Income Services] office complex behind the Ajax soccer stadium are spacious and strangely new to have already been abandoned – until the arrival of the refugees. In mid-September, it was transformed into a temporary center to house c. 600 refugees of the total c. 1500 currently hosted by the City of Amsterdam. The third floor consists of a middle meeting area with tables in a square for Dutch lessons, a pingpong table, a piano, a kitchen and supply closet area. The residents sleep in equally large side rooms, formerly divided up into anonymous cubicles, and now parceled off into 30-some sleeping areas, each resident with his 2.5 square meters of space for his cot and his stuff [the cots were finally replaced with real beds late December]. Some are lucky or have been assertive enough to claim the more private rooms, the offices of the higher-ups – five to a room. Privacy, however, is nowhere to be found except maybe in their thoughts.
Aniya is 30-ish, Moroccan Dutch and, unlike most of the Syrian women, wears a head scarf. She speaks Arabic, corrects their Dutch, engaging anyone and everyone in conversation, which creates a dynamic, homey feeling of acknowledgement and respect – the younger ones may call her by name, demanding they watch some trick they’ve almost learned on skeelers [in-line skates someone has donated]. She hands out extra bread and cheese only after everyone’s been served and only if they make an effort to say “dank je wel” or at least smile. Erik, the bespectacled volunteers coordinator, ridicules my laxness [with a smirk] and mock perturbedly asks “Where’s my milk?!”
“Maybe you’d like to order our special Beaujolais now, meneer?” Everyone laughs – it’s rambunctious slap-the-table laughter. A scene from a three-act play that takes everyone far from their pasts, their voyage, their traumas and lost loved ones. Humor as a drug to soothe racing thoughts, anxieties and alienation [Reminder: Tell daughter that I had everyone in stitches today].
But two guys, one 20-ish with wild punky hair and low-riding skinny jeans, looking like an ex-member of the punk band the Bad Brains, have lost their patience waiting in line. They are increasingly grumpy and rude. My two colleagues demand basic human respect – “We are doing everything we can to help you.” The other with slick-black, waxed hair, looking like a guy who poses for martial arts ads, accepts this as a reasonable response and nods contritely, while punky hair walks away with a street-learned stride, that little crick in his walk, full of “I’m-somebody” attitude. He is reprimanded by several of the older peacekeepers, Syrians who believe everyone should be respectful and grateful for what people are doing for them. With a finger to the chest and a moment of face-to-face the issue is resolved.
Lunch is over and during a short pause before they take their positions on their ragged prayer rugs, a certain quiet reigns, the men lean back, some may rub their bellies, and suddenly, some of the men whom I have come to know from the clothing “store” have set up Fadi, a proud, sturdy commercial pilot back in Syria, with a perpetual gleam in his eyes, someone who’s always game for a prank. He helps out in the dispensary, handing out donated shampoo, creams and toiletries and lends a hand wherever necessary. He is – incredibly, considering the collective back stories – a most jolly fellow. That joyous sparkle in his – and their! – eyes … well, if I believed in miracles, this sparkle would top my list.
Yes, the others have ganged up on him, taken their lunch plates and cups and shoved them all around where Fadi is seated, making it look like he is a greedy pig who has taken much more lunch than is allowed. All the men are calling and hooting, trying to get our attention. They are affecting these astonished and outraged looks, like what’s up with this guy, shouldn’t he be reprimanded for his selfishness, taking the food out of our very mouths. Meanwhile, Fadi is beaming, shrugging, feigning innocence, all of them engaged in a piece of comedy steeped in satire, which allows us to communicate via shared comedic gestures, effectively reducing the distance between the served and the server, between authority and those living under that authority. We all agree that the regulations set in place are necessary and unworkable, negotiable, flexible, vague. We all get the joke and that is how we communicate – like buffoonish, slapstick comedians in a silent movie of our own making. I was totally unprepared for this: their unbelievably calm and good-humored dispositions, their modern grasp of humor and irony.
That was my first real surprise: their resilience. They smile and joke, tickle, engage in horseplay, and funny faces. Yes humor is the shortcut, the lingua franca to conviviality, camaraderie, coexistence. Like a mine detector uncovers mines, comedy unearths hidden communications.
As Aniya and I pass the second floor after lunch, I ask her about the two, spritely, fun-loving sisters, maybe nine, favorites of the volunteers and who sometimes play pranks on the adults. They arrived several months ago with their father, their mother having perished in Syria. Aniya says they will grab you and hold you tightly, just wanting to hold someone, anyone who might serve as a mother, even if only for a few seconds.
I am a writer-DJ [and editor/proofreader] and work at home. I’ve had less paid work since the 2009 crisis; the irony is that it frees me up to do volunteer work. Although I like the work, like helping others, I DON’T very much like governments getting used to misusing volunteers to do just about everything in an economy described euphemistically as “informal” with many characteristics of an economy based on [willing] slave labor so that they can balance their budgets, spend more on defense and bureaucracy, on the backs of those who are increasingly marginalized to the point where nothing one does any more has a price. Meanwhile, others [lawyers] can go on charging $15 for making a photocopy. Meanwhile, I can spend a week on a piece of writing and where before one had to beg to get paid, now we have to beg to get it published for free. I am not complaining – no, really – just clarifying the status of writer in our society for those [many of the refugees!] who have built up a very different image that includes adjectives like honorable, relevant, well-heeled, exciting.
I bike to work rain or shine, 35 minutes one way, because with my iPod tuned to a special contemplative biking mix [Wreck Bike-Fiets-Vélo-Fahrrad 1158 or Wreck Zoviet France Shout 1190] I can clear my head, prepare myself for the day’s tasks. I’ve been working since September at the Flierbosdreef refugee center, on the edge of the Zuidoost shopping district, recently revived with much renovation and home to many immigrants [allochtonen], and invariably, a dazzling mix of faces. When friend Brad from Paris accompanied me to work in the center one day and I told him this was historically Amsterdam’s poorest area – a ghetto, I guess – he chuckled and declared: “If this is a ghetto then heaven must be right around the corner.”
This modern office complex was, until recently, home to 600± residents, formerly known as refugees – 350 men, 200 women, 60 kids from Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan, a few from Albania, Mongolia and other conflict zones. In the past few weeks, most of the families have been moved into an old nursing home in the center where they have their own rooms and a lot more privacy – a definite improvement. School-age kids are all now enrolled in regular public schools, in classes set up to accommodate newcomers and so, within days, the kids begin to show off the Dutch they’ve learned – notice their proud beaming faces as you praise their pronunciation.
I work in a Welkom Winkel [Welcome Store], established by the Red Cross, using a trademarked formula for a pop-up clothing store where refugees can “shop” for basic clothing needs: shoes, winter coat, socks, underwear, shirts, bedding. So much comes in donated by Dutch people and Amsterdam residents – knitted things, bags of new underwear and socks from the Zeeman discount chain, trousers, tracksuits, scarves, winter caps, muddy hiking boots, weirdly-flimsy flouncy blouses, fashionable stuff from Armani, We, Benetton, Adidas, pinstripe suits, pre-worn flipflops, shavers, G-strings [hopefully new], soccer shoes, therapeutic shoe wear, sup-hose, rucksacks, strollers, luggage, toys, stuffed animals, pencils, make-up, hand creams, books, DVDs, bike equipment, dictionaries, books, art supplies, and tiles for the mosaics artist who was severely depressed until he got the assignment to decorate a lobby wall with one of his mosaic designs.
The store is divided into departments: men, women, kids, and miscellaneous. We allow three men and three women plus kids in at any one time to avoid Black Friday-style insanity. But the people are usually polite, grateful, and calm and may try something like “thank you” in Dutch – dank je wel – if you’ve found them a pair of stylish furry boots.
My second surprise: Almost no one dresses in traditional clothing, almost no hijabs, no long male robes called thobes; almost everyone dresses in modern casual, global garb: jeans, sweat pants, track suits, tee shirts, running shoes or casual leather, slim-fitting gear – call it the globalization of fashion and hairstyles, which among the younger refugees, are expressive and are similar to those found in any major Western city.
Our favorite security guard, a Dutch-Moroccan named Malik, tells me he’s tagged his cat with a GPS collar and during lunch he checks up on her with his smartphone. He drives in from The Hague every morning. He’s a bit of stand-up comedian-philosopher, who stands at the store entrance, offering his witticisms in English, Arabic and/or Dutch, looking like some madcapped traffic handler with robotic gestures, a bad pun or funny face as people rush by him willy nilly. This makes him perfect for the job of handling potentially aggressive situations or disputes that may arise over a piece of desired luggage or the fact that one Syrian man has gotten it into his head that we are saving the good stuff for our “favorites.” A show of preferential treatment by a volunteer toward a refugee can lead to more conflict than any discussion of political differences and is thus strictly verboden.
I basically do a bit of everything – folding, sorting, rejecting clothes, bringing in carts piled high with plastic bags of donated clothes as well as helping “customers” find what they need, especially some of the Syrians with big feet looking for decent shoes or the Eritrean women who are so slender and tiny, no Dutch clothes fit them. But we now have 2 Syrian tailors – Mahmoud and Moustafa – set up right across from the shop to do immediate alterations and they are busy all day long because Dutch people are taller and bigger than the average refugee. I am there the day Moustafa receives a gift pack from a well-wisher, a Dutch woman, who has fulfilled a Facebook request for some sewing supplies. She has also included a passionate letter that explains the presentation of an giant ancient scissor, that she inherited from her father, who had been a tailor all his life. Mustafa was touched, Erik was touched, as was I; even Malik was surreptitiously wiping tears from his eyes.
One day I accompanied Nidal, a Syrian war victim, to the hospital. His shoulder had not heeled properly in an emergency field hospital and he had been in constant pain for a year now. He spoke no English – and I no Arabic. On the Metro, he showed me photos on his phone of his wounds and the bombing of his home. This drew us into a silence for a few stations and then we began to communicate with hand gestures, with an uh, eh, ah, or ha –and a translation app.
In the orthopedic waiting area, I showed him pix of my partner and daughter. He showed me pix of his family, standing so tranquil, swaddled in a bucolic setting that reminded you of how tenuous peace truly is.
We see a doctor and I tell him about his left shoulder wounds. He has to lift his arm sideways and over his head. We call the national telephone translation service and our four-way conversation consisted of the patient providing the necessary details, which the interpreter would then translate into English and Dutch for the doctor. After the doctor and assistant viewed the x-rays, they came up with a dramatic diagnosis – they will re-break the collarbone and insert a piece of bone to be removed from his hip. I get queasy just hearing this.
I also help serve lunch sometimes, clean up, unload trucks, deliver and set up new “real” beds with mattresses, offer impromptu English or Dutch lessons and whatever else pops up out of nowhere. I work with three to six other volunteers, half of whom are Syrians and the other half an intriguing mix of earnest, younger Dutch or Dutch-Surinamese women, Reverend Helen from Ghana, a tall unemployed systems manager, a local nun, and Loes who just retired from teaching in a rough vocational high school in Amsterdam – among others. All of us want to contribute something, each for his or her own reasons. The Syrian volunteers do all the translating, intake and computer work as well as man the new drug store, which dispenses donated deodorant, shampoo and sanitary napkins.
I work for two adorable coordinators: Billie Jean , named after tennis hero Billy Jean King, not the Michael Jackson song, is a Dutch-Surinamese woman who grew up in a Catholic household but is not religious although she remains respectfully curious about other faiths. She works three jobs including this volunteer position, continuing her studies and is intent on working with troubled youth. She sleeps maybe three or four hours a night and is always on call for Facebook Refugee page requests. Erik , is a coordinator for the Venzo volunteer organization, sort of my boss, and has been to Greece several times to help refugees at their chaotic port of entry into Europe. He seems indefatigable and his infectious spirit allows him to overcome bureaucratic hassles. Alas, the better he is at his job, the more tasks he seems to be entrusted with – which, in turn, inspires us volunteers and refugees alike to take more responsibility and control of the situation at hand. His decidedly non-doctrinaire and hands-off approach to management means trusting the inherent goodness and sensible nature of his staff and that suits me just fine.
We, the Dutch, Syrian and other volunteers, don’t really discuss the news much around the sewing machine in the tailor’s domain during lunch because it is all so … disappointing. We all want peace, love and understanding – and that’s not even a cliché.
We do not mention the [embarrassing] November protests by stupid Dutch people in small towns, driven by irrational fears, riled by an ignorance of facts, as stoked by the Le Pen of the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, an influential politician who erects his public image with all the care of a television spokesman, never engaging in any head-to-head debates because this would scramble his essential pre-programmed message. I try to explain it to those I’ve befriended here; they listen politely but aren’t that concerned and just hope that internet-phone service to their bombed hometowns is restored so they can communicate with loved ones. We do not mention that, ironically, the cause of the only frightening incidents, threatening the safety of locals – destroying public property, breaking windows, setting cars on fire – are usually the disproportionately hysterical acts of these diehard “our country first” nationalists who are trying to convince themselves and others that their fears, that refugees will only bring crime, lawlessness, and danger to their towns and daughters are justified.
I mumble barely audibly: “Logical, humane discussion would unmask Wilders as a hollow, pedantic and fear-mongering potentate, a kingdom-less king, who ultimately disguises his own fears of engagement behind his xenophobic puffery.” Omar and Ahmad, two educated Syrians who handle the computer and control details of the clothing store, smile politely, gazing off into a distance where they see images of loved ones left behind, some of which they can click on, on their smartphones – a great many refugees seem to have one, which allows them to sometimes – depending on the situation affecting power and internet access – to communicate with loved ones left behind.
We do not mention that some of these idiots accuse the refugees of being just “economic refugees,” seeking a better future at the expense of Dutch jobseekers … We do not [yet] discuss the fact that my parents left the Netherlands with a 6-year-old me in tow, in search of a better [economic] future like so many other Dutch people who were even encouraged with economic incentives in the 2 decades after WW2 and ended up not in Australia or New Zealand or Canada or Brazil but in the US of A.
We do not discuss the media attraction to horror stories, like horseflies to cow plop. Most of them don’t even watch the CNN reports on the mounted flat screens found on the lodging floors 2 through 6. We do not discuss the fact that the Volkskrant, a quality national newspaper, seems to have become sensitive to criticism of the media’s preoccupation with negative reporting on the drama of strife and conflict and revealed the schizo character of a nation and its media covering this issue with a December front page split vertically in half with the headline: FIRST BOMBS, THEN FLOWERS. FIRST BOMBS – some frontal-lobe-extracted hooligans, revealing their fear of terror by spreading terror themselves, vandalizing the home of a Somali family in the small town of Pannerden, leaving behind fliers with Wilders’ mugshot and the slogan: “White is Better, One’s Own People First.”
But the other half of this front page shows the overwhelming outpouring of support and sympathy for this family – THEN FLOWERS – revealing that there are indeed two very distinct sides to this story – “a loud minority versus a much quieter majority” – and that the positive, sympathetic side far outnumbers the rioters. The family was very touched by the thousands of well-wishing supporters leaving flowers, offering aid.
We may mention some of these counter-demos, the thousands welcoming the refugees, and the fact that numerous media sources, including NOS Radio 1 Journaal, I&O Research, have determined [as of a late-December 2015] that nearly 75% of Dutch people don’t have an issue with the refugees, approve of a refugee center in their own towns, believe they have a right to humanitarian relief, to our hospitality – as long as the government handles it well, by involving and informing locals about the numbers, the logistics, the planning [which they don’t always do]. And many who were initially worried about refugee influxes and increased crime end up being surprised at how unfounded and exaggerated those fears were. In towns where centers have opened, the percentage of the suspicious falls to 15% over time.
Maybe we’ll discuss the story of a Syrian refugee who became a hero when on Christmas eve he dove into a canal near Central Station to save someone – was he drunk? – who had fallen into the water. The police took the hero to the station, dried him off, let him warm up. And an outpouring of well-wishers followed with messages like: “Is this what we fear from the refugees?” His response? “I am grateful to this country, it is the least I could do.”
But now that I’ve been here for a while I think: The longer we keep up the skit, the longer we avoid the fact that it is not all laughter. The refugees must wait [up to a year] to be processed, to be legalized and must process their experiences but there is only limited access to psychological services, although there is medical staff on site every day. Against which backdrop of suffering, loss and devastation are they grinning or gazing into an uncertain future? You have to ask yourself this any time one of them is rude or brusque or aimlessly browsing for nothing in particular in the store. Do they hope to return to their homes? Do they desire to start anew?
There is trauma; if you look closely you will see periodic fits of frustration and anger, see them glumly sitting in the lounge chair, staring at nothing in particular or in a corner fidgeting with their smartphones. Some become noticeably agitated when they think their dignity is under fire. We don’t have any new winter coats again today. One man needs one; everyone else but him seems to have one. Sometimes someone like him will not take “no” for an answer; may take off his shoes to show their deplorable state; may tear up his identity card and leave with his arms up over his heas in exasperation, yelling to someone, to Allah, to anyone who’ll listen. This is not a good move but sometimes reason and propriety must fall to pure emotion. That is why we always have a security guard on duty here.
Not long ago, Ammar – he teaches English in a Damascus grad school – told me a story about how he and his Syrian mates collected money from the refugees, went out and purchased over 400 roses from a local florist and then handed them out to random Dutch people in the ArenA train station as thanks for Dutch hospitality, holding signs like “Dank u wel van Syrische vluchtelingen” [Thank you very much from the Syrian refugees]. When I looked this event up on the internet, I noticed reports of similar actions in places like Nijmegen, Groningen, Emmen, Almere, and Amsterdam Central Station.
I return with Nidal, he’s relieved that he’ll be operated in the next month or so. I head back to the store and set to work opening plastic garbage bags of donated clothing. In a clump of leggings, blouses and tee shirts I spot a long American flag scarf and know exactly what to do. Maybe I am taking a risk that I will unleash some hidden anxieties or resentments relating to America’s presence in the Middle East [and just about everywhere], but I do it anyway; I drape the flag around Moustafa’s neck and he instantly falls into character, his interpretation of some cartoonish magisterial character with hand gestures usually reserved for heads of state or a pope. Everyone bursts out laughing and the humor as enclosed in his ironic gesture is shared and for the moment works better than any anti-anxiety medicine, any prozac, religious creed, citizenship class, rose, or official proclamation of solidarity. I never saw that scarf again.
* Some of the names have been changed. This essay is dedicated to all the wonderful people – refugees, volunteers and security – I have met at the center.
Photos by author: 1 triptych: two Eritrean women, private room, Basem with daughter of a friend; 2 Ahmad in his “bedroom”; 3 Fadi prank; 4 Nidal smartphone injury; 5 Moustafa, the tailor.
Bart Plantenga is the author of two internationally acclaimed books on yodeling. His nonfiction has appeared in The Guardian and Nation-KGB Reader (Nation Books), and he’s currently working on the Amsterdam-Brooklyn novel Radio Activity Kills with daughter Paloma Jet. He writes, edits, bikes, produces his radio show, and lives in Amsterdam with his partner and daughter.