It would be great to study here

Four meetings with a family of refugees from Syria

Pictures by Taco van der Eb

By Vincent Bongers

Brothers Ahmad and Mohammad Deeb from Syria would love to study in Leiden, but they say their certificates are worth nothing here. “We understand the fear, but if we liked killing people, we would have stayed in Syria.”

Thursday 15 October,
3 Oktober Hall in Leiden

“Everything’s so green here, it’s lovely, and so is all the water”, exclaims Ahmad, a Syrian student and refugee (22). He points to the trees behind the two-metre high screens surrounding the sports hall. “That was the first thing that struck me – the trees look so different.”
One of the screens has been pushed aside. Someone has stuck a notice on it, which reads “No alcohol, no drugs” in English and Arabic. Three guards at the provisional entrance keep a close eye on everyone.
Today, these 120 refugees, mainly Syrians, are to travel by bus to Amsterdam for an identification procedure. For Ahmad, it’s one of many bus trips in a short space of time. “I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen; something to do with fingerprints.”
Ahmad was reading French at Tishreen University in Latakia, a port city, when he and his younger brother, their little sister, parents and uncle fled from Assad. “I hate French, but in Syria you must study the subject you were best in at school.” He looks up at the grey sky. “I want to study the stars and the universe – or history.”
Mohammad Deeb (19) joins his elder brother and fishes a crumpled piece of paper from his hip pouch. It’s a document from his secondary school. “I had just passed my finals and had started to study English. But I think philosophy is much more interesting. We know about Leiden because of Leiden Observatory. It would be great to study here. But it’s difficult: apart the language, the biggest problem is that our secondary school certificates are not recognised here.
Ahmad continues: “We keep pestering the volunteers in the hall: ‘Please teach us how to say something in your language.’”
Uncle Ali (28), who has a degree in maritime transport and logistics, is impressed by Dutch hospitality. “The people here are kind and they are so important to us. They do all this for us, that feels really special. Every time I walk into the sports hall, I feel welcome” while Ahmad adds that his temporary sleeping-place is “quite comfortable”.
Father Mustafa (49) doesn’t join in the conversation but Mother Rana (38) waves to Mare: her faith will not allow her to shake hands with a man. She used to teach English in Latakia. “Please don’t put our surname in the paper. We still have relatives who stayed behind and they are in real danger.”
When she wants to explain why they fled, the security guards end the conversation: it’s time for the bus to leave.
“We were scared of the soldiers,” says Ahmad as he walks away. He pretends to shoot a gun. “It was too dangerous, we really had to leave.”

Sunday 18 October,
De Cuyl Sports Hall in Oegstgeest

“A new day, a new sports hall,” remarks Mohammad Deeb, while he, Ahmad and Uncle Ali walk to the sports centre in Oegstgeest. At the entrance, the brothers meet their mother and they reflect on their first days in Leiden. “Everyone was stressed, nervous and scared,” says Ahmad. “But we’re O.K now, we’ve learnt to adapt.”
They talk about their journey to the Netherlands. “We travelled from Lebanon to Turkey by ship and when we arrived, someone took us to Greece,” recalls Rana.
Mohammad Deeb adds: “We were frightened all the time. We didn’t know where we were going. And each time we came to a border and we didn’t know whether we would be allowed into the country. But we feel safe in the Netherlands.”
Rana explains: “The old people stayed behind, just like the people who don’t have enough money to pay the human smugglers. We paid 6,000 dollars in total for the whole family. When we arrived here, we had nothing left.”
“We know that elsewhere in the Netherlands, people are protesting about refugees coming here, but we have noticed any trouble”, says Ahmad.
Mohammad Deeb continues: “We would love to have Dutch lessons. We have lots of time now and we’re bored. It would be great if students, for instance, could teach us the language.”
Ahmad says: “We can understand that some Dutch people are afraid of us; there’s a deep fear of IS and other extremist groups. But if we liked killing people, we would have stayed in Syria.”
Rana interjects: “Once it’s safe, we will certainly go home. We didn’t leave because we hate our country, but because it’s too dangerous. It’s not our intention to hang around in the Netherlands, waiting for the government to give us money. We want to work and live here.”
“If the situation in Syria doesn’t improve, hopefully we’ll have a future in the Netherlands, God willing”, Ahmad says.
The violence was not the only reason the family fled: Ahmad and Mohammad Deeb had been called up to join Assad’s army. “I don’t want to die and I don’t want to kill anyone”, says Ahmad. “The army is extremely dirty”, Mohammad Deeb adds: “When I got the call-up papers, I felt as if my future was slipping away.”
Rana explains: “Conscription used to be a rite of passage: boys became men; now it’s a signal to leave the country. I won’t allow my sons to kill. The government enlists them while other groups want them to fight for Allah against Assad. Syria is like a beautiful girl, who, just as she starts to blossom, is raped by all sorts of violent groups.”

Wednesday 21 October,
Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden

It’s noisier than usual in Museum Volkenkunde. Refugees chat as they walk from showcase to showcase. Children play in the hall. The outing breaks the monotony of the sports hall, which is a good thing, as the mood is tense. “Yesterday we received a letter from the State Secretary which said we will be in this situation for at least six months and that we will keep having to move”, says Ali. At that point, many of the refugees decided to protest outside the sports hall in Oegstgeest; some are even saying they want to return to their own country. Mohammad Deeb sighs and even Ahmad, who is usually cheerful, looks glum. “We’re very upset about the letter”, he explains.
The Syrians are drawing a huge map of Syria and the surrounding countries on the square in front of the museum. One of the refugees writes in pink, in Arabic, “Assad must fall”. Syrian children jump up and down and stamp their feet on the text. As the refugees leave the entrance of Museum Volkenkunde, people suddenly start to laugh. Four typically blond Dutch children are copying the Assad stamping. Ahmad cheers them on.

Sunday 25 October,
Bloemerd Sports Hall in Leiderdorp

The weather is lovely and a football tournament has been organised for the children on the pitches next to the sports hall. Lively music is playing and there’s a large bouncy castle. Mohammad Deeb is glad that the children are having fun, but he feels tired, cold and frustrated. “I don’t have any money and I can’t do anything about it.”
Rana adds: “Our mobile phone has disappeared. I don’t know whether it’s been stolen or not, but everyone is short of cash.”
Ali remarks: “You certainly have a lot of sports halls. It would be very nice if we could stay in one place for a while.”
Rana says: “Some refugees are so fed up of camp beds that they’ve taken to sleeping on the ground.”
“Our lives are not progressing at the moment”, sighs Mohammad Deeb.
Rana agrees: “We knew it wouldn’t be easy. The Netherlands is not a paradise but it seemed like a good country to go to. I read on the Internet that it was relatively quiet here and the procedure for a residence permit was shorter than in many other European countries.”
They amble back to the sports hall. Rana retrieves the “walk paper” she was given in the asylum seekers’ centre in Ter Apel and holds the photograph next to her face. “We keep having to present this paper – they still don’t know us here.” She looks at the white screens and the security guards. “There’s something tragic about it. It’s like being in prison.”
“Or at one of Assad’s checkpoints. But thankfully, we’re allowed outside”, Mohammad Deeb adds.

Wednesday 28 October

Leiden council has announced that the refugees who have been staying in various sports halls in the past few weeks will be given a more permanent dwelling in the former TNO building on Wassenaarseweg 56-58. The outlook so far is that they can stay there for a year.

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