Last weekend I took my children, ages 2, 3 and 4, to
a former prison in our city of Haarlem, the Netherlands. Volunteers had invited
the community there to decorate the outside of the building and its surrounding
sidewalks with colorful chalk. This was to welcome the 300 Syrians now staying
there, after fleeing the war in their country.
It was a simple gesture but an amazing experience:
people unable to understand each other's languages extended greetings, shook
hands, shared cigarettes. Adults and children drew pictures and wrote messages
of peace and welcome in English, Dutch and Arabic.
The atmosphere was not one of charity on one side and
gratitude on the other, but of coming together, of optimism and hope. It was,
considering the circumstances, upbeat and fun.
My 3-year-old daughter, who has never been shy,
quickly gravitated toward a young man and, despite her lack of Arabic and his
of English or Dutch, introduced herself. They began to draw together on the
sidewalk and stayed that way for some time, in their own chalk-dusted world.
The man, Mohammed Auilo, 25, has lived in Haarlem for
a week. He was forced to escape Syria rather than face mandatory military
service. It meant leaving behind his mother, sisters and 12-year-old brother,
and a life he'd previously loved.
I naively ask what he can do to help his family now. He looks at me blankly. "Nothing," he says. "Hope."
After being hidden in a car and taken from his house,
he was among 50 people—including women and children—who climbed onto a boat
built for 20 and headed for Turkey.
He knew the risks—he had heard the stories of people
in similar situations drowning. And yet, he had no choice. "Many of us did
not have life jackets," he explained to me, with the help of an
interpreter, "and knew if we ended up in the water, we would die."
He survived the boat journey from Syria to Turkey and
on to Greece. From there, he walked to Macedonia, and then he was able to
travel by train to Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany before arriving in the
It's unfathomable to me to have to risk my life and
leave my family in such circumstances, and to begin all over again on my own in
a new country. It's so unimaginable that I found myself repeating, "I
can't imagine, I can't imagine," and reminding myself, as he scribbled
with my toddler, that until recently, neither could he.
He tells me that a year ago, his life was perfectly
normal, and that people did not want to leave Syria then. He worked as a pizza
baker while living with his mother and two of his six siblings. Now, just
communicating with his family is difficult.
"It's not hard from my side," he says.
"I go to the library and there is Internet. But in Syria it is never
guaranteed." And news from home is often less than comforting. "Our
home has been bombed twice since I left," he says.
I naively ask what he can do to help his family now.
He looks at me blankly. "Nothing," he says. "Hope."
I hear this and feel grateful that I am able to be
with and protect my family, and then immediately feel disheartened that such a
basic human right should be a privilege.
He says he is grateful to the people of the Netherlands and that saying "thank you" doesn't feel adequate.
My children have no understanding of what is happening
in Syria, of course, other than that some people had to leave their home
because it was no longer safe. And to my daughter, Mohammed is just a nice guy
to color with.
But I'd like them to have some understanding that we have
a responsibility to help others when we can. Even the smallest gestures, like
chalk on a sidewalk, can bring people together and lessen their anxiety. That feels
like the most important lesson they can draw from this.
Mohammed has shelter for now but still has a long
uncertain road ahead—and a lot of pain to carry. And yet I'm in awe of his
friendliness, perseverance, drive and optimism.