‘Salaam alaikum’! Brabant native Maria shouted from her garden to her new Syrian neighbour. That short, friendly greeting turned out to be the start of a beautiful friendship. ‘More than that, actually: we’ve become family. Wim and I just gained four grandchildren.’
‘It’s like an open house here: Ahmad and Heba’s children drop in whenever they feel like it. Often that’s after school, because, of course, grandpa and grandma always have sweets in the house.’ Maria laughs. ‘They have a cup of tea, chat about school, jump on the trampoline in our garden…if Heba has lost her children, she immediately knows they’re with us. They usually stay for dinner too, especially when I make their favourite dish. Wim and I just gained four grandchildren.’
About six years ago, Maria saw her new Syrian neighbour working in his garden. She called out to him: ‘Salaam alaikum’! It was one of the few Arabic phrases she knew. What followed was a conversation conducted mainly through gestures, as neighbour Ahmad was still at the start of his integration and did not yet speak Dutch. But that did not stop him from inviting Maria and her husband Wim to his and his wife Heba’s home. That was the start of a longstanding friendship. ‘More than that’, Maria says, ‘we’ve become family’.
‘If my children had to flee the country, I would also like to know that there are people looking after them. As parents, you worry: What is going on over there? How are they doing in that unfamiliar country?’Maria
From arranging sport lessons for the children to translating school reports and government letters, Maria and Wim also supported the family in a practical sense that first year.
‘All those complicated letters… letters you hardly understand as a native Dutch speaker, let alone someone who doesn’t yet speak the language well. In that respect, refugees could really use a helping hand. Of course, there are agencies that help, but it’s still a barrier. Being able to just knock on our back door saved Ahmad and Heba a lot of trouble.’
Wim recalls how he once drove his car past a chilled, cycling Ahmad, the two oldest boys with soaking wet hair riding behind him. ‘Ahmad didn’t have a driving licence in those early years, so, in the dead of winter, he cycled 14 kilometres to and from the pool every week. “This won’t do”, I said, and then I suggested that we drive the children to swimming lessons in the future.’ Maria smiles at the memory. ‘“Grandma, did you bring my swimsuit?!”, Najm would shout loudly across the schoolyard when we picked him and his brother up for swimming lessons. It was obvious that he was keen to show his classmates that he, too, had a grandmother in the Netherlands.’
Maria and Wim are also now in close contact with the children’s ‘real’ grandparents in Syria. ‘I regularly text them a photo when we’re out and about with the kids’, Maria says. ‘If my children had to flee the country, I would also like to know that there are people looking after them. As parents, you worry: What is going on over there? How are they doing in that unfamiliar country?’
That was the start of a longstanding friendship. ‘More than that…we’ve become family’.Maria
From summer barbecues in the garden to shared holidays at the campsite, the lives of the two families have become increasingly intertwined. Maria and Wim also helped Ahmad start his own business. Maria: ‘Ahmad had been working in construction for a while, but I could see he wasn’t happy. I told him: “You can keep doing this, but maybe it would be better to find something you would really enjoy”.’
That turned out to be upholstering furniture, something that also was a better fit with Ahmad’s former work as a tailor. With Maria, Ahmad wrote his business plan, and Maria’s brother-in-law helped him set up a website. Maria: ‘We’re now a year on, and Ahmad’s business is doing very well. I am so proud of him. Of everyone actually, because the children are also doing well at school and have lots of friends. In a short time, they have all built a new life in the Netherlands. Hats off to them for that.’
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