Every person has those moments in their life that are unforgettable. Some moments are good and some are bad. These moments become a part of our memories. No matter how hard we try, we can’t get them out of our mind. We also have those dark moments that change our lives forever. In those moments our whole world is turned upside down and we feel like everything has stopped.
We strongly believe that circumstances end but memories last forever. Here we recall some of those moments, which occurred at the time when we had to flee from our country because of certain circumstances and travel to the Netherlands.
When our plane arrived in Dubai, it was early morning, usually the time when our children left for school and we left for our work. But on that day we had to leave everything behind. Our children were thinking about their schools, books, uniforms, classmates and teachers, while my wife and I were thinking about our work, workplaces and colleagues – and we were feeling grief in our hearts. We shared all these emotions with each other.
While we were waiting for our next flight, to Amsterdam, we sat in the waiting room where many Dutch people were sitting and talking to each other. At that particular time, we wondered how we were going to survive in the Netherlands. We couldn’t understand a single word that they were saying.
At that time, we didn’t know that the Dutch could speak English. When there was an announcement about our flight, we all looked anxiously at each other and then went and sat in the plane. That journey felt like we were walking on thorns. Everything was very painful.
As the plane was approaching the Netherlands, our uncertainties increased. What kind of challenges would we have to face? What did our future hold?
These were unanswered questions full of doubts. Although we knew that we were going to the Netherlands, we still didn’t know what our final destination would be. We had no feelings of stability or firmness. Everything was uncertain, fearful and unstable.
When we landed in the Netherlands, we were terrified. We felt like all eyes were on us at the airport. The whole family felt unbalanced. It was one of the darkest periods in our lives.
So many times we felt useless, worthless and unsuccessful in this painful situation, but gradually we entered into the feeling of placing our trust in God, even in an unknown destination. We tried to learn to trust God with an open heart in times of uncertainty and doubt.
We have also learned that God intervenes in our lives; God comes to us through known and unknown people, events, happenings, experiences and places. God became a human being in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, sharing our sufferings, our life and our day-to-day problems.
The journey towards an unknown destination is a journey of life, a journey of faith. It is an experience of intimacy and living in God deeply, to come to Jesus and to remain with Him. As 1 John 4:13 states, ‘This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: he has given us of his Spirit.’
Finally, we left Schiphol airport and departed to an unknown destination, remembering the words of Jesus: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms’ (John 14:1-2). We also remembered His words in John 14:18: ‘I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.’
Challenges and Faith
We arrived at Ter Apel on 11th August 2014. After the initial interviews, we were sent into the refugee camp for two days with some instructions, regulations, a programme and an agenda. We were handed some packets of basic needs before we went into the living area. When we entered our room, there were already two families sleeping where we, too, were supposed to live. Now, including ourselves, we were thirteen people living there. There were communal toilets and bathrooms in the living area. Sometimes, someone forgot to flush the toilet or did not use the bathroom properly.
Our first impression of the room was that it was very untidy and strange. This was the very first experience in our lives, as a family, of having to live with strangers. Everything was varied, including language, ethnicity, tradition, norms, background, food, dress and ages. Therefore, we could not immediately develop relationships with one another.
We all were unknown to each other, all our languages were different and we could not speak one shared language between us. We had different cultures, customs, social and religious contexts, and backgrounds. Therefore, we were often a complete mystery to one another, even though we tried to reveal ourselves to each other. At that moment, there was only one thing which was the source of our happiness and motivation: the protection of our lives. Hence, we were feeling secure and safe.
At this place, we used to go for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining hall, where we would see more than 500 people from different countries. We always waited in the queue to get food. It was totally different food from what we were used to. It was difficult to eat something so foreign to our taste, but we accepted it as a challenge.
The weather was also becoming more of a challenge each day. Unexpectedly, the heavy rain began, causing the temperature to change from warm to cold. All of us who were living there without appropriate clothing were provided with some warm clothes.
From that moment, we started to understand what it meant to be refugees. Although we had read in the newspapers and seen the movies about the life of refugees, in real life the experience was totally different. We found ourselves living in an atmosphere where everybody seemed sad and depressed. It could easily be seen on others’ faces – the challenges, questions, and disappointment that they were feeling yet, at the same time, some hope at the thought of seeking (and being granted) asylum.
All our challenges appeared in the form of things we had not experienced before: a different language, culture, customs, communications, food, dress, hygiene and weather, as well as homelessness, migration, loneliness, isolation and lack of social relationships. At that moment, as we were facing all of these challenges, we remembered the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary and their child, Jesus) when they became refugees in Egypt. We thought of their experience of migration and of being refugees. As a result, we tried to see our challenges as a process of growing in our faith, a process of hope, of discovering the love of God, and of gaining a better understanding of ourselves and others.
In the evenings, we had prayer times and said the Holy Rosary together. We began to present our problems and challenges before God with strong faith. We do believe that God reveals Himself in life’s realities, in events, in challenges and in everyday happenings. He also reveals Himself among common, simple and ordinary people.
In spite of all of those challenges, there was one thing that was very positive and remarkable, which inspired us. All of us who arrived there as refugees, and made an application for asylum, came with different fears, difficulties, traumas and agonies. However, all of us were heartily welcomed by the staff and management at Ter Apel. The management at this centre was very kind, polite, professional, caring, cooperative and generous.
With mixed feelings of happiness and sorrow, we left Ter Apel and were transferred to Budel for three months.
It was the afternoon of 13th August 2014 when we left for Budel. There were almost fifty of us, belonging to different countries. During the journey, there were so many questions going through our minds about the new camp. Would it have the same atmosphere as Ter Apel or would it be different? We arrived there with all of these mixed and uncertain thoughts and feelings.
When we arrived at the camp reception, some of the staff of the Centraal Orgaan opvang asielzoekers (COA) were there to receive us. While we streamed out of the bus, we noticed that the people who were already living there were looking at us intently, obviously hoping to find somebody from their own countries.
The COA took all of us to an information hall, where we were given information, instructions and basic necessary goods such as food, towels, blankets, bed sheets, pillow covers and hygiene items, and they assigned us rooms. One of the most important pieces of information that we received was about food, namely that it would be provided every morning between 10am and 12pm and that this would be the only distribution for the entire day. While we were moving towards our room with our heavy luggage in our hands and on our shoulders, we were really hit with the feeling of being displaced people.
We were assigned our room. Despite all the information given about the room and building, it was still difficult to find our exact room. After asking some people, we finally reached it. After seeing four beds, four cupboards, four chairs, a table and a fridge in our room, we understood immediately that this room was for only one family – our family! The accommodation arrangements were different from Ter Apel, which gave us a sense of joy, happiness, relief and privacy.
This room was situated on the ground floor and was neat, bright and airy. Our building was surrounded by plants, trees and grass, which we would come to realise produced mosquitoes in summer. Our room had two big windows, but without screens or curtains, so the mosquitoes could easily come inside, creating a problem for sleeping. Many times, we would wake up and kill the mosquitoes with our shoes. The other problem was that people could easily peek inside our room, and sometimes that disturbed our privacy. Therefore, in place of curtains, we hung the bed sheets on the windows. It gave us a sense that necessity truly is the mother of invention.
On the ground floor, there was one communal kitchen with four microwaves, but no cooker. We used to get frozen food every morning from the COA. The taste of the food was completely different from our tastes, but we still ate it, giving thanks to God and remembering those people in the world who don’t have anything to eat.
In our building, the toilets and bathrooms were also communal. During our stay, once a week some workers from a cleaning company would come to take care of the general cleanliness of the bathroom and kitchen, but it was not enough. Unfortunately, people were not using them (or maintaining them) how they were supposed to be, and the same situation occurred with the corridors and kitchen. For a couple of days, things were similar in that nobody was taking action towards cleanliness or keeping things in good order. All the people who were living there had nothing to do and were just eating and sleeping. Even the teenagers were living an inactive lifestyle, because their school did not begin until 13th October.
Several times, we discussed this bad situation regarding cleanliness within our family, and at last we came up with the idea of taking steps to address the problem. We thought of this place as our home and we wanted to take care of it and to keep the environment clean. We also remembered what Psalm 89:11 says: ‘The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth.’ We put this idea into practice and started cleaning, dividing the work among the four of us. One of us went to clean the bathrooms while the other three cleaned the toilet, corridor and kitchen.
Many people appreciated our work. We continued this for several days without asking for help from others. After a while, people started realising that they should also take part in this work of cleanliness. So, everybody was completely involved and, in the end, we made a roster and divided the work among all the people living in that building and it started to look neat and tidy.
Our small initiative of work and action made a specific contribution to the creation of a new and clean environment. This brought a change in the mindset of the people. All the residents started to see things with new eyes and to have a new approach. They started to look after things in a good way. Their response gave us strength and support to go further with other practical activities. By taking this small initiative, we learned to be practical and helpful.