From refugee to volunteer

From refugee to volunteer

Voor de Nederlandse versie, klik hier.

Just imagine. You live in a beautiful country; the weather is nice, it has a rich history and lovely old architecture. Your father and grandfather built their families and business there, you went to college and have a good job. 3 years later your country is broken to pieces, you have to miss your entire family and you are an asylym seeker in Ridderkerk, the Netherlands. After wandering through a whopping 16 different whereabouts you are back at the boot landing sites in Greece. Today I tell the story of Ibrahem Khaola (27) – volunteer at the Dutch Boat Refugee Foundation. 


Damascus – Syria

Ibrahem Khaola is born in Syria in 1988. He has an older sister named Alaa and a younger sister called Sara. He lives with both his parents in Damascus. His father owns a stone factory and has a rich life; plenty of money for all they need, a good family and a quiet life. Ibrahim earned a degree in electrical engineering at a community college, plays soccer twice a week and visits his family daily. But unlike his father he is not completely happy with his life.


Like many youngsters in 2010 he own a smartphone and reads about the world around him. He notices things go a little different in Syria; there are no trains, no subways and the power is held by the same family for the last 40 years. In March 2011 he decides to organize a demonstration for democracy. The protests are hosted by the university, mosque or facebook networks. His father warns him; “Don’t do it, it is better for everyone.” They continued to hand out pamphlets with slogans like; no dictatorship, no Bashar al-Assad, freedom.


The devious dictator reacts with a ban on assembly. al-Assad decides to start using tear-gas and arrests the youth. 90% of the arrested are never to be seen again, only a tiny 10% is ever released. They serve as a terrible warning to others. One of Ibrahems friends undergoes this fate and tells his horrible story. He was left standing on one leg for an entire week, hands bound above his head. He did not have any food or water untill he figured that one hour of beating would result in one cup of water. He barely survived.


To avoid futher arrests the demonstations become shorter and less predictable. They spend 10 minutes protesting in one area and cover the entire place with posters. Because of this technique, al-Assad loses even more power and the new revolution gains status. Still Ibrahem had never heard any weapon being fired yet, but this changed quickly. The police started shooting and there were no safe places anymore for the protesters. Once hit the hospital was out of the question, and clandestine surgery was performed in dimly lit rooms by friendly doctors. What Ibrahem stresses the most is the complete inbalance and unfairness; it is weapons vs. freedom.


The countryside starts taking up arms and the Free Army is born. They buy their weapons from corrupt army officials. The very same power they fight is supplying their enemies for extra cash. The resistance grows stronger, revenge is a big theme in the Arab culture and by then everyone has been personally hurt by losses. Grandpas, sisters and boys nextdoor start fighting as well. al-Assad has gained another problem; soldiers refuse to shoot their own friends. He responds by sending them to other cities. Homs’ soldiers in Damascus, Damscus’ soldiers in Aleppo, etc. Many of them through put down their weapons and flee in response. Bashar al-Assad sends tanks into the cities; it is war.


For Ibrahem it is no longer safe to travel to work; the roads have turned into battlefields. He has two options; fight or flee. He says; “Weapons, that is just not me.” and shakes his head while telling this part. He escapes Syria on January 12th 2013 with his cousin Osama and his boss, through Beirut to Istanbul. He leaves all what is dear to him and his beloved country is broken.


Istanbul – Turkey

In Turkey the boys meet a real estate agent on their very first day; he arranges for a place to live and has a job for them. Being illegal Ibrahem ends up at a bakery where is heavily exploited by his new boss. For 400$ a month, he works 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. He barely manages to save any money and dreams of a day off. When I ask him why he wouldn’t apply for asylum there and try to find work legally his reply is simple. Turkey has no legal procedure to stay in the country, only endless camps with tents, no food and no work. 


After he manages to pick up a few English words life gets a little easier. He finds a new job making furniture; same hours, same pay but only 5 days of work a week. After working non-stop for 3 months he finally sees a little of Istanbul. He speaks fondly of its inhabitants. After the Sugar Festival his kitchen is filled with dishes of complete strangers, caring neighbours he had never met before. 


Another 3 months pass by and he manages to get an even better job; for 1000$ a month he works construction; same hours still. Finally he can start thinking about his future. He wants to pick up studying and get a job which involves a fair treatment, both impossible for him in Turkey. His friends want to go to Egypt or Algeria but Ibrahem fears their wars. He decides to approach a smuggler an takes a bus to Izmir to board a boat to Europe.


Ikarea, Samos and Athens – Greece

With 45 persons he boards a boat which is obviously inadequate. He tells his mother he is going by car to stop her from worrying. He leaves all his money in Istanbul with his friends – it would be a shame if it sank alongside him. He does have a life jacket, but he hasn’t a clue if it is a real one. Like almost all of the refugees, he has heard about the terrors of the crossings, but those story just don’t cut it. The steersman is a refugee who has never seen a boat before in his life. He followed a little light and drifted way off course. 9 hours later the group arrived on the island of Ikarea, Greece. They are transported to the island of Samos by the authorities. 


All 45 of them are lined up in the Samos’ police station. Ibrahem is number 14. He has to hand over all dangerous goods but all he carries are 50 euros, one pair of boxers, a shawl, a necklace his little sister gave him and a bottle of his mother’s perfume. His necklace is deposited and the perfume thrown out. He protests; it is the only memory of his mother he has left. The officer laughs at him and says he does not care. 


The following three weeks the group is detained without any contact with the outside world. His cousin Osama calls his mother daily and lies about just talking to Ibrahem and how he is doing just fine. Nobody knows if he is still alive. In jail all 45 refugees are forces to enter the cantine through a window every single day. You have entered Greece through a window, now you must do it to get food. There was a perfectly fine door right next to it but even the children and elderly were forbidden from using it. He tells me he wanted to bite the police and I want to join him. 


All of sudden they are released and receive a paper which grants them access to Greece for 6 months. Ibrahem has zero intention of staying in this country and buys a ferry ticket to Athens for 44 euros. With only 6 euros in his pocket and the Western Union offices closed he has no other option but to sleep on the streets. The next day he is able to pick up his money and sleep in a hotel.


All the while Europe has tightened many of its borders and there are no legal options for him to carry on North. A smuggler offers to take him to Germany for 4000 euros, but he does not have the money. He hears about fake Italian identification papers and decides to fly to Italy. Obtaining the ID card is peanuts; you step into a certain cafe and a Algerian lady approaches you. 80 euros and one day later you are Italian, on paper at least. 


Ibrahem books a plane ticket and tries to get on the very next flight. Customs is specialized in cases like his and immediately spots him. After seeing his ID the officer starts rambling in Italian and Ibrahem knows he is lost. His ID is ripped and he is sent back emptyhanded. He repeats this process another 3 times and gets more and more disappointed.


The fifth time he lingers over the optimal strategy all week. He gel-spikes his hair, slaps on a magnet earring and carries a book under his arm. He walks towards the customs officers with full self-confidence and it works. In the airplane he straps himself in straight away; no one is gonna stop him now. He is beyond exicted. 


Milan, Paris and Amsterdam – Italy, France and the Netherlands

In Milan Ibrahem plans on moving on quickly. He buys a train ticket to Paris and starts overthinking his final destination. It became clear to him very sudden. When thinking of the Netherlands he pictures cheese, milk and windmills and he was crazy about windmills. He bought a ticket to Amsterdam and arrived at Central Station at 11 at night. 


Without having any sense of direction he wandered the streets of Amsterdam. He smells strange odours and feels very happy, almost like he is flying. He does not remember how long he spends walking but he ends up at a police station applying for asylum.


Ter Apel, Oudhuizen, Wageningen, Arnhem, Dronten, Ridderkerk – the Netherlands

With a trainticket to Ter Apel in his pocket he starts his journey in the Netherlands. He is sent to 5 different asylum centres. Six months after his adventures on a boat he finally lands a proper home in Ridderkerk. The first year he is lonely and struggles to connect. He studies the Dutch language and walks around the village.


One night he sees some boys and girls building houses of cardboard on the streets. It turns out to be the ‘night without a roof’, a demonstation against homelessness. Because he knows what it is like to sleep on the streets he joins in and sleeps on the street for one more night. He get to know some of the people and they invite him to their hangout place. He joins them for soccer and makes his first friends, including his good friend Rik. Rik, his mother and her sister make plans on volunteering in Greece and invite Ibrahem to join them, he could act as an interpretor. 


Lesvos – Greece

Ibrahem is back where he once used to be, but has moved on in so many ways. Here he is known as happy face – he is always smiling and has conquered everyone’s hearts. He is so happy to help the refugees but feels sad a the same time for his country and his people. He is very open about his story and adds that he has another 10% he is not sharing. I won’t aks him about it.


Ibrahem’s future looks bright. His Dutch is amazing and he is up for a final exam soon. If he passes he is eledgible for starting a next level Electical Engineering course and will finally start studying windmills. He misses his mother dearly and hopes to obtain a real passport soon to visit her. He want everyone to read his story. His biggest dream is becoming a famous Ridderkerker. 





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