Verhaal, 8 december 2022

'I’ve seen all the seasons go by in this container house'

After a horrific journey, Suzan and her three sons barely managed to reach Europe from Syria. Now, in the Netherlands, they are living in one of the country’s many emergency shelters and are trying to make the best of it. But the waiting and insecurity feel endless. 'I’m afraid my kids will never know what a normal life is.'

'Nobody knows how long we'll be here

Harsh fluorescent lights illuminate the common area in the grey, bare tent hall. Dozens of container homes stand in rows on either side of the colossal tent. One belongs to Suzan and her three children from Syria. Two bunk beds, lockers, a table and a refrigerator fill the few square metres that have been their home for almost ten months. 'It was winter when we came here and now the leaves have fallen from the trees again. And still no one knows how long we’ll be here.'

Suzan looks frail, but her voice is strong and her gaze determined. Loose blond hair frames a face brightened by a little bit of lipstick, and her fingers are decorated with tattoos. 'Every day I say to myself: "You are a strong woman and you have come a long way. Anything is possible."'



When she left Damascus in 2019, it had been years since she had felt safe in the city where she grew up. There were bombings every day, food was scarce, and the family could not take electricity and water for granted. Her children stopped going to school because of the danger. Suzan sold homemade snacks on the street to make ends meet, but the government fines that resulted were higher than her income. Then one day she sold her jewellery and left her homeland for good.

Suzan and her children tried to enter Greece from Turkey four times, but coast guard boats blocked the route, threatening to overturn her boat. Shots were fired. On a pitch black night, Suzan held her three-year-old son in the air and shouted in despair at the border police: 'Don’t you have children?' Upon their return to Turkey, she and her children were imprisoned. In her final, successful attempt to enter Greece, she walked through the wilderness for days with her toddler Amin on her back.

Sometimes I’m afraid they’ve forgotten us or will send us back to Greece


A life on hold

Suzan and her three sons now live in an emergency shelter. The children go to school, and Suzan starts her days cleaning the communal washrooms to earn €14 a week. Breakfast and lunch are provided and heated in microwaves in the main tent. One morning a week, she takes Dutch lessons at a nearby church. She sometimes takes the bus into town to pass the time. This is how the family has been stringing their days together for the last ten months.

Her future in the Netherlands still feels uncertain, Suzan says. 'My first interview with the immigration service was months ago. Sometimes I’m afraid they’ve forgotten us or will send us back to Greece. No one can tell me when it will be our turn. Our lives are on hold.' She does her best to avoid thinking about the past or her family’s uncertain future. 'When I’m alone, I always listen to music. I do everything I can to not feel my depression; otherwise, I’m afraid I’ll go crazy. I give myself small tasks like changing clothes or putting make-up on every day. But sometimes I crawl into my bed so my children won’t see me cry.'


Not a normal life

Her eldest son, Itachi (16), struggles with all the terrible memories. He has changed his name and never wants to hear about Syria again. Suzan: 'He prefers to stay in our room all day. He doesn’t connect with the other young people in the shelter.'

She is also worried about her youngest child, Amin (4). 'He’s been through so much in his young life. At night, he often wakes up screaming and crying, and he constantly seeks my proximity. I’m afraid my kids will never know what a normal life is.'

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