I sat in the barbershop chair contemplating the reality of my receding hairline. Why not just let him do anything he wants with it? God knows I was seeking to avoid the dreaded ‘comb-over’ like the plague.
He, by the way, is Ali.
I had gone online to search for a barbershop to go to. Groningen has an astonishing number of barbershops and hair salons. Perhaps it’s because, as it appears to me, the average Dutch man has a thick crop of hair that he carries well into his maturing years. Or maybe it’s because of the swell of the student population and the thousands of co-eds that need to get their look ‘just right.’ Whatever the reason, here I was. I had picked this salon nearly at random. And since I had never been there before, when I registered online and was asked if I had a preference for a stylist, I clicked “none.” When I showed up for my 11:00 a.m. appointment, I was assigned to Ali.
Now Ali’s Dutch is excellent, but his English is a bit limited — although better than my Dutch. As a result, my communications with him about my desired hair treatment was necessarily simple. “Korte,” I said (short) and he got to work. Using his electric razor with an attachment, he set about thinning my hair on the sides of my head (my one repository of any volume) with gusto. I thought about saying “that’s short enough” but (a) I wasn’t sure how to express that in Dutch and (b) as I said, I had decided to go with the flow. I was going to let him style it as he thought best.
Our patchwork conversation started with my family’s year-long visit to the Netherlands and then to his story. Was he from Groningen, I asked? No, he was from Syria. Where, I asked? He said a small town of Al-Salamiyah, outside of Homs.
Homs – that’s the city that I remember from those ghastly pictures on CNN, where only the shells of the apartment buildings stood amidst piles of rubble. When did you leave? “Four years ago.” And then he described, as best he could in English, his escape from the brutality that is modern day Syria. He got out first and made his way to the Netherlands. Then his wife and two sons were able to follow.
As Ali talked, he persisted in his drive towards my scalp. And then he entered into the phase of careful touch ups with a pair of scissors – a few snips here, a few snips there. Then the surprise. He pulled out a butane cigarette lighter from his pocket. I reminded myself that I said I was going to roll with this. And before I could react, he put the lighter by my ear, lit it, and snapped the flame with his fingers as the flame singed away any hair around my ears. There were about 5 snaps per ear and the sizzle on my ear lobes nearly made me jump. Then, the lighter away, Ali splashed my neck and cheeks with a generous dollop of that classic barbershop aftershave a la Old Spice.
I appraised his work in the mirror. My hair was shorter than it had ever been in my life, save at birth, but he had done a great job! I paid at the register and thanked him for the cut. I had appreciated meeting him very much and felt as though we had made a connection, so I asked if I could take a picture with him before I left. He good-naturedly agreed.
Out on the sidewalk, I unlocked my bike and then made my way through the streets of Groningen on my way home. I passed shops, restaurants and the tower of the Martini Kerk. All along the way, my head was bathed in the unusual blend of smells from the Old Spice and the butane lighter. It was the aroma from the lighter that stood out most to me. It made it seem as if the smoke from Syria was following me.
Groningen has a long tradition of caring for those on the margins of life and welcoming the stranger. One can actually go on a walking tour of the numerous “gasthuises”– the alms houses or hospices that date from the 1200s – 1500s — that dot the city. These gasthuises were little courtyards ringed by small dwellings, typically located alongside a church, and welcomed the sick, the elderly and pilgrims.
The entry to St. Anthony’s Gashuis, established in 1517.
Inside the courtyard of St. Anthony’s, the dwellings looked out from all four sides of the quad.
Today these gasthuis dwellings are inhabited by ‘regular’ residents who add their own personal touches outside their homes. They need to tolerate tourists (like me!) walking about the courtyards and taking pictures.
The St. Geertruids Gasthuis, with it’s entry gate featured above, was established in 1405.
The courtyard of St. Geertruid’s is formed by a church on one side and dwellings on the other sides.
This tradition of caring for “the other” has extended into modern times. In 1988, a number of municipalities, from Birmingham, England, Berlin to Groningen (and others), held a series of meetings to develop a joint declaration on the treatment of refugees. These meetings rotated among the participating cities. The final declaration is known as the “Charter of Groningen” simply because it happened to be signed during a meeting that was held here. It reads like a document that could have been drafted in the past five years with the refugee crisis erupting in Syria, and touching other Middle Eastern countries and North Africa. The Charter says in part:
The Charter of Groningen
The situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe is worrying. There is a general tendency for European governments to close borders and stop the entry of refugees and asylum seekers . . . As local churches, parishes, municipalities and grassroots groups, we feel we are addressed in this situation on our Christian responsibility. It is precisely refugees and asylum seekers who show how much violence and injustice prevail in world society . . .
If we have good reason to believe that a refugee or asylum seeker who is threatened with expulsion is refused a just and humane treatment, or that decisions are made that pose a serious threat to the quality of his or her existence, then we commit ourselves to absorb and protect it until a solution acceptable to all parties has been found. We will not shy away from an open confrontation with our governments or direct actions of solidarity and protest if the situation so requires . . .
Also in 1988, with the support of churches in Groningen and across the Netherlands, the “INLIA” foundation was established to coordinate the work articulated in the Charter. Today, INLIA provides shelter and services for refugees who are in the process of seeking asylum in the Netherlands. One of its 12 facilities is the Amanpuri (above), a boat that is docked along a main canal in Groningen. In Sanskrit, Amanpuri means “Safe Castle”. The Amanpuri has 112 beds and is referred to as a “BBB Shelter” — “Bed, Bad, Brood” (Bed, Bath, Bread). That speaks to the basic support that INLIA provides to those in need. INLIA reports that in 2016 it provided 100,000 overnight stays across its 12 shelters in Groningen.
In June of 2018, the month before we arrived in Groningen, INLIA hosted a 30 year anniversary event to mark the signing of the Charter of Groningen, the founding of INLIA, and its three decades of work. As part of this commemoration, a boat named “Lampedusa” (above) sailed from the Mediterranean to Groningen. The boat was named after the Italian island, Lampedusa, which in recent years has been the reception point for over 300,000 refugees. Think of it as a Mediterranean Ellis Island. One doctor was honored for his work on the island. In his remarks to the assembly, he called for a more compassionate response from other European countries. He said: “We on Lampedusa are the door of Europe, but you are its house.”
I invite you to look closely at the picture above of the Lampedusa as it sailed past the Amanpuri in Groningen this past summer.
Then consider this depiction of desperation: That small boat sailed off from the north African coast on July 25, 2013 with a total of 282 refugees on board. That’s not a typo. Two hundred and eighty-two.
217 of the refugees were from Eritrea and 65 were from Ethiopia. Can we fathom what circumstances would compel parents with young children, anyone, to pile onto such an overcrowded vessel slated to head out into the open sea? It’s hard to imagine how the boat didn’t sink immediately.
On July 26th, the Italian Coast Guard picked up all 282 passengers.
During the 30th anniversary commemoration this summer, brief sailing tours were given aboard the Lampedusa as some of the refugees who made that 2013 voyage described what they experienced. This time, the anniversary event organizers limited the number of passengers to 40.
There are many organizations across Groningen and the Netherlands working to address the plight of refugees. One which I’ve recently come into contact with is called Groningen Verwelkomt (“Groningen Welcomes”). They provide a range of personal services to help refugees in Groningen get acclimated to daily life, including “Eat & Meet” and “Talk & Walk” gatherings. Both are occasions where Dutch citizens and other residents of the city are matched up with refugees (the “new Groningers”) over a table for a meal or on a walk around the town. These are introductions. Following the Eat and Meet and Talk and Walks, Groningen Verwelkomt creates “communities” of 10 — 5 new Groningers and 5 longer term residents. The communities meet in homes or around the city and help the refugees learn Dutch, Dutch culture and offer assistance with practical matters. The goal is to help the new Groningers feel welcome and at home. I’m assisting with a couple “Eat & Meet” gatherings in December and plan to get more involved in “the communities” in the months to come.
But I need to return to Ali.
I had wanted to follow up with him to talk more about his experience of escaping Syria and starting out anew in the Netherlands. So I went back to the barber shop and chatted with him when he went on break. In American fashion, perhaps, I approached it from a transactional perspective. “Would you be free sometime,” I asked in a disjointed blend of English and Dutch, “to join me for a coffee so we could chat a bit more about your experience?” I explained how I have been writing this blog and that I was thinking about focusing an entry on the experience of refugees in Groningen. Ali’s response was rooted in the great middle eastern tradition of hospitality. “No, you must come to my home. And bring your family.” “Ohhhhh,” I said, wondering (a) where he lived and (b) whether my wife and daughter would be up for that. As it turned out, Ali didn’t live in Groningen at all, but about 45 minutes south. So this would involve a train trip for us, but Ali said he could pick us up at the station. Ali also had a practical consideration to his invitation. His eldest son (aged 19) speaks excellent English and could help us in our conversation.
So I went home and spoke to my wife Janet and daughter Elyse about Ali’s invitation. They were willing to join the expedition — so I set a date with Ali. On the appointed day in early November, Janet, Elyse and I boarded a train from the Groningen station and made the trip south. After exiting the station, we saw Ali waiting for us. He drove us to his family’s apartment where we met his wife Souzan and his two sons Abbas and Kosai.
As we sat in the living room, Ali (and Abbas) told us the story of how Ali got out of Syria four years ago. It was a harrowing story of travel from Syria through Lebanon to Turkey and on to other European countries until he made his way to the Netherlands. After he received approval for his asylum, he was then able to send for his wife and two sons. “We’re lucky,” he said. “I had the means for us to get out. But there are many people who are trapped.”
As we continued our conversation, I noticed that Ali’s wife Souzan was starting to bring things out from the kitchen. Dinner was being served, and it would be quite a feast!
[Photo credit: Kosai!]
We enjoyed the delicious meal and spoke about our respective experiences of settling into Dutch life. I couldn’t help thinking of the contrast of our circumstances. We had chosen to leave our home country and come to the Netherlands to have an enriching experience for our family. And while we’ve had some bureaucratic challenges with getting resident documents, bank cards, etc., we’ve always had resources at our disposal, a roof over our heads, and people locally who were helping us out.
Ali and his family, like millions of others in these recent years, were fleeing for their lives. They left everything behind. I asked him if he hoped to return to Syria, and he said, “Never.”
After dinner, Ali and Abbas drove us back to the station and we boarded a train back to Groningen.
Two weeks ago, it was time for another haircut. I went on-line to schedule an appointment. This time, I had a stylist to request — Ali! It was good to be back in his chair and to see him again after his and his family’s wonderful hospitality. We chatted a bit, but but I still have a way to go with my Dutch. So Ali set to work. 30 minutes later, he was wrapping up another nice haircut. When the final touches came, I didn’t flinch when the the lighter came out. Then, ears warmed and closely trimmed, I stepped out of the chair. We bid each other a good day (“tot ziens!”) and will look forward to a time when his family comes to join us in our home for dinner.
I went back out to get on my bike and headed off. I had that same experience of smelling the aroma from his butane lighter as I biked along. But a soft rain was falling, and after a short while, the smell of the smoke went away.
For too many others caught in desperate places that we just read about, they can’t get away from it so easily.
[I wish to express my gratitude to Ali, his wife Souzan and sons Abbas and Kosai for opening their home to us, and allowing me to include parts of their story and photographs in this blog post.]