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Finding Laughter and Hope in Holland: A Visit With Roel, the Mentor

Last week, Play for Peace development officer Katrin Hünemörder visited with a special mentor at a refugee camp in Musselkanaal, Holland. Not only has he supported Play for Peace and brought it to the camp, but he’s done it with laughter and compassion that is contagious. 

It’s been almost a week since I last heard Roel’s laughter. But I know it will be with me for the rest of my life.

A week ago I traveled to Musselkanaal, Holland by train. It’s a six-hour trip from Berlin, where I now live, passing the green and flat landscapes of Lower Saxony and continuing across the German-Dutch border where no one checks your passport. The Europe I hear about in the news has an ugly face these days: shutting down its borders, mobilizing against immigrants, and debating whether or not drowning people on a boat deserve to be rescued. There is little to laugh about.

However, Roel always finds a reason to laugh. A mentor for the Play for Peace Club at the Musselkanaal refugee camp, he brought an entire welcome committee to the train station, where he picked me up. There was Rayan, the Play for Peace youth leader who used cooperative play at the Skaramangas refugee camp in Greece to make children smile again. There was Rana from Eritrea, who everyone calls Ms. Play for Peace because she never misses a meeting and leads the team and practice peace sessions with compassion and kindness. Then there’s Linda, Roel’s partner in crime in the camp, who supports all of his mischievous ideas. And Abner, who began cracking jokes in Spanish before he realized I could understand him. Abner escaped from the Venezuelan police force and is awaiting an answer about seeking asylum in the Netherlands.

Rayan, Abner, and Roel

Somewhere between the train station and a gorgeous little beach where we stopped for a picnic I heard Roel laugh for the first time, and I knew this was going to be a good visit. However, between practice peace sessions, training sessions, and meetings it was hard to find a moment to learn more about him. What I did find out is that Roel began working at the Musselkanaal refugee camp 25 years ago. While political conditions, laws, and regulations have changed a lot, the stories of the camp residents have not. They are stories of pain, escape, loss, war, and violence. But also stories of hope—of finding a safe place to stay and provide for a family, to live in peace.

Together with teammates like Linda, Roel has worked toward integrating the Musselkanaal refugees into the community—a small town stretched along the canal with just 8,000 inhabitants. Hosting a camp with 500 refugees is a big burden for a town of this size, and at first the residents of Musselkanaal were not happy. But Roel and his team developed projects to introduce the refugees to the community: he took volunteers from the camp to the local elderly home to help with gardening and cleaning, and later, once trust was built, to assist the people living there. Other volunteer teams started building projects, as well as gardening and cleaning projects in other parts of the community. The refugee volunteers had such an impact that when the government announced that the Musselkanaal refugee camp would close, those in the elderly home started a media campaign to keep it open. It didn’t help, however, as the camp will soon close and its residents will relocate to other camps in Holland.

When Rayan came to Musselkanaal from Greece and introduced Play for Peace, Roel was the first to support him with materials, space, advice and motivation. He helped Rayan find other youth to start Play for Peace in Musselkanaal, and was able to turn troubled souls around, motivating them to make a difference in their own lives and others. Roel knows everyone’s story and is compassionate, yet he’s strict with the young people in the camp. He speaks Dutch to them and encourages them to learn it, he expects everyone to be on time, and holds them accountable for their actions.

I did not need to ask Roel how much the youth in the Play for Peace club mean to him—nor did I have to ask the club how much Roel means to them. During my last night in Holland, a youth leader from Iran came to me and told me that Roel is like a father to him. He was worried because when the camp closes, he will be sent away from Roel and the club that provides stability, friendship, and acceptance.

After Musselkanaal closes, Roel will take Play for Peace with him to another refugee camp in Ter Apel, just 15 minutes from Musselkanaal. He and Linda will work there and Rayan, Rana, and the others have already committed to supporting the new club.

When Roel took me to the train station after my visit, he was already talking about new volunteer projects. Last year he was awarded Employee of the Year within the Dutch central organization for asylum seekers. When I asked him what his actual job title was, he laughed loudly once more. And then I understood why—he told me that he is employed as the camp’s janitor.