We enter the Dutch theme park, Duinrell, in a drizzling November rain. I am on my way together with a colleague to visit Syrian refugees who have recently arrived in the Netherlands. They are temporarily housed in the bungalows of the park. We walk through the autumn leaves. After investigating several directions we happen to meet a few Syrians along the way dressed in winter hats and coats. Salaam Aleikum! We exchange greetings and happily they lead us to their friends, as they have somewhere to go. ‘Come this way please…’
On the outside terrace of one of the bungalows they introduce us to a young Syrian. Mazen is his name. We greet and they leave. Another man opens the door: ‘Hi I am Ibrahim. Please come in, welcome, welcome! We just finished lunch.’ When we enter a third man comes to greet us, Abu Hamoudeh, the eldest of the three men. While we find our way, Abu Hamoudeh kneels down quietly on his prayer mat in the corner. The conversation continues in the meantime. ‘Please come in, sit down please.’ Ibrahim makes us feel welcome. We hand them ‘sweets and pepernoten’, seasonal cookies that we brought as a little welcome gift. They feel that it is their honor to take care of us. I explain that this is a typical Dutch tradition, the men are smiling. Mazen says he doesn’t need a chair, as he is not able to sit still for long… -Later on it turns out that he has been kidnapped several times.
The three men have arrived in the Netherlands just a few weeks ago. They are full of their experiences of escaping and leaving behind their loved ones and homes in Syria. As the tea finds its way into the glasses they confide in us and their stories ensue. ‘Each one of us has a different misery,’ Ibrahim explains. ‘We all come from different parts of Syria. Mazen comes from Raqqa, Ibrahim from Aleppo and Abu Hamoudeh from Hama.’ When we ask him what was his reason to leave Syria he puts his face into his hands and starts crying, his body is shaking softly. ‘Can you imagine how it is to not be able to leave your house for months? It felt like a thousand days. On every rooftop there are snipers shooting randomly at people. I sold my house at half price. I know what the regime is thinking, I have observed them for years. They will not hesitate to crush your head under their feet.’ Tears are running over his cheeks, his face is pale and his eyes radiate pain and stress. The other two nod silently.
Ibrahim continues: ‘We are all from different backgrounds, from different religions but this has always been the case in Syria. The Syrian intellectual Yassin Al Haj- Saleh recently published a manifest in Kebreet in which he declares what many of the Syrian people deeply feel and share: ‘The religious and confessional diversity of Syria is a great treasure.’
It moves me deeply to feel the peaceful atmosphere in which the men exchange their experiences. Ibrahim is translating everything to Abu Hamoudeh quietly, respecting him as the oldest one: ‘We are all in the same boat. We miss our families, we are all afraid and have fled from the violence, we are the people of Syria who are the victims in the middle of the fighting parties. The regime on one side and the Free Syrian army and fundamentalists on the other side.’ In Syria more than 6.5 million people are currently finding refuge in the homes of other Syrians. That is a great sign of solidarity and hospitality.
To escape from Syria is not only very dangerous but also costs a lot of money and is a road paved with uncertainties. Mazen explains: ‘For eight days I sat in a small boat together with one-hundred-sixty other refugees. We almost didn’t eat, the waves were high. I had to pay $15 000 to a smuggler. You never know if they will help you. Yet in the end it worked. Some people here have even paid up to $30 000. I would have liked to pay this money to the Dutch government. Wouldn’t that be much better than to these drug addicted smugglers? Ya Haraam.., It is a shame…’
The men worry about their families. Some of them haven’t had contact for weeks. No sign of life. A neighbor’s family here at Duinrell hadn’t eaten bread for twenty-eight days. All the roads to his village are blocked. This is the story of many villages where there is no electricity, no internet, no contact with the outside world. No petrol, no bread, no medicines.. nothing can pass. This is imperative as his four children have liver problems due to a chemical attack. The problems for the Syrian people are getting bigger and bigger. Yet the support is getting less and less. On the table lies a notebook. Ibrahim explains: ‘Everyday I try to learn Dutch. I use all my hours to study your language.’