Several friends and family members have asked after the refugee situation here in Holland. They have heard all the worst incidents in the EU from news reports back home. Before my blog moves to a month focused on Historical Treasure during the A to Z Blog Challenge, I wanted to address the refugee issue from a personal point of view.
In the Netherlands, organization and compassion seem to prevail when dealing with this new influx of residents. The refugee camp near our home is quiet and a curfew is enforced. The Dutch Red Cross, and the Salvation Army offer support and local church groups host classes and activities. Every few days I see another call in local media outlets for ways we can all help out. The newspaper, the weekly school forum, even my husband’s work newsletter keeps us updated on what is needed for these strangers in a strange land. Earlier the call was for socks, men’s small and medium pants, underwear, winter coats and sportswear for them to take part in local athletic activities. The camp near us is all men on their own. Not all are single, but all are here without family.
My friend H. volunteers at a refugee camp for families not too far away. The calls there go out for baby items, strollers, pre-school children’s clothes. She has stacks of donated clothes in her garage that she sorts through to take what is needed most to the camp for distribution. I heard recently a group donated 20 bicycles, new and refurbished, to the camp. I thought how wonderful especially in a country where bikes are a passport to freedom of travel and integrating into life here. People are coming together with support and kindness.
There was an old joke that said, “How do you recognize an American tourist in Europe?” The answer said, “By their brand new white tennis shoes.” In my neighborhood something similar could be said for spotting refugees.
Needing a bit of fresh air, a writer friend and I took a quick walk near her down town home. Beneath the tower of the church, two men with bright new shoes approached and asked in slightly broken English where the church school was. We weren’t sure, but she said where she thought which happened to be the way we were walking. For a block, my curious friend peppered these refugees with questions.
What is your first language? How did you learn English? How is it going in the camp? How is the food?
The name of their first language was one I recognized due to some familiarity with the area of Ethiopia. They were from Eritrea, took English there and moved here. It was good in the camp, they said. Food was good. They said they were “well satisfied” with it all.
We wished them well at the next intersection. I was grateful my outgoing friend with such an inquisitive nature took a walk with me. I had naively pictured Syrian refugees and not realized the flood of immigrants comprised such diverse peoples from so many countries. Between January and October 2015 more than 45.000 people sought asylum in the Netherlands. The majority were Syrians, followed by people from Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan.
As I reflect on the refugee presence in The Netherlands, at least how I have experienced it, there is much to inspire hope. The refugees’ needs pull diverse people together to lend aid, offer resources, and teach classes on many subjects. A friend asked me, “How have the refugees changed your Dutch experience?” Well, it gives me great admiration for this country where the world comes together not only in terms of residents from around the globe, but also in terms of the 20+ international organizations such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice that are headquartered in The Hague alone.
Have I heard nothing bad? A Dutch reporter was attacked, and other isolated incidents are easy to find online. But near us there was only one item. A woman on a locals Facebook group was walking her dogs on the beach and was confronted by a man walking towards her exposing himself in an…active manner. The man was described as “Middle Eastern” looking and nothing like this was ever reported before the camp opened. Women were urged to be cautious walking alone and to report anything unsavory to the police.
On a practical level, though, my day-to-day expat experience has changed in only one significant way. I am now extra cautious when driving a car through roundabouts. Bikes have the right of way, but they are supposed to follow the order of traffic proceeding around the circles to the right. Since the camp opened I have seen bicyclers going the wrong way more often, coming from the unexpected direction into the intersection I was entering by car. Two of these incidents appeared to involve men in those tell-tale bright tennies. With such a large percentage of expats living in our community though, who is to say? These sighting are more common in the summer moving season as well.
Yes, there are refugees and camps near us in Europe. What do I tell friends and family members who ask about the situation? I am not a person who gets into political debates. Instead, I tell them about the charitable persons, orderly opportunities, and how I see refugees experiencing this country as I did for the 1st time not so long ago. I suspect if a member of the press happens across my blog, the only item to show up in their report would be the negative one. My hope is that you now have a bit more insight beyond what hits the front pages. I can only speak for my little corner of the world where the news is overwhelmingly good and lacking sensationalized material.
Kristin King is the president of an NGO, a speaker, author, mother, dog lover, US Army wife and citizen of the world currently living the expat life in Holland. She will not be addressing the US Presidential election in any of her upcoming blogs.