Insane asylum seeking

Last week I went to a meeting about language coaches for refugees in Leiden, the town I live in. I heard that in the month of August between 70 and 80 refugees received their residence permit and were assigned a home here. This is the same amount that was granted a new home in the first 6 months of 2014.

inburgeringscursusThis rise in numbers is partially because there are more people arriving and partially because the asylum process has been streamlined so that more requests can be evaluated in a smaller amount of time. Each person that receives a residence permit must do a so called “inburgerings cursus” which boils down to a course that helps someone become a Dutch citizen. This involves a language course as well as lessons about our culture and customs. At the end of this course, every person must take (and pass) an exam.

Each new resident must attend language classes once a week and is assigned a language coach to practice with for about an hour a week on top of that. A language coach is always a volunteer that does this beside their regular job. It is therefore most common for a language coach to be assigned just one person. You can imagine that if in one month there are more than seventy new people starting their citizenship education, there is a great need for more language coaches.

During the meeting I went to last week there were about 15 new candidates. Their motives varied from wanting to do something practical to compensate for their very theoretical study at the university, to expanding their CV with something different. Some had already worked in schools and wished to find a new challenge in the education of foreigners. Others were just lonely and wished to get back in touch with society and remember what it felt like to be needed (this last part is my own interpretation).

I was quite surprised that besides me there was only one other person that said they were sick of watching the news and feeling helpless. I don’t say this to humblebrag, I promise. I have a genuine feeling of urgency to do something but with no clue about where to start. I for one am sick of feeling so powerless. Also it is just starting to feel wrong to voice my opinion about something that I only know about through the colored stories of the media. It’s time to see it for myself and to know that no matter what side I choose I will be able to look myself in the eye at the end of it.

refugee-word-cloud

But I must admit I do feel torn. Just the other day I started deleting “friends” from Facebook that have voiced opinions that I find discriminatory or unbalanced, to say the least. I am sure there are still some rotten apples in my list as not everyone voices their opinions on the web. One of the people I deleted is a girl I used to babysit. She is in her twenties now and has recently gotten married. She posted a video of refugees showing someone around the camp they were staying in, pleading for better conditions. She commented something along the lines of: “What did you expect, a five star hotel? If you don’t like it, go back home, you ungrateful a**holes!”. The fact that these people’s home may very well be reduced to rubble, went unnoticed to her.

I deleted her immediately, especially after I noticed she had re-posted it from a page that sympathizes with our very own, well known and homegrown right hand populist; Geert Wilders. It did stick with me for a while though… Especially since I did kind of agree with her… These worked up men were pointing at everything that was supposedly wrong with their conditions and showing the camera how muddy it was and how few toilets there were but in reality, it wasn’t all that bad… Sure, the weather was shitty, but who can you blame for that? It was a temporary solution for an overwhelming situation that was absolutely better than nothing. Nobody was starving neither from hunger nor cold. I only dared admit this to myself after I had deleted her from my account.

[The video in question, which I had embedded in this post on right this spot is no longer online, but since I believe we’ve all seen and heard about these type of situations I decided not to replace it. | 29-08-2016]

These men… All men… So so agitated. And for what? I hate mobs like this. They scare me. Men stirring each other up in this aimless frenzy. Running around, pumping adrenaline through their veins and some crazy idea that they will get their way if they just push hard enough. They seek out confrontation hoping it will help their plight, if only they manage to show the world something shocking. It sickens me and I find it very difficult to find sympathy for these people. I know they do not represent the majority, but it is inevitable that some problems will arise with these new citizens. And what if they’re not satisfied with what we have to offer? How much are we willing to give in to accommodate them?

Anyhow, I am now on the list of volunteers of the local refugeework organisation. I will be attending some classes of my own before I get assigned a new resident of my town, most probably from Syria and help him or her in the next step of their long journey to become a European citizen. I can’t wait to find out more and report about my experiences both to myself as to you.

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Sail 2015

Today was the last day of the quinquennial (it means once every five years, I looked it up 😉 ) event SAIL in Amsterdam.

More than 40 impressive tall ships and several historical and monumental ships with interesting stories to tell entered in an awe inspiring parade and have been on display the last couple of days. Yesterday, the royal family arrived in their own sail boat, called the Groene Draeck (the green dragon) for the final day of the event.

I was lucky enough to be invited by some friends who happen to be journalists for a boating show and magazine and had a small boat for the week and some time to spend with friends in between. After a small tour over our capital’s canals, we entered the harbor area. Teije, one of the journalists in my company, knew a lot about the history and legacy of the boats and told me about them as we passed them by.

One of the shiniest boats around turned out to have quite a tainted past: the Chilean navy ship Esmeralda. As “one of the most controversial ship present”, not everyone was ready to welcome it into the harbor with open arms, according to Teije, as it has supposedly been used during Pinochet’s dictatorship to question and torture political prisoners. Despite the ugly reputation, she’s still quite a looker though:

And then there was the world’s largest sailing vessel made completely from wood, the Götheborg. It even smelled different, passing it by! An amazing piece of craftmanship, pun intended!


Another unique boat at the event, easy to overlook between all the shiny giants, was another wooden ship, the Nao Victoria. It was Teije’s personal favorite as it spoke to his boyish dreams of sailing around the world. This boat was a replica of the first ship to successfully circumnavigate the world in an expedition led by Ferdinand Magellan. The expedition began with five ships but the Victoria was the only ship to complete the voyage. Even Magellan didn’t make it back. I must admit I wasn’t able to take any decent pic of this one, as I didn’t get the right angle from the little boat I was in. So thanks to google, you do get a small impression:

And to finish things up, I thought I’d include the ship named after the city it all took place in this year, the city of Amsterdam:

Ahoy, everyone!

Finding my bearings

overtocht team

My story is not spectacular. My story is not heroic. My story is actually not even my story but at the same time it really absolutely is! This story forms part of a greater whole and I am so proud that I am a part of it! It deserves to be told and I want to be the one to do it. So there.

I ended my previous blog on a bit of a cliffhanger. I wrote about the voyage of my grandparents in 1943 and may have briefly mentioned that I retook this voyage, as an ode to them and all others who attempted to cross the North Sea to England during WWII. But enough about them (but no seriously, they were awesome!), allow me to tell you about my part in all of this!

So, I think I’ll start at the end and work back from there. You see, when we returned from our fourtysomething hour long journey, we came ashore with cameras pointing at our faces (waiting for us to break down?). We were applauded, photographed, filmed and interviewed. We were asked to pose, to talk about how we felt, to smile and to wave this way and that. I tried to be original every time I was asked about the voyage and to treat every question as if it was asked to me for the first time.

The most frequent asked questions were the following:

1)      What drove you to take part in this venture? (sometimes asked in the form of: why in the blazes did you say yes?)

2)      What went through your mind while you were at sea?

3)      What does it mean for you to step in the footsteps of your grandparents?

4)      Would you do it again?

The questions sound simple enough, but I had the hardest possible time coming up with the right answers. I think whoever asked me them, was pretty satisfied with whatever I came up with but I always felt I hadn’t quite covered it. I kept thinking they actually wanted to hear the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and I felt I was never really giving them all that. Sure, it was always true but I always had to feed it to them in ready to eat soundbites and therefore my answers always sounded incomplete to me. It missed the “on the one side blablabla, but on the other side blablabla” crap we academics love to get lost in.radertjes

That’s why I thought writing this blog would be easy. I would just jot it all down, from left to write, and equip my formulated thoughts with tons of footnotes and sidethoughts between parentheses, which is what I reckon most of my daydreams must look like as well… but I degress…

Let’s answer these questions… Numero uno, why in the blazes did I say yes?! Ahhh, but my answer needs an introduction… because my perceptive readers must have noticed that this question implies the involvement of another party, being the one that is asking me to come along. That would be Epco and Teije, who came up with the idea for this undertaking during the new year’s reception of the newspaper they both work for.

Eddie Jonker jongThey found out about a little boat that lay in a museum in Overloon, named after one of the original passengers, Yvette Bartlema. And during their first brainstorm sessions about how this project could take form, they came into contact with living legend, Eddie Jonker. This 90 year old war veteran was also the chairman of a Stichting Engelandvaardermuseum, raising funds for the resurrection of a museum to commemorate all those who travelled to England during the second world war and joined the allied forces and the resistance. He joined the RAF himself and contributed greatly to the cause and remains an amazingly sharp witted man today with a strong will and a warm hart. The foundation was working on a project to build a replica of the Yvette for in the museum’s collection, which turned out to be the final boost Epco and Teije needed for their idea to really set sail.

All they needed now were 3 other people to come along on this odyssey, which (long story short) brought them to me. And I said yes because… well, honestly because I thought it sounded like an adventure. The first time I tried to explain this to my friends and family, I described it as the reaction a child would have hearing his / her favorite attraction park had just opened a new ride. But of course there was more to it… I was getting the chance to learn about these mysterious people in the black and white pictures. I read their words from fading letters that had been kept safe (but nearly forgotten!) in boxes and cupboards by family members. I learned things about my own history and about history in general that I didn’t even know I missed.

I also said yes because from the very start, the organizers emphasized that safety was very high on their list of priorities. That made me feel like I could permit myself to be brazen. It was an opportunity to go on an adventure, with a big chance of discomfort a slight chance of getting hurt, but with a panic button in case things (or people) would go overboard. That my grandparents did not have this luxury, was a realization that was often in our minds and humbled us during our get-togethers.

And I guess that brings us to the second question. In all honesty, what I thought about during my time at sea wasn’t all that interesting… I wish I could tell you I philosophized about the meaning of life and my part in it. I wish I could tell you I solved some crazy riddle or perhaps made up one, but I’m afraid it would be untrue.

My thoughts were more along the lines of “Man, this North Sea puddle sure is BIG!” and “ Didn’t I see a wave just like that one, an hour ago?!” and most of all “ bleeeuh, my tummy feels funny… but luckily not as bad as THAT guy…”. That guy was one of my fellow passengers and grandson of one of the original crewmembers, Coen. His nausea started somewhere during the first night and never really stopped. He came out of his greenish-greyish cloud of misery for a couple of minutes every time he ate something. It would give him enough energy to make a couple of jokes and then fall back into his zombie-state after hanging over the side to give whatever he had just eaten back to nature…Foto+van+de+Dag+vaarkrant

There were a couple of moments during the voyage that we spoke about what we were doing and what it all meant. We talked about the original passengers and about their role in the bigger picture. We talked about the other veterans we had met and what they represented for the younger generations. We talked about boat refugees in current times and the way we view them. My grandparents were heroes, boat refugees arriving in Southern Europe from Africa are a plague. Is it really that different?

After this last conversation I had Manu Chao’s song, Clandestino, on my mind and tried to remember all the lyrics. All I kept coming back to was “Soy una raya en el mar”, or “ I’m a line in the sea”, which is pretty much how I felt. Another song that stuck with me is Papeles mojados, by Chambao. I encourage you to listen to both songs and look up their translated lyrics if you don’t speak Spanish.

And how it feels to step in the footsteps of my grandparents…? In truth, I don’t think I have. I made a trip in a boat and I am proud of myself for doing it, but I have in no way done anything matching the heroism of the original passengers, as the boat trip itself was merely the beginning of their voyage. I guess that is also why it was so hard to write this blog. I just felt so small in the light of their story and almost unworthy to be putting the spotlight on myself for something so meaningless.

I did feel the need to describe this feeling of gratitude and admiration I feel for the people that fought for our freedom. Not just my grandparents but all the men and women that contributed to the resistance and stood up against the hate and injustice that was swallowing the continent. The last question is therefore an insignificant one. Retaking the boattrip does nothing for the true meaning of their mission. To truly honor their valor I must actively participate in the world and make an effort to make a difference. I can either sit by the sidelines and point at all the things I see going wrong, or I can find ways to truly make a difference.

In current times, things have been getting so confused. People are being called fascists left and right. Politics are filled with fear mongering rhetorics, which is creating an atmosphere that is truly worrying. Fear is the best bed to plant the seed of hate in and it is happening all around me. I will not go into this much further in this blog (but I will try to in a future one) but will leave you with this video that recently aired before the European elections.

We must never forget our past, and that is the true moral of this story and the only true way to honor the original passengers of the Yvette! yvette vlet in GB

refugee travel song

My grandparents were brave people. In the second world war they decided the course this Hitler guy was steering Europe down, wouldn’t do. They were in no immediate threat but were fed up with the oppression and decided to flee the country. They bought a small boat, really not designed for open seas, and set sail to England. They joined the allied forces there and fought for the future of their country and the children they would bring into this world. I am grateful for the sacrifices they were willing to make and their courage to stand up for what they believed in.

I guess in modern times we would refer to my grandparents as refugees. I will be posting a more elaborate blog about the story of my grandparents soon, but for now I leave you with a song by Cuban singer, Celia Cruz, with lyrics that apply to the thoughts my grandparents must have had at the time, as much as they do to Celia’s feelings towards the country she left behind.

A free interpretation of the lyrics can be found below:

In case I don’t return, I take your flag with me
regretting that my eyes, now liberated, do not see you.

Why I had to leave anybody can understand.
I thought I would return to your soil any minute

But time keeps passing by and your sun keeps crying
Your chains remain strong and I keep waiting and praying to the sky

I always felt fortunate to have been born in your arms
And eventhough I am no longer there, I left you a part of my heart

Just in case, in case I don’t return

Soon the moment will arrive that the suffering will stop
Let’s not hold any grudges, oh my lord
so we can share our feelings together

Even though time has passed I have carried your name with me
with pride and dignity all across the world and I have told  them your truth

But my land, don’t suffer anymore; my heart, don’t go to pieces
There is no evil that can last a hundred years, nor can my body

And I never wanted to abandon you, I brought you with me in every step
And with me you will stay, my love, like a flower on my lap

Just in case, in case I don’t return

If in case I don’t return, the pain will kill me
And if I don’t return to my country, I will die with the pain

If in case I don’t return, the pain will kill me
My country, beautiful land, I love you so dearly.

If in case I don’t return, the pain will kill me
My heart aches without seeing her for so long

If i case I don’t return, when I die
I want my flag to be draped upon my tomb

If in case I don’t return, I hope they bury me with music
with music of my beloved lands