Tears in the Rain
Sailing with Refugees in the heart of Amsterdam
“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears… in… rain.” ―dying replicant Roy Batty in ‘Blade Runner’
In the Netherlands where I have been living for almost ten years now, we sail for joy. Especially when the sun decides to show up, even if it doesn’t warm us ―oh, don’t you ever get fooled by the shiny rays, this is the North, the inhabitants of these lands built on water sail, and sail, and sail on the canals of their cities and proclaim gezelligheid. I am usually only an observer of this collective joy, it is also easy when I only need to pop my head outside of my living-room window to do so. I joined an occasional touristic canal tour with visiting friends and family, but that was a lot less gezellig.
Sailing carries a lot more emotion for me. It is a utopic nostalgia in my mind. In my imagination, sailing brings me to new worlds, explorations, timeless journeys far away. I try to capture that inexistent experience that somehow turned into a feeling when I go to Hotel New York in Rotterdam, where I day-dream of myself boarding a huge vessel to cross the Atlantic. I do this knowing pretty well the many tragedies that have been lived on the thousands of ships that have crossed that ocean for centuries. And I didn’t need to go to l’Île de Gorée to feel horrified about our pasts. I live in a city that has partly been enriched through the slave trade (Dutch involvement in the Atlantic slave trade covers the 17th and 19th centuries). It is amazing the amount of horror we are capable of ignoring as we go on with our daily lives. Nevertheless, certain symbols stay with you. Like the Mediterranean Sea where I haven’t swum for years and where I don’t think I could ever swim again without thinking about the hundreds of people who lost their lives trying to reach the shores of Europe. What difference does it make that I swim in it or not you would say? Well, none, of course. People still die every day trying to cross that bloody sea.
Thankfully, there are many who “make it” to the European shores. But that’s only one small part of a long journey. Yesterday, I met four people who crossed the Mediterranean Sea on a refugee boat: Saad, Hashem, Wafaa and Musab. Their journey started in their home country Syria, taking them to Egypt or Turkey, then Greece or Italy, to finally arrive at the Netherlands. We were twelve in total (plus the crew) to have been invited to join a boat tour by Laura Pana, who set up her own foundation: migrationlab, to give the opportunity to people from different places and with a variety of experiences of moving across Europe and beyond, to meet, talk and learn from one another. The name “migrationlab” refers to a multilingual open workspace both virtual and physical, that explores migration issues and documents intercultural communication with the direct participation of migrants, refugees and local communities. This boat tour is one of the many activities Laura organises with migrationlab, and is called “Welcome to the Living Room”: the idea is to transform urban and public spaces into public living rooms where migrants, refugees and local communities in cities across Europe can gather. The living room creates a common space for all participants to exist and express themselves in a free and open manner. It was the first time that a migrationlab Living Room took place in a boat, and it wasn’t just any kind of boat.
We went on board of an Egyptian fisherman’s boat, named Mister Friday — based on its original name Alhadj Djumaa — Hadj is the pilgrimage to Mecca and every person who has completed it receives the title “Hadji”, and Djumaa means Friday, which is also sometimes a given name — like in Turkish for instance, spelled “Cuma”. Our boat, Mister Friday, had departed from Egypt on 25 July 2013 to reach Lampedusa. A day later, it was picked up by the Italian Coast Guard, with 282 refugees aboard (217 Eritreans and 65 Ethiopians). We were 14 on the boat, which is the maximum number of people allowed on a boat this size by Dutch law.
Saad, Hashem, Wafaa and Musab have all been travelling on a similar boat to arrive in Europe. The longest journey was the one of Wafaa, who came from Egypt with her parents. As she was telling me how the boat they took was bigger and that she couldn’t imagine 282 people fitting on this one, she recalled how perilous and nightmarish her journey was. Her eyes welled up. I couldn’t believe she had the courage to go on such a boat again after having lived such a traumatic experience. I couldn’t understand how any of them managed. Where was this strength coming from? I never had to flee any place in my life, let alone on a boat for days, without any food or water, squeezed among hundreds of helpless people trying to remain alive. There is no way I could ever relate to what they have been feeling as they stepped on Mister Friday, or what they have experienced on their journey from Syria. And I do sincerely hope I will never have to, nor will their children ever have to go through that again.
But here there were, on Mister Friday, happy, healthy, smiling…
They were on a boat again, with me, with us, and all they wanted was to spend some time with people who have been living in the Netherlands for longer than they did so we could exchange thoughts and laughter and food. They too deserve to experience Dutch gezelligheid. Why shouldn’t they? Just because they arrived as refugees doesn’t mean it is the only identity they will keep all their lives. Just like I am more than just the daughter of Turkish migrants, they are much more than “refugees”.
Of course it is important to use the right vocabulary when talking about people’s legal status in a country. Refugees and migrants go through a variety of different processes to receive a work and/or residency permit. I am not a lawyer and so I won’t dwell on such definitions. I am an individual on a boat with a woman who bears the same name as my high school best friend. We talk about many things: about Syria, about Turkey, about studying, about love. She met her fiancé Musab, who was also on the boat with us, in one of the first Centre’s they both arrived to. They fell in love, got engaged in December and they are getting married in July. Nothing fancy they say, while their families are still struggling back home, they can’t have big celebrations, but their engagement shows how enormous their heart and courage are. Love is hope. They do want to go on a honeymoon “somewhere in the sun” says Wafaa, “I miss the sun” she adds, looking up at the grey clouds. I told Wafaa I have been to Damascus in 2005, when a close friend of mine was living there. I loved Damascus and met some great people while I was there. I got to talk to Wafaa about her country through my own eyes and not through the horrific images we see every day in the media. I also told her about my best friend who has the same name as her. And with Hashem, we talked literature. He told me how much he loves the Brontë sisters and that he read The Old Man and the Sea before joining the boat tour. We also shared some of our dreams for the future: we all want to live a safe, healthy and happy life. Of course, their wounds will remain open for a very long time, as they all hope they can return to Syria one day, when the war is over.
Bearing in mind all the reality of the complex situation of each of these individuals, we still got to talk about many things other than war and death. We managed to transcend the labels because we are so much more than our initial identities. And also because it is the only way to leave the necessary space for our humanity to exist. We managed to turn an Egyptian fisherman’s boat who transported 282 refugees across the Mediterranean into one of the hundreds of boats sailing on the Amsterdam canals just for gezelligheid. As governments will continue to act as if history never happened, losing those moments “like tears in the rain”, people will transcend prejudices and all representations to just be together, and even if there still will be tears, those will be followed by joy — whether be it a wedding or a gezellig boat tour.