Amsterdam, 16 July 2016
It’s a warm summer’s day when I ring the bell at a walk-up apartment close to Amsterdam’s RAI congress centre. Mia opens the door at the top of the steps and gives me a short guided tour. Her home doesn’t resemble my own grandma’s in any regard whatsoever, yet it reminds me of it. As if the homes of ladies of a certain age always share something in common.
Mia has been retired for several years, but she’s still very active. She does voluntary work and sits on the board of a housing project for senior citizens. At home she pursues her love for art, most recently concentrating on creating cartoons.
Mia brings out a drawing of herself as a five-year-old girl, as she chips little blocks of tarred wood from between the tram rails. It’s the starvation winter of 1944 and Mia’s parents sent her out to gather fuel for the emergency stove. The war has left deep traces in the memories of her childhood.
Nowadays nothing much has changed in the world. In Syria people in besieged districts fell the sparse trees in city parks and burn them as protection against the severe winter weather that can sometimes plague Syria. It is this similarity that is the root cause of my meeting with Mia.
Two years ago she happened to listen to Dagboek Syrië – Syria Diary – a radio programme in which my Syrian wife talked about daily life in the country ravaged by war. That weekday the programme was about Hassan, a young man who for months had been trapped in Yarmouk, a district of Damascus besieged by government troops.
The army was trying to starve the entrenched rebels and any remaining civilians. YouTube videos from the district showed emaciated elderly people and undernourished children. In order to survive the people were eating stray cats or watery soup made with herbs that they cultivated in little gardens on the roofs of their houses.
Hassan himself had been shot in the leg a few weeks earlier and therefore needed urgent medical attention, which wasn’t available in Yarmouk. They only way for him to leave the area was if he could manage to bribe corrupt government soldiers. The costs of such an operation: 800 euro.
When Mia heard about Hassan’s perilous situation on the radio she was transported back to her childhood, to the winter of ’44 when she gathered wood between the tram tracks. She decided almost immediately to donate the money needed to secure Hassan’s escape.
‘I know how it feels to be stuck in a war situation, I know what it means to be denied one’s freedom, and what it’s like to regain that freedom,’ is how Mia explains her motives. ‘When I heard Hassan’s story on the radio, I really wanted to help. And I had the money spare, so why not? Some people sacrifice themselves completely for others. I think that’s wonderful, but I’m not that type of person. But if I can do something from my armchair, then I’ll do it.’
And with success. Hassan managed to escape and has now left Syria. He now he has a asylum papers in Germany.
Mia leads me through a sliding door into a sitting room with one of those armchairs. The walls aren’t visible because of the bookcases that fill the room. I sit down, while Mia takes a place opposite me.
Mia’s beliefs about mercy and charity were shaped during her wartime years. In her parental home there was a clear-cut sense of right and wrong. ‘The resistance was right; the Germans were wrong,’ says Mia. ‘Friends and neighbours who joined the NSB – the National Socialist Movement of the Netherlands – were no longer welcome in our house.’
During the occupation, Mia’s father was a pediatrician with his own practice. At that time it was still the norm that the pediatrician made home visits. When the German occupier issued the decree that Jews could no longer practice as physicians, Mia’s father took over the practice from a colleague. He managed to get several children from that practice to safety.
Her father was in contact with the students who helped Jewish children to go into hiding. A police officer regularly leaked information about imminent operations to round up Jews for deportation. When her father learnt that a round-up was about to take place in a certain district, then in the morning he would cycle to the houses of his Jewish patients to warn them (doctors were the only civilians who were allowed to keep their bikes because of their profession). He told them that later on a student would pass by to whom they could entrust their children, if they wanted.
Acts of resistance aside, the family also considered day-to-day mercy and charity to be of paramount importance. If they managed to come by extra food from the countryside, then it was always shared with acquaintances who were also suffering from hunger.
Mia is proud of her parents. ‘I do realise that I was lucky, because I could just as easily have been born into an NSB family. I was shaped by the moral values of my parents, but in the end it’s about what you do with that yourself. You can’t inherit mercifulness.’
‘Hassan was a chance for me to do something good,’ Mia explains, while she pours the tea. ‘Mercifulness, such as that of the Samaritan, is selfless. Not a case of what’s right but from the heart, from person to person, as large as life. Because of the protected life that I’ve lead I don’t come across those situations. I also donate to the Dutch Council for Refugees and to Doctors Without Borders, but that feels more like a duty, something like: at least that’s over and done with. Those organizations are so massive and abstract, but this was really tangible and personal. Now I could help someone directly.’
Mia pauses for thought and then says: ‘You also never know exactly what those big agencies do with your money, or the level of rake-off.
‘But how did you know that your money would end up in the right place in this instance?’
‘I didn’t know that,’ Mia replies. ‘I was aware that the money would be used to bribe government officials, that it would disappear into the pockets of Assad’s men, and that they could buy new weapons with it. All well and good, but what use are such considerations for Hassan?’
Mia is right, of course. She had e-mailed my wife to ask whether the money would end up where it was supposed to. Sarah thought it would, but couldn’t guarantee it. Mia didn’t want to know anything more. ‘I’m suspicious by nature, but at some point in life I decided to pay no more attention to those feelings. Constantly distrusting everyone amounts to a negative attitude to life.’
According to Mia mercifulness is something essential for human beings, because it’s a means for people to realize their own humanity. ‘It’s important to do the right thing, because then you appeal to the good in yourself.’
Mia thinks for a moment and then adds: ‘Charity is of course not altruistic plain and simple. Helping someone else gives you a good feeling as well. That’s a pleasing side-effect that you shouldn’t be ashamed of.’
At the same time Mia thinks that it’s not right to flaunt it. Initially she didn’t want to draw any attention to her gift or appear in the media. ‘This is something between him and me.’
Mia is a member of a platform that is endeavouring to establish residential communities for senior citizens in the city. One group in Amsterdam had set its heart on a vacant property owned by the city council. The council was ready to make it available to them, but at the last moment the plans were thwarted. Because of the influx of refugees from Syria, the council was compelled to use all vacant properties to accommodate asylum seekers. Mia’s group could start its search afresh.
As I bid goodbye I ask Mia whether she would like to meet Hassan. Mia nods cautiously. ‘I’d like to know whether he’s doing well, but I don’t want him to think he has to meet me out of gratitude alone. It’s fine if he’s pleased, but he mustn’t feel that he owes me something.’
Mercy and charity almost always entail an unbalanced relationship between the giver and the receiver. A relationship of dependence and of superiority and inferiority.
Mia: ‘If you have more, then giving without feeling you’re superior is sometimes difficult,’ Mia explains. ‘But the other also has to be able to accept it without feeling inferior. With mercy and charity it’s not just about worthiness and dignity; it’s also about being of equal merit.’
With this last idea I took my leave. I’m curious what Hassan thinks of the idea of meeting Mia. Perhaps he has a solution for this difficult problem that is inextricably linked with mercifulness.
Schwerin, 3 August 2016
Die Bahn carries me from Rotterdam via Amersfoort and Hanover to the small city of Schwerin in eastern Germany, about two-and-a-half hours from the capital Berlin. It has about 90 thousand inhabitants, and in the summer it is especially popular with tourists who want to visit the picturesque castle on an island in the nearby lake.
As I get to the end of the platform, Hassan is waiting for me on the concourse. He embraces me as if we’ve known each other for years.
‘Don’t be surprised if someone gives us dirty looks,’ Hassan warns, as we are crossing the station forecourt. In the tram he regularly has angry looks cast in his direction at him or someone grumbles a ‘Kein Platz’ in passing. According to Hassan there are plenty of Nazis in Schwerin. ‘In any case more than in other places in Germany.’
By ‘Nazis’ Hassan means the inhabitants who would prefer to have no Syrian refugees in their city. Two days ago there was a demonstration in the centre against the arrival of the Syrian refugees. When counter-demonstrators made their voices heard a scuffle broke out. In the end the police had to get involved to keep the two groups apart.
Unlike western Germany, the former DDR is unfamiliar with large waves of immigration. For Schwerin the influx of Syrian refugees is a new phenomenon. And you come across them everywhere in this small city.
‘Ya hala!’ Hassan greets a man as he passes us by. ‘Kefak?’
It’s one of Hassan’s old neighbours from Damascus who as a refugee has also ended up in Schwerin. Pure coincidence, but there is something surrealistic about it.
Being a refugee is a family trait. Hassan’s grandpa and grandma originally come from Haifa, but after the declaration of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 they fled from the Israeli militias. They ended up in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk on the edge of Damascus. This is where Hassan’s father was born, and Hassan likewise.
Over the decades the Yarmouk refugee camp has been transformed from a huddle of tents into one of the most densely populated quarters of Damascus. During my sojourn there it looked like a normal residential district, but everyone in Damascus invariably refers to it as ‘the camp’.
Hassan was still just a child when his father died. His mother remarried, but Hassan’s grandparents didn’t think it was a good idea to go and live with his stepfather. For most of his youth Hassan was raised by his grandma, with whom he has a special bond.
‘My family was different to most of the others. My grandparents were fairly open and not religious. They thought the most important thing was for me to go and study.’
Hassan belongs to the third generation of Palestinians in Syria. He has lived, studied and worked in Syria all his life, but he has never had Syrian nationality. All he had was a residence permit as a Palestinian refugee. Hassan shows me his German identity card in the tram heading home. From Palestinian refugee in Syria to Syrian refugee in Germany. Things can turn out strangely.
The line’s last stop is where we alight. As I follow Hassan across a site with flats surrounded by parking spaces and trees, I hear the sounds of the Syrian dialect all around me. I begin to suspect that almost all the residents here are refugees. Hassan’s apartment is on the fifth floor of a sober building. Panting (there’s no lift here) I reach the door of his home, for which he received the keys just yesterday.
The description of ‘apartment’ is actually a bit rich for a closet of 25 square metres plus bathroom with a broken showerhead and dirty toilet. The floor is so filthy that Hassan warns me not to take my shoes off. All his possessions are still in sports bag spread around the flat, because he doesn’t have a cupboard yet. The only piece of furniture is a bed that is almost falling apart. He fetched it yesterday, so that I didn’t have to sleep on the floor.
Hassan’s Odyssey began in 2011.
During the initial protests against President Assad’s regime, Hassan found himself amongst the demonstrators. When the peaceful demonstrations tipped into armed resistance, Hassan joined the rebels in Yarmouk. They called themselves the Free Syrian Army, but in effect they were youths from the street and students, supplemented with soldiers who had deserted and members of Palestinian resistance organizations. After a few months they managed to gain control of the camp and drive out the regime.
Hassan didn’t fight actively on the front. He worked as a relief worker in field hospitals or he collected medicine for wounded fighters and civilian victims of the bombardments. He also shot videos of demonstrations, skirmishes or the destruction of his quarter caused by the army’s shelling and posted them on the internet. Sometimes he had guard duty. Only with a direct assault on Yarmouk would he have had no other choice than to take up arms. ‘We have to defend ourselves if the army and militias storm our neighbourhood,’ Hassan explains. ‘If we do nothing, then they’ll finish us off.’
I ask whether he killed anyone during that time.
‘Not intentionally,’ Hassan replies. ‘I’ve only shot from behind a wall without looking.’ He fires an imaginary salvo with his hands around the corner of the kitchen. ‘Whether I hit someone, I don’t know.’
Hassan has for that matter been in the position to eliminate government soldiers often enough. When he had a soldier in his sights from his hidden position on the frontline, a simple movement of his hand would have been enough to take his life. But Hassan never did that. ‘Why would I kill someone, if it’s not absolutely necessary. That soldier is just as much a victim of the war.’
It is the ultimate form of mercy: sparing the life of someone who in the same situation may well have pulled the trigger.
‘It’s not just about the life of that soldier,’ Hassan explains. ‘He also has a wife and children.’
The regime proved to be incapable of defeating the rebels in Yarmouk and therefore decided to smoke them out. The army besieged the district and in the summer of 2013 cut it off completely from the outside world. Every access road was guarded by a checkpoint, every shortcut was in the field of fire of snipers. Not even a mouse could get into or out of the area. ‘It was a prison,’ according to Hassan.
There was no electricity and grave food shortages arose, as well as a lack of medical supplies. People cultivated herbs on the roofs of their homes and were even forced to eat dogs and feral cats in order to stay alive. More than a hundred people died from malnutrition and dehydration during that period, primarily children and the elderly.
In December 2013 the situation worsened for Hassan. He was wounded when a grenade exploded right next to him. Three fragments pierced his forearm and others wounded his leg. His injuries were so serious that he needed urgent medical care, care that was no longer available in starved Yarmouk.
Hassan rolls up the sleeves of his sweater and reveals two large scars just above his wrist, a lasting reminder of the revolution.
Around the same time another threat arose. So-called Islamic State (IS) started to gain a foothold in Yarmouk and they don’t have much tolerance for types such as Hassan. Several of Hassan’s friends were eliminated in the months after the rise of IS. ‘I smoke, I drink, I don’t go to the mosque. For them I’m a non-believer, just like the regime.’
Hassan’s situation seemed hopeless until early 2014, when the regime made a proposal during negotiations with the rebels in Yarmouk. If 50 fighters were willing to surrender, then the army would lift the blockade and allow food and medicine through.
For Hassan it was the only opportunity to get out of Yarmouk alive. ‘In principle I didn’t want to leave at all, but staying longer was tantamount to suicide. And in this way I could in any case still help the people who were left behind.’
The arrangement stipulated that fighters had to surrender with their weapons, but Hassan did not possess his own gun. Nor did he want to take one from his brigade, because that meant one less weapon for his comrades-in-arms.
Fortunately Hassan knew a man who had links with the regime. For a sum of about 800 euro he could ensure that the regime would turn a blind eye if Hassan were to surrender without a weapon. But how could Hassan get hold of so much money when Yarmouk was completely sealed off from the outside world?
It was around this time that Mia heard about Hassan’s situation on the radio. She didn’t need to think long about donating the requisite 500 euro. Mia transferred the money to a bank account in Lebanon. From there the sum was transferred to a certain Osama, a good friend of Hassan from Damascus, via Western Union. Osama then took the money to Hassan’s contact, who paid it to the regime as a backhander.
A few nights later, Hassan gathered with four other men on the edge of Yarmouk. The whole plan had to be executed in secret, because if IS discovered that they were trying to escape the district they would undoubtedly be accused of treason and killed. Hassan was in contact with government soldiers on the far side of the frontline via walkie-talkie. After agreeing there would be no shooting, he traversed the no-man’s-land into the regime-controlled section of Damascus.
This did not mean that Hassan was a free man right away. For three months the security services placed him under house arrest in a building close to the front, before he was definitively released. Hassan was the only person in his group who had surrendered as a ‘civilian’, the other four as fighters with a weapon. After his release Hassan tried to make contact with them, but nobody has heard anything from them. He fears for the worst. In the end nothing came of the regime’s promise to allow an aid convoy into Yarmouk and raise the blockade.
For the coming months he lived with his family in a Damascus suburb, until he heard from a friend in Germany that the security forces still wanted rid of him as well. Hassan then decided to leave the country for good. Smugglers hid him in the back of a pick-up truck and ferried him to Turkey. He then bobbed around in a little boat to Greece, and from there he travelled onward to Germany. Now he’s sitting here in an apartment with no furniture and a broken shower.
Hassan goes and sits on the bed, with due care, and stares out of the window melancholically. ‘If I look outside, an uneasy feeling always creeps up on me. In Yarmouk there was just three metres to the window of my neighbour opposite. But here: an open plain, trees, sometimes a wild animal. It’s not like it fills me with fear, but I just can’t get used to it. Do you know what I mean?’
I say nothing.
‘I can’t describe what it feels like to be forced to leave the place where you’ve grown up. You might think that a different environment can be interesting, but that only applies if you choose to travel. It’s different if you’re forced to.’
I tentatively go and sit on the bed, in the hope that it doesn’t break the legs. It is now after midnight and high time for bed. It’s been a long time since I’ve slept next to a stranger in a single bed, but there’s no other option. Tired from the journey I fall asleep.
Schwerin, 4 August 2016
I jolt awake in a fright. What’s going on? A bomb? A suicide attack?
Hassan is lying next to me with his eyes open. He looks at me apologetically. ‘Did I scream?’
Still in shock, I reply: ‘It wasn’t too bad.’
Hassan gets up and walks to the kitchen to pour a glass of water. Thanks to what he experienced in Syria he has been suffering from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress for months. For nights on end he lay awake, and when he fell asleep he was beset by horrid dreams. A doctor prescribed sedatives. They work well, but Hassan had forgotten to take his medication yesterday evening. The upshot: a nightmare in which terrifying beasts pursued him and threatened to tear him apart, his memories of the war that haunt him.
The following morning, after a breakfast of tea, a croissant and a joint, we take the tram to the centre of Schwerin. A warehouse with second-hand furniture was recently opened in the building that houses the public library. People can hand in their old things here, so that the Syrian newcomers can take them away for a symbolic amount. A great initiative.
I would personally describe the furniture that’s available as rubbish, but with his limited financial resources Hassan has to make do. An additional problem is that every item of furniture would immediately fill his whole flat. Hassan eventually decides to wait a bit, as next week’s selection might be better.
Inspired, I try to purchase a vacuum cleaner for Hassan at the white goods store, but he’s too proud to accept my gift. ‘I want a vacuum cleaner without bags,’ or that was his argument. Even later he treated me to an ice cream, which we ate together on the steps in front of a fountain in the centre of town.
While I’m consuming a scoop of vanilla ice cream, I at last ask Hassan the question that is my reason for being here. ‘What did it mean for you when you heard that a woman in the Netherlands had transferred 500 euro to get you out of Yarmouk?’
Hassan reflects for a moment and then says: ‘It restored my faith in human goodness.’
‘Because you’d lost that?’
‘During my time in Yarmouk that faith had taken a few hard knocks. Sometimes I felt that nobody was interested in our fate, that the whole world had abandoned us. But if you hear something like that then that faith is restored. Something like: You see, there are still good people after all.’
I ask Hassan whether he is certain that this principle always works. Someone can devote his or her whole to others without ever getting something in return. Furthermore, Mia’s charity could just as easily have ended up helping someone who only thinks about himself.’
‘That’s possible, but that’s naturally not the intention,’ Hassan explains. ‘If you reach out a helping hand to someone in need then surely you also want that person to do the same for someone else?’
This is the theory of the Favour Bank that Paolo Coelho describes in his book The Zahir. By helping someone you amass credit, so that later, when you need it yourself, you can draw on that credit. However, the Favour Bank is more than just a balance between two people; it is a bank with a collective savings account, in which you can deposit charity, in the conviction that whoever draws from the credit will in turn help someone else, and so on. This builds a community of people who support each other, giver and receiver repeatedly switching position and feeling a shared responsibility. The Favour Bank is the solution for the problem of lopsided relations between giver and receiver. Here both are worthy and of equal merit.
When Hassan arrived in Germany he immediately put this theory into practice and has in turn sent money to his cousin in Lebanon, so that he could also head to Europe. In addition he does voluntary work for the Red Cross in Schwerin that takes care of Syrian refugees.
‘It’s just like life,’ is how Hassan endorses the theory. ‘It always carries on. There’s always somebody else who needs help.
A flock of sparrows has gathered in front of us and is gazing avidly at Hassan’s ice-cream cornet.
According to Hassan there is good and bad in every human being. He or she personally decides which side to draw on. ‘It’s full of Nazis here, but there are also really good people in Schwerin,’ says Hassan while he points to the election poster of a candidate for the Greens. ‘At the Red Cross they call that man Der Engel vom Hauptbahnhof – The Angel of Central Station.’
Hassan encountered this man himself when he had to interpret for the Red Cross. A Syrian family had just arrived at Schwerin’s railway station with no possessions. They had no choice but to sleep on the street. The Red Cross called ‘the angel’, who immediately headed for the station to pick up the family. They could stay at his house, for as long as necessary. He bought clothes for them and took them to the doctor.
‘And what would you want to say to Mia, if you were to see her?’ I ask Hassan.
Hassan falls quiet briefly and then says: ‘First of all I want to give her a big kiss. And then I don’t really know what I should say. Believe me, saying thank you very much doesn’t even match what I feel.’
When I’ve finished my ice cream, I conclude by asking Hassan about what dreams he holds for the future.
‘I hope to see my grandma once again,’ he answers with something sorrowful in his voice.
I look at Hassan. ‘You know that you can probably never go back to Syria?
Hassan breaks off a piece of his ice-cream cornet, crumbles it and scatters it among the sparrows, who steal the food from each other’s beaks.
‘I know that.’
Amsterdam, 10 December 2016
I find Hassan on a swivel chair in the Oude Kerk’s small office. There’s a bunch of roses lying on the table in front of him. He arrived by train from Schwerin yesterday evening, a journey that I’d undertaken last summer. The Oude Kerk Foundation has invited Hassan for a meeting with Mia in the context of a performance evening around the theme of mercy.
In the run-up to the trip Hassan was fairly nervous. He called me several times to ask about the hotel where he would sleep, and whether anyone knew which platform the train would leave from. For a newcomer a train journey calls for some considerable preparation, certainly when you can’t read the text on the departure boards and can’t understand the announcements.
The meeting with Mia will take place in the Koffieschenkerij, a small café that is attached to the opposite side of the church. As we are strolling through the nave of the church, which was once Catholic but is now Protestant, we bump into an elderly with a beret on her head. ‘We had an appointment today,’ she comments dryly.
It takes a couple of seconds before Hassan grasps that this is the Mia, but then he flings himself around her neck and presents the flowers. It’s a slightly odd moment. Mia and Hassan had probably imagined their encounter beforehand, but the reality is always different.
We go and sit in the Koffieschenkerij’s upper room. The attic-like space is furnished like a cosy living room: a comfortable sofa, a low table and in the corner a gramophone player from the 1950s. A waitress brings apple pie and fresh orange-ginger tea. Hassan is now taking German lessons, but his command of the language is not yet sufficient for a fluent conversation, so I serve as interpreter.
‘I’m very happy to see Mia,’ Hassan says. ‘I have a warm feeling inside, but it’s not easy to put that into words. It’s really strange. All the memories are flooding back and I’m still trying to comprehend everything that’s happened. From Yarmouk, to Schwerin, to Amsterdam. It’s almost unreal, as if it’s a film.’
I ask Hassan whether he had imagined what Mia would look like in advance.
Hassan thinks for a moment. ‘I had imagined her as an older woman, who closely resembles my grandma.’ He shows a photo on his phone of his grandma with a white headscarf, somewhere in Syria. ‘A pale skin, and soft, affectionate hands.’
It is telling that Hassan mirrors his benefactor against the woman he probably cares about most. Hassan’s father died when he was still a child. After his mother remarried the intention was that Hassan would live with them, but his grandma thought that situation was far from ideal, so Hassan grew up in the house of his grandparents.
‘And was it right?’
Hassan nods, so I pose the same question to Mia.
‘I’d expected him to have a beard, and short hair,’ she answers. ‘The standard appearance of an Arabic man.’
I look at Hassan’s long hair and his clean-shaven cheeks and can’t suppress a smile.
For the next hour Hassan and Mia share experiences and talk about the importance of mercy. About Mia’s motives, her feelings and doubts. Hassan shows the scar on his leg and talks about the operation he underwent in Germany in order to be able to walk somewhat decently. ‘Mia is the reason that my hope has been restored,’ says Hassan. ‘And with that hope I’m trying to help other people.’
As 10 o’clock approaches it’s time to go. Hassan and Mia swap telephone numbers and promise to remain in contact.
Hassan: ‘The most important thing is that I’ve been able to embrace Mia, and been able to tell her that I’m also trying to help other people. I hope that has given her a good feeling, a feeling of trust.’