In A Dutch City, A Syrian Couple Settles In And Is Reminded Of Home
Emad, a Damascus native, says he is starting to feel at home in the northwestern Dutch city of Haarlem. The 25-year-old comes on foot to meet me at the city's train station, where I traveled from Paris to meet him in November.
"It's fascinating, it reminds me a lot of Damascus," he says. "Because it has the old city, then it goes modern and it goes to old buildings [again]. So it gives me a warm feeling to be here."
Despite winter cold, tens of thousands of migrants continue to arrive on the European continent. Undertaking perilous journeys across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, they make their way slowly up the continent to countries such as Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, in search of better lives. Some 55,000 refugees arrived in the Netherlands between January and November of last year, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Emad and his wife, Lena, 25, undertook their journey five months ago. They arrived in Haarlem in September. The couple says they are excited to make the Netherlands their new home. They don't want to use their last names because they fear for the safety of family members back in Syria.
We walk a few blocks to their temporary home — a former prison, built in the 19th century, that has become a refugee center.
Inside the domed brick building, hundreds of prison cells open onto a central recreation area with a basketball court and soccer pitch. The sound reverberates inside the building as if in an echo chamber.
We climb a metal spiral staircase to the fourth floor, where Lena is waiting.
Their cell is tiny, with bunk beds and two chairs. There's a separate space with a toilet and a sink and drawings on the walls from former Dutch inmates. But the room is warm and clean, and Emad says they're being well looked after while they wait for the asylum process.
"They are doing their best; they are really doing a great job — we have too much food!" he says, laughing as he shows a stockpile of tiny milk cartons. "The Dutch drink a lot more milk than we Syrians," he says.
Emad and Lena say volunteer organizations are helping fill their time as they wait for their asylum applications to be processed, coming to give them Dutch lessons several times a week. The Netherlands has always accepted refugees, but because of the large numbers in the last year, the asylum process has slowed to months instead of weeks.
Emad says they are anxious to get going with their lives.
It took the couple a month to reach the Netherlands from Syria. Like thousands of others, they struggled to cross the Balkans. But they have no horror stories, and they even laugh as they reminisce about some of the filthy, crowded and chaotic camps along the way.
"It's very nice," Lena says with a laugh. "Really! This trip is a very big adventure. I loved this."
Though she left her whole family behind, Lena doesn't think she'll ever return to live in Syria. She says she's ready to start all over in the Netherlands, "just like a baby."
Emad says they had to get out. His father, brother and sister, suspected of supporting anti-government rebels, were all killed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"So I had to flee, because I was next on the list," Emad says. "You could know that because there is so much corruption inside the Assad system. I paid money so I could know. And I was told, 'They want you next. You're on the waiting list.'"
I ask if Lena's family was also under threat. Emad pauses. "Even when you're not directly under threat, you're threatened," he says. "Because when she passes by the army checkpoints, they could take her and she could get kidnapped. And mortars were always coming into the neighborhood where we lived. There were 10 to 20 a day."
The couple first headed to Germany, but wanted to break away from the crowds. That's when they discovered the Netherlands. Now they're learning a language they didn't even know existed a few months ago. Emad says he wants to get a master's degree in international law.
"They have the international law court here, in the Hague," he says. "So I'm going to get a new life. I'm aiming that by the time I get to my asylum procedure interview, I'm going to be speaking fluent Dutch to them. I'm going to surprise them!"
The couple often walks the city's cobbled streets, holding hands and talking easily with local residents. They say they're sure they can build a new life here.
Lena says the Netherlands is small, and the Dutch, like the Syrians, like to gossip. "It's a lot like Syria," she says. "Only without Assad."