The KRC published an article about 7 months ago about one of our writers who met a refugee in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Reading it made me think of publishing a version of my own encounter with a refugee in the Netherlands – the “Maastricht Version”.
Heading to the Netherlands for my exchange programme in January 2016, I had just about the same expectations as any ordinary exchange student: to expose myself to a foreign culture and a pedagogy of a university other than my home university’s. I had also been aware that Europe was accepting refugees into their respective countries, though of course the accepted number differed with country. I had always wondered what it would be like to meet a refugee, but the chances of that happening were low because getting access to a refugee centre or camp was difficult unless you worked or were acquainted with someone there. Little did I know that the mere thought of meeting a refugee would turn into a reality.
It all started in Jumbo, one of the Netherlands’ most notable supermarket chains. A middle-aged man kindly asked me for help. He wanted me to point to him the cheapest tissue box as his eyesight was not too good. Humorously, it felt like forever, looking for that elusive box as he started talking to me. He mocked his poor eyesight, almost like how a stand-up comedian indulges in self-deprecation.
We started to exchange personal information about ourselves. He told me he was a Syrian Arab who had fled Syria in 2012 because of the Syrian War. His name was Jack Yusuf. He had been in the refugee camp for about three years, waiting to be assigned a house. However, due to health problems, the process had been slow thus far.
The inevitable invitation to his camp was uttered from his mouth. He said his family would gladly welcome me. His camp was about 15 minutes from the supermarket with a bus ride. The visit was slated for a Tuesday. I remember we settled for 10 am. He told me the address of the camp – Willem Alexanderweg Road. Locating the address was not an issue, with the efficacy of Google maps always on my side, as for any exchange student.
Tuesday came, and I arrived at the refugee camp. Duly isolated from the city centre, I thought I was at a prison just by looking at its structure. I was half right; the camp was formerly a prison. Upon entering the camp, Jack greeted me with a smile. He was already at the guard’s office, probably to notify him of my impending visit. Before taking me on a tour of the camp, he gave me some basic information about the camp such as the demographics. For example, the refugees came from countries ranging from Syria to Eritrea. As the tour started, he explained more about the living conditions of the camp. Each refugee received 200 Euros a month for daily expenses. That amount was not too dismal according to him, considering the fact that they had a place to stay for free. Furthermore, refugees could actually get additional income in the camp itself by helping out at the reception or any other department. He first showed me the basic facilities of the camp such as the washing rooms before progressing up to the refugees’ rooms on the second level.
Traversing the corridors, he started to open up more about his story. He was an English teacher in a secondary school prior to the war. He had attained a degree in English language and Literature from the University of Aleppo. In addition to that, he had held property in Aleppo, all of which were unfortunately destroyed by the war. At least he still had his family with him, I thought. But that was until I realised that the word ‘family’ had conjured up a very different image in my mind. When he brought me to his room, I was introduced to his sister, Sylvina. I was surprised. I had pictured a wife with children but I didn’t prod him on that issue. Without me asking, he told me he was 59 and single. His other siblings were estranged. His parents had passed on from sheer trauma due to the war. That was hard to hear. What was even more difficult to think about was the realisation that it was practically him and his sister against the world, so to speak. I had a conversation with both of them about life in the camp and their thoughts on the Syrian war. Due to Jack’s poor eyesight, Sylvina did the bulk, if not all, of the grocery shopping. Sylvina herself worked at the reception in the camp, serving as a translator for new refugees from Arab-speaking nations. The size of the room was about 17 square metres, just enough for two people. It had a bathroom, a closet, a fridge and even a television which allowed Jack and Sylvina to follow the events of their homeland and other international news.
As I mentioned before, they were both waiting to be assigned a house. Other refugees had stayed in the camp for a shorter period of time but were already assigned a house. Jack was, however, diagnosed with diabetes and needed treatment before the municipality could assign him and Sylvina a house. At some point in time, Sylvina had to leave the room as she was being called by the reception staff. Jack decided that we go to the park of the camp to talk where it was cooler. He asked about my background and what I was doing in Maastricht. I told him that I would return to Singapore in July after my semester ended in Maastricht University. The whole point of the meeting was about him though. I asked him what it was like living in the camp. He said that he had friends, shelter and food. To him that was all that mattered, at that point at least. However, he mentioned wanting to get married or at least finding a companion but realised that his age might make that difficult. In fact, he asked me how he could find a companion. The best suggestion I could offer him was the possibility to meet someone at functions the community might organize for refugees.
My visitation hours soon came to an end and it was time for me to go. We bade each other farewell. He looked very pleased that I had come to visit. The feeling was mutual. I really do hope that he gets his house soon.
The kitchen on Jack’s level
The view from the kitchen window was quite decent
The washing room
Jack and his sister both shared a room just enough for two people
I managed to coax a reluctant Jack into taking a selfie with me
The exterior of the camp looked hauntingly similar to a prison.