Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
Second in a series.
No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.
It’s a grey, dreary day; I’m listening to my mix of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness plus Eno on iPod, biking 35 minutes to the refugee center, which allows me to dream up solutions – it is meditation + movement. But sometimes everything’s working against you: circumstance, technology, self-doubt, misunderstanding, a head wind coming and then, by the time you leave for home, the wind’s spun 180 degrees and it’s headwind all the way home, damp cold penetrating your clothes, deep into your marrow. But today was not one of those days, today was a good day. As Conrad says, “The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.”
There’s always something happening at the Flierbosdreef emergency refugee center in Amsterdam’s southeast, one of five in Amsterdam. The area is famous for the ArenA, Ajax’s soccer stadium, and the Bijlmer Crash of an El Al Boeing 747 into a building flat in 1992, killing 43 residents under still unresolved circumstances – was the plane carrying chemicals used to make nerve gas? The area has recently undergone a scrubbing rejuvenation and is today a dynamic area of human diversity.
Flierbosdreef, once home to over 700 refugees, now houses 200, mostly men, mostly Syrian – the families having been moved to better, more private accommodations – a few women, a few Iraqis, Afghans and Eritreans. The main enemies are not racism or protests or violence but boredom [malal] that comes with uncertainty and the anxiety fostered by broken routines and relationships severed by a seemingly detached, unsympathetic bureaucracy.
And now COA [responsible for receiving and supervising refugees] is taking over responsibility from the volunteer and local organizations that have been doing it since September. Workmen wander around with notepads, measuring, gazing at ceilings and walls that are erected and shifted, like so much Lego, to accommodate repurposed offices, reception areas and a new cafeteria as COA ambitiously rebuilds to create a more hospitable and longer-term processing center. So where you lounged yesterday is now gone; the sofas have floated to another corner of the lobby where you see the faces, try to imagine what they did before, their lives, dreams, regrets, and what they’re good at. Many who’ve made it this far are educated, sophisticated, successful or were on their way until … Here you encounter the two forces of refugee center physics: kinesis or movement of refugees and volunteers in response to stimulus versus inertia: inertness in response to despondency, heads down listlessly fixated on their smartphone screens, talking to distant relatives in bombed out towns where electricity is sporadic – people killing time or time killing them.
Think of time here as riding two sets of waves each with their own peaks and troughs, amplitudes and frequencies; use it as a template for the emotional swings we, they, everyone here undergoes and you’re ready for the rollercoaster ride. While some are thriving – mostly the creative people – others seem to be slipping away, sinking into despondency that comes with the shadowy unknown. You cannot blame them, you don’t know what horrors they’ve experienced. But you also want to say “get a grip” or “take advantage of the daily free outings: the zoo, courses, swimming, jam sessions, cooking for neighbors… I often settle for the “tell me what you want to do and we will do it” approach. Some don’t care about museums, seeing all this as distracting window dressing on windows blown out by terror. Plus many have left families behind – some have have seen their children being born via photos sent across dodgy internet connections from Syria.
About that good day I was promising: With partner Nina in South Africa and daughter Paloma at the Paradiso London Calling concert, I make a toast with a local Butcher’s Tears beer because, after a looooong wait – blame it on the Oscars and Trump hysteria – my TRUTHDIG refugee article finally found its way into publication.
The next day, still elated, me and Syrian artist, Firas, went by public transport to introduce him to Dutch artist, Eelco, in his studio in a Zeeburg-area warehouse in a rapidly developing derelict industrial park. The cavernous warehouse was reclaimed by a band of savvy artists and outfitted with truck containers, each housing the tools of another artist. Eelco, a former Philips product-developer-turned-interactive-artist and Firas exchanged smartphone images of their work and the idea of collaborating on a sculpture – a very large table lamp under which eight people can stand out of the rain, casting shadow puppet images on the lampshade – started with sketches and a scrapyard full of enthusiasm.
Firas, an incredibly productive artist in his hometown of Aleppo [now pretty much leveled] is just as productive here, working in makeshift corners at the center. Some drink coffee or breathe air, but Firas needs to make art, every day, and a lot of it. Needless to say, the two clicked and Firas shook his hand – and mine – for a full minute or two – his smile as large as the hulks of the derelict boats on pallettes outside. He started the following week, trekking out there by himself because, in the Netherlands, refugees can go anywhere they want within the country if they can manage the means [often in the form of public transport tickets, courtesy of the government or volunteers].
At the center, to kill downtime, the refugees relive Syria’s glory via smartphones. Daneel and Samer, clothing store volunteers, show me amazing pictures of glorious Damascus that would make Conde Naste Traveler salivate. Golden light bathing opulent town centres, fountains, a dynamic night life and the narration they offer in broken English reveals their tourist guide pride for Damascus, Aleppo, or Homs as we flick through photos of their pre-war glory – “Damascus is open 24 hours; you can eat any hour.” Photos serve as the daily genie let out of the bottle whose beauty I must admire and we can smile and they can be proud for a moment. Samer shows me a restaurant he worked at for 16-hour shifts: “it has more than one thousand tables.” But then they grow quiet and stare – not even blinking – into some vague, nostalgic distance. Pride gives way to sadness as we view videos of these old, proud cities being decimated to piles of dust and carnage on these intimate screens.
Imagine their bodies like a life raft, pull the plug and watch them deflate before your eyes. Despondency and dignity fight it out inside their minds. Later in the afternoon, 40 of them – with some coaching from us to ensure they keep it peaceful – head to the city district office to protest the absurdly long wait – going on six months – they want information. They return in a better mood, joking, horsing around.
A shoving incident recently turned into a brawl but presented no discernible enemies except uncertainty, loneliness, and frustration. It involved some 25 Syrians and Eritreans – some got hurt, a broken window, a broken hand, the police were called but there were few reminders the next day: a taped-up window, one casualty with a head bandage and another with a cast on his hand.
A bittersweet cheery bit: Every few weeks a group is plucked and sent onward to Ter Apel, south of Groningen, along the legalization trail. It usually livens the place up. Refugees get 24 hours notice and the next day they’re gone.
“Why only 24,” I ask Anita from COA. To avoid false expectations, prevent them from driving everyone crazy – including themselves – with frantic preparations or arousing jealousy among the others. But she’s speculating; we don’t know anything for sure. Teame [pronounced Tom] was one of them. I missed his send off because it came so fast.
Teame is a former Eritrean bicycle racer [Tour de France-style], and, until his departure, the manager of the Eritrean national team – and the national junior soccer team. Teame fled because “they wanted my kidneys.” A kidney is worth over $25,000; his probably even more since he is health conscious – whole wheat bread, no smoking, sugar or salt …
He’s a slim, soft-spoken, erudite man, eager to learn, speaks decent English, learned Arabic during his five-month stay in Sudan and speaks Tigrinya and several other Eritrean languages. He shows off his progress in Dutch; reads a sign, names everything on the lunch table – boter, kaas, brood, pindakaas, olijven, melk – Astonishing, really.
“I read Dutch every night on my bed, write it out and repeat and repeat, I watch videos to learn to pronounce words.” He keeps his mind engaged – has ambitions.
I photograph Teame but try to avoid the intrusive awkwardness of snapping photos [plus, it’s officially prohibited]. I look at the photo and notice that his vibrant, hopeful smile has melted. I then look right into his eyes and, indeed, there’s worry crushing that irrepressible smile. I asked if he’s uneasy about the news that an Eritrean church in Rotterdam may be a front for government agents, Eritreans with residency, intimidating and spying on fellow Eritreans and anyone else criticizing Eritrea’s dictator Afewerki. A Dutch professor well-versed in Eritrea claims she’s been intimidated and tailed for months. Some believe that the Eritrean interpreters [tolks] unwittingly hired by the IND are Afewerki’s “eyes and ears.” But rumors float about, morphing Chinese whisper-style, until truth, hearsay, and myth are indistinguishable. Has he experienced intimidation by these thugs? No. It wasn’t that.
“I am.” We should change the subject.
“We’ll go biking together in the countryside.”
“That will be nice.” We talk about his past as a bicycle racer, and his duties managing national teams. I show him a video on my smartphone of the song “Tour de France” by Kraftwerk, featuring great snippets of past Tours.
“The Tour started in Utrecht in 2015.”
“I know.” The Kraftwerk song was 2015’s theme song. Eritrean women in the background pick through the colorful, donated mittens and scarves. And for a few minutes I am there in the glorious, treacherous French Alps, watching along the sidelines as Teame races past in Eritrea’s red-green-blue-gold colors.
I first photographed him vacuuming the carpet on the second floor after lunch, wearing a SCHOON GENOEG [Clean Enough] FNV union sweatshirt that showed solidarity for striking cleaning/maintenance workers. He had the kind of smile where you know something unusual is going on in his soul. We joked; I explained what the cleaners were fighting for. He gave it a thumbs up and repeated: “Schoon genoeg! I feel I have to do something. Show my thanks.” He contributed a few hours daily to our “clothing store” where refugees can “shop” for clothing and bedding free of charge, also serving as an essential link-ambassador-translator between the Eritreans, volunteers, and Syrians.
Teame had fled the chaos, arbitrary arrests, forced labor and what Human Rights Watch calls “indefinite military conscription … and gross human rights violations” in a region that includes Eritrea and Sudan. He lived for six months in a refugee tent camp in Sudan. Here he began to fear for his safety.
Criminal gangs hold refugees for ransom – everyone’s desperate for cash and these gangs tend to prey on the most vulnerable. People are kept shackled together with only a minimum of food as their families are pressured into paying ransoms with photos of their loved ones sent across social media. Families unable to pay the exorbitant ransoms [$25,000±] can expect hostages to be tortured – or worse. Even after paying the ransoms, some are tortured and left to die horrible deaths – already some 10,000 to date … The worst may be the harvesting of valuable organs: kidneys are surgically removed by doctors while the victim is fully conscious and then dumped to die in some shed in the desert. He, like others, suspects Eritreans were singled out because they’re Christian and their captors “Muslim.” The kidneys are transported in coolers to countries like Egypt and Israel and onto countries where there is a demand – mostly the West. Teame never dramatized his circumstances, only talking about it if I insisted – and I did.
Teame saw familiar faces disappearing and so he plotted his course and eventually managed to flee the camp, hitching a ride with traffickers which he paid handsomely, made his way to Libya, where he chose his traffickers carefully, paying in excess of $1000 for further passage to Europe by boat. And that precarious voyage? He looks away; we change the subject.
We must choose: his mental well-being or my insatiable curiosity … We tend to hide this need behind heroic journalistic conceits like contributing to righting the wrongs.
That anxiety I detected in his eyes may have been related to gut feelings – or rumors – because two days later he was on a bus to Ter Apel. Several weeks later, he contacted me to say he’d gotten his five-year residency permit and was already living in Bergen aan Zee – a modest Cape Cod-style resort along the sea in the beautiful Dutch dunes, in a converted NIVON house (socialist summer camps where families could stay as an alternative to expensive hotels). Now comes the housing and job placement process. I hope we can go biking soon through the dunes and talk about nice things, about a future filled with his dreams.
I’m writing this right now as reports of the Brussels attacks arrive. Like the Paris terror attacks, they reveal that the refugees are even angrier and more pained than we are by these attacks. Some point out that they as moderates, as non-judgemental or non-practicing muslims, are even more often the targets of these terrorist attacks in their own countries – that is why they are in Europe.
Anyway, I’m really early this morning – it’s not even 8 AM – to pick up Talal, a construction engineer-turned-artist who has found some semblance of contentment in his art and those who appreciate it. He’s super productive – five landscapes or decorative floral paintings per day. At the front desk stands Moustafa, the tailor with the mischievous smile – quite a character, the kind who can rip off 10 inseams in half an hour, will figure out how to open a large can of olives for lunch without a can opener and bring you that opened can like others hand you a trophy. He says sabah alkhair [I have to look it up – good morning]. He’s all alone and holding his ID card.
I’m taking Talal to an orthopedist on the west side of town by Metro. He has a hernia and needs a truss [eventually a state-donated operation]. Erik put in a request at the Facebook refugee help page, Wat is nodig and, yes, Livit Orthopedie agreed to order and fit the truss for free! [Wat is nodig (what’s needed) is a list of 8500 people who negotiate offers and needs with amazing efficiency and generosity – everything from soccer sessions with Ajax pros to kids’ bicycles, cooking lessons, make up, batteries, PCs donated for our computer lounge – 15 laptops, boom, donated in a matter of days – truly the embarrassment of riches.]
Upon our return to the center with Talal, wearing his gratis truss, thanking me, shaking my hand vigorously, I overhear that Moustafa has departed, with only two hours notice, moving on but not in the usual way. Someone says Hungary [“fascist”] has demanded his return, because his fingerprints are registered there. “Nonsense,” says someone else; he’s been dispatched to the Doetinchem center between Arnhem and the German border. I try to follow up but nobody knows his last name because he’s illiterate and “has no known last name.” Talal takes me up to his studio, a cozy corner of the lunchroom with an easel and tubes of paint, where he proudly gives me four paintings to show his gratitude.
I see Ammar; he’s alway smirking on his way to a very important appointment. Ammar is an English teacher from the Alkadam area of Damascus that has been in the forefront of anti-Assad protests since the beginning. I marvel at his ability to focus on a bright future in Amsterdam despite everything he has undergone and continues to go through – people are astonishingly resilient.
He worked as a volunteer in the clothing store and did translation work for the refugees and staff at the center. I eventually took him and Basem to apply for English literature courses at the Free University. But at the meeting he elegantly bowed out, knowing what he wanted – something more pragmatic – and he found it at Leiden University where he is now learning to apply the latest technology to English teaching methods.
Listen to my misery. I worked as an English teacher for a primary school in Syria and held administrative positions in a big company, such as sales manager, and I was a UN volunteer, teaching Iraqi children refugees about the beauty of the universe.
I left my country on September 1, 2015 because I reached a moment of desperation and frustration and I saw no life for me there anymore. I was open-minded and tolerant of everyone around me in Damascus and I had influence in my neighborhood. It led to lots of threats from the regime and the opposition. I did my conscription duties in 2007 – two years and was being forced to join AlAssad’s army again because I could make others join with me. I lived in the area that has been controlled by Assad’s forces since 2013. They hated us because this is where the revolt began. Our area is very against Assad. They blackmailed me into paying large sums of money to leave me alone and drop me from the wanted lists.
That went well for a short while until my brother-in-law was arrested for refusing to de drafted into Assad’s army and then two cousins who lived nearby were killed. It was at that moment I realized I had no other choice: I had to save my soul and that meant leaving. First, I made sure that my wife and one-year old son were safe outside Damascus, staying with a sister. After I left Syria, they pillaged my supermarket, threatened my father who ran it and took everything. They consider me a traitor and have come to my house to shout at my parents and cursed them and tried to extort money from them – threatening to arrest my father if they didn’t pay up. They told my parents that, because I’d fled, I could never return because my name is on a list at border crossings and if I attempt to return I will be arrested and jailed. They are trying to destroy all of my dreams hopes and nice memories.
I went to Lebanon, then to Turkey and from there to Greece. It cost $1300 and to protect me and my family I will not tell details about the route. I continue to hope and am determined to make my dreams come true here – and the first step is to bring my young son and wife here. I am also hoping to get my Masters and my PhD here.
It’s obvious that pacifism is not some fringe radical idea: many of the men I speak to have similar stories – refusal to be a character in a tale with an unhappy ending, with them as cannon fodder is, understandably, nothing for them, they who have seen hope, have ambition and dreams of opening a restaurant, studying literature, building buildings. They’re not anarchists but embody some of anarchism’s spirit in this stance: pacifism or a refusal to fight another man’s battles for profits they will never reap, see, smell – certainly not at the expense of others. You can feel their doubts solidify into stance, into philosophy – this is who they are: those who want to contribute to constructive, peaceful activities …
Two evenings later, I raced to the center to send off Ghaith, a tall, almost-Dutch-looking, young pacifist-artist who once taught children in Syria that they have the right to a childhood filled with dreams and play. We discuss his departure but also head scarves. He’s disappointed; they feel like inequality, any kind of human restriction based on whatever beliefs, especially those directed at women. He does not understand why people maintain these oppressive beliefs. It is as if they cannot trust themselves. It’s as if they need leaders and books to tell them how to do good. The mystery for both of us is why do some people instinctively know how to do good as if their hearts are guided by a moral compass.
We had just arranged to take Ghaith and three other artists to the Rijks Museum and had found an art class for him at the Rietveld Art Academy where the ceramics dept. head, Eylem, wanted to work with refugees and hire him as an intern. One student offered him a free studio – like a dream coming true in a matter of half an hour. He attended his first class, and introduced himself: He told of escaping in his 3rd year of art school, ending up in Amsterdam. “What I like? Everything. I like the buildings, the people. I studied many things.”
“Yes, everything: sculpture drawing, graphic design, painting, multimedia.” His soft-spoken nature cannot hide his excitement – the proverbial kid in the candy store.
“Syria was modern and you could make any kind of art. But now nothing. Syria is very multicultural. There are people with blond hair and blue eyes.”
“You look Dutch or Norwegian.”
“People say that so I change my name to Gijs.”
As quickly as a bright future presented itself, it was doused when only two days later he got the call for Ter Apel, a bittersweet parting because it’s a step closer to getting his residency status BUT … anyway, in the lobby, we vowed to stay in touch as he showed me this startling video of devastation in Syria: how can so much destruction produce such an eerily beautiful post-apocalytic calm?
Bacel, with his warm, knowing smirk, his barrel-chested satisfaction, despite the need to survive, in certain ways is thriving. But the wait, the less-than-transparent process is getting to him. Should I tell him that Ghaith just got his 5-year residency permit. Yes – and no. Yes: It shows that the system is working – however slowly. Or no: it may lead to more “why-him-and-not-me” reactions …
Bacel has a calm zen-like centre, is a bit of a news junkie, a nomadic philosopher, humorous contrarian, cynically analyzing geopolitics and the nature of bureaucracies. He’s also a heavy equipment aficionado and fan of his home, the beautiful seaside city of Latakia. But the other day he floored me when he declared: “I am something of an amateur stand-up comedian, but still studying how to behave on stage.” He IS funny. He names great British comedians and does a short routine by one he has studied. So, why not, I contact the Toomler, Amsterdam’s premier comedy club, located in the basement of the Amsterdam Hilton [think: John & Yoko’s peace Bed-In]. I ask if they can offer a Syrian refugee comedy fan a free ticket… Yes. So we’re going to the Toomler to see Glenn Wool and Jamali Maddix, two edgy comics. Oh, I almost forgot, he’s also “a mixed drinks fanatic.” Should be a wild night.
Next installment: Omar, Ahmed, Daneel, Samer M. and Samer E., Bassil, Nadeem, Kaser and updates on Basem, Talal, Bacel, Firas, Teame and what about the women …
All photos by author. Title photo: L to R: Ghaith, artwork by Syrian artist who wishes to remain anonymous, young Syrian woman with tattooed eyebrows.
Bart Plantenga is the author of 2 internationally acclaimed yodel books: Yodel In HiFi: From Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica, Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, the producer of the Rough Guide to Yodel CD & YODEL IN HIFI Top 50+ Youtube. He lives and writes in Amsterdam.
Photo by Bart Plantenga: L to R: Ghaith, artwork by Syrian artist who wishes to remain anonymous, young Syrian woman with tattooed eyebrows.