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Story Publication logo March 22, 2012

A Safe Haven in Holland

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Jamaica has the reputation of being one of the most violently anti-gay countries on earth. Male...

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Multiple Authors
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Entrance to former military base that is now a refugee camp in Bussum Zuid. Image by Micah Fink. The Netherlands, 2009.

Editor's note: This post was written in July 2009, but was not published in order to protect the safety of Simone's daughter who remained in Jamaica. Simone and her daughter have now been reunited.

I got an email from Simone a few weeks ago, letting me know that she had finally escaped from Jamaica and is now living in a Dutch refugee camp, located about half an hour south of Amsterdam.

I fly to Holland from New York to continue filming with her. Seven hours after leaving Newark Airport, I'm in Schiphol Airport. It's early in the morning as I buy a one-way ticket for the express train to Bussum Zuid, a small town southwest of Amsterdam.

Gazing out the train window, we speed past bucolic scenes of cows and sheep grazing, tidy farm houses with brown thatched roofs, and mile after mile of pale green fields planted in neat, seemingly endless rows.

It strikes me that the cool, orderly, Nordic landscape is a universe away from the tropical eruption of colors and humanity that defines life in Jamaica.

* * *

Shortly after I arrive in Bussum Zuid, Gabrielle Weiss, my camerawoman, appears. She has flown in from Spain, where she lives with her family. Simone meets us at our hotel. We are all happy to see each other and are soon aboard a local bus, heading to her new home.

Camp Crailo, the refugee camp where Simone is living, was once a military base and the approach is still lined with high wire fences topped with rows of sparkling barbed wire.

But the massive gates are open when we arrive and security is relaxed enough to allow two strangers carrying large blue equipment bags to enter the facility undeterred.

There are several hundred refugees living at Simone's camp—and they are allowed to come and go as they please. At the gate, there is a constant stream of people peddling on bikes and walking on foot, carrying bags from the local supermarkets and stores. There don't seem to be any restrictions—apart from a general lack of funds—to keep the occupants of the camp from exploring the country.

* * *

Simone lives on the first floor of "Building A," a blocky, institutional looking three-story brick building with long, echoing linoleum-lined hallways.

The facilities at the camp are rather Spartan. Simone's room is equipped with four narrow metal cots, a slender metal locker and a small refrigerator. There is little private space, and everyone shares public bathrooms and kitchen facilities located down the central hallway.

But the buildings are clean and open. Simone, who arrived with little more than the clothing on her back and a suitcase full of documents, is glad to be here.

Her crowded dorm room is a far cry from the empty house where she was hiding in Jamaica when we last filmed with her and her daughter. There she was isolated and under siege—afraid that the gunmen who shot her would find her and kill her and her daughter. Now, she is safe, living half a world away from Jamaica and its terrors. The only problem is that she had to leave her young daughter behind.

* * *

Simone shares a room with three other refugee women. She is the only English-speaker. The camp is a mini-United Nations that houses refugees from Somalia, Burkina-Faso, Ivory-Coast, Iran, Pakistan, Kenya, and now Jamaica.

Everyone has an earth-shaking story. They are all seeking refuge from some oppression in their homeland that has forced them to abandon their homes, their families, and the familiar contours of their lives to seek asylum half-way around the world.

Although everyone here has a shared history of trauma, people here rarely speak about the past. While a few may volunteer their stories, it's not considered polite to ask, I'm told. One woman told me this is because they fear their past will return to harm them if the details of their stories become known.

* * *

Living in this diverse cultural mixture is not so easy. Conflicts often arise, particularly over the shared kitchen facilities and the bathrooms.

Some of the people Simone now lives with had never seen—let alone used—flush plumbing before they arrived at the camp. She shows us the cartoonish poster hung on the wall in the bathroom that explains how to use the toilets—and how not to use the showers.

She says many of the Arabic men at the camp do not respect women. These men believe females should cover themselves from head to toe, and they seem at a loss when it comes to dealing with an outspoken lesbian from Jamaica. She also says that some of the women run away if they encounter her at night in a dark hallway.

Living at the camp has been quite an education, she says.

"This is my college," she says. Living here has exposed her to people and lifestyles that are new and seem quite strange.

* * *

Compared to many other governments, the Dutch are generous to people seeking asylum.

At Crailo, standard issue is a cot in a shared dorm room, a stipend of 55 Euros each week, free medical care, and the chance to study the Dutch language.

But no one I met seemed to know how long they will remain at the camp.

For some, a few months seem to serve before they are granted residency.

But several of the people I meet live in administrative limbo. One woman, a political refugee from central Africa, has been living at the camp for nearly two years while waiting to have her status "clarified."

When the process is completed, she will either be given a Dutch passport and allowed to stay in Holland or sent back to her country of origin—where she said she would likely be killed for "political reasons."

I also heard about, but didn't meet, a woman who was said to have lived at Camp Crailo for eight years—and was still waiting in limbo for her case to be resolved.

Gaining asylum is not so easy.

First you must submit your asylum case. Then there are months of paperwork and interrogations. If you are granted refugee status, you are given an apartment and allowed to study Dutch. Before refugees are allowed to work legally, they must pass a Dutch proficiency test showing they can read and speak fluently.

* * *

Simone, and the other people living at Camp Crailo, have managed the incredible logistical task of escaping their homeland and getting to the Netherlands. Now they wait—hoping that their applications for asylum will be accepted and they will be given the opportunity to begin a new life in this strange new country.

It is an anxious wait, as several people confide to me, because their lives hang in the balance.

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