Written by Robin Collinge

Maybe you spent the first few days of 2017 bleary eyed, refusing to move from the sofa - partly in denial that the warm, toasty, and overindulgent bubble you spent the festive period wrapped up inside was close to bursting, and partly because, let’s face it, you were worried about the small mountain of chocolate and cheese crumbs that might have been exposed should you chose to stand up. Or perhaps you sprung straight into a dry January pumped full of motivation and good intentions. Either way, it seems that the one thing we all had in common on 1 January was letting out a collective sigh of relief. Thank God 2016 is over. What a horrid year.

And although 2016 did relent on the tragedy front slightly less than its predecessors, for some people it was actually a year of hope. A year of big changes and fresh starts, of new homes in different countries, and most powerful of all, a year of incomparable humanity.

A warm welcome to refugees in Amsterdam

It was the year that saw record numbers of organisations in Amsterdam literally opening their doors to help out those in need. From the temporary residence project taking over the former Bijlmerbajes prison - which has now flourished into cultural hub Lola Lik - to Takecarebnb, the inspiring housing initiative for refugees; the city recognised a need to take action and help out the thousands of people seeking asylum in the Netherlands after being forced to flee their home countries.

Refugees and artists paint the former Bijlmerbajes prison. Image: Lola Lik

Following suit, the 2016 Unseen Photo Fair collaborated with  non-profit organisation Paradox to initiate Studio Aleppo. A pop-up photo studio, inspired by the work of Syrian photographer Issa Touma, Studio Aleppo provided a space for citizens of Amsterdam, old and new, to have their portrait taken. The photos were displayed in the Felix Meritis throughout Unseen but can also be found online at www.studioaleppo.eu. Paradox explains, ‘as a welcoming gesture, citizens of the city pay for two portraits: their own and a refugees’ portrait.’ By creating this space for encounters and integration, the project really contributed to a change in the perception of both refugees and locals.

Two of the participants who visited the Studio Aleppo at Unseen in September are Charlotte and Sameer, whose faces are now portrayed in Studio Aleppo’s exhibition.

The unlikely pair actually met through Takecarebnb when Sameer was temporarily housed with Charlotte and her partner Christophe. For those unfamiliar with Takecarebnb, it’s a non-profit housing organisation that pairs up refugees with host families. Built on the foundation of human relationships, the initiative aims to remove refugees from the isolation of AZC’s (asylum centres) and instead give them the opportunity to integrate with Dutch society. It’s a stay, Sameer says, that was a real lifeline for him.

Takecarebnb founders Maja Grcic and Jonna Klijnsma. Photo: An-Sofie Kasteleyn

Whilst each person had their individual portrait taken, the other described their experience of sharing a home through Takecarebnb. Charlotte and Sameer spoke to Takecarebnb volunteer Carmen Guillen, whose interview is shared below with Carmen's kind permission.

Charlotte on Sameer:

'I liked it very much,' she says sincerely. 'He still visits a lot as his time with us was cut short when he was assigned a house in Gouda'. She explains that both herself and Sameer have enjoyed having the feeling of family. 'It’s really important for him to have a house to return to, a base, a family, a doctor who knows him' these anchors are psychologically vital for someone who has had their home and base ripped away from them through war. It feels good to be grounded again.

What was it like having Sameer as a guest? 'It was easy because he was able to communicate very well, to express his fears and tell his story. In fact I was surprised just how easy it was to have him in our home, it has been a very enriching experience for both of us.' They cooked Syrian meals together, went to restaurants, and talked a lot. 'I didn’t know that much about Syria but through Sameer’s stories the country has become vivid and alive.'

This picture displayed in the Studio Aleppo exhibition includes Sameer’s story of the astonishing feat it took to reach the Netherlands in the first place. Despite this extraordinary show of strength Charlotte was struck by his gentleness. 'He is very soft-hearted and quite shy. It’s hard for him because he still has a mother and sister in Aleppo and he is scared for them every day.'

Charlotte and Sameer pose for a photo as part of Studio Aleppo at Unseen Photo Fair in 2016. Photo: Koos Breukel

Sameer on Charlotte: 

Just before Sameer met Charlotte he was at the point of giving up. 'You cannot imagine what Charlotte and Christophe have done for me. They have changed my life. I was so despairing I had decided to go back to Syria, back to war.'

Sameer’s story is unusual. Born in Syria to a Palestinian father, he was not given a Syrian passport, but instead carries an identity card emblazoned ‘stateless’. Despite his heritage, Sameer is very much Syrian; his face lights up with wonder when he describes his home country. 'It is a very ancient civilization with many beautiful buildings and rich landscapes.' He senses Syria very deeply in his psyche. 'For 35 years I drank that water, I ate that food. I have so many memories there. So many friends. I can’t sleep when I think of my country and family.'

'Being a refugee is hard. I didn’t choose to be Palestinian, I didn’t choose to be a refugee, I didn’t choose to leave my country, to leave my family, but I was left with no choice. It really helped to have someone to talk to about the situation, for the first time in a long time I felt that maybe in the future everything will be OK.'

Now Sameer has a house in Gouda, but he misses living with the family. Fortunately, they are still in touch. 'Last week I went with Charlotte to buy a winter coat. They gave me a key so that I can stay there if ever they go on holiday.' Charlotte and Christophe also helped Sameer find a job. 'It felt amazing, I don’t like living on an uitkering as it doesn’t make you feel good. But when you are on your way to work you feel as if everything changes in your heart. When you are on the train on the morning commute it makes you feel like other people.'

So, despite the overriding carnage, the last year was a one of true compassion for the city of Amsterdam as it welcomed the new additions to its eclectic melting pot of citizens with open arms. And now, as we discard the last of those empty Prosecco bottles, scraping the remnants of the weekend’s snowfall off our frozen bike locks, it seems 2016 wasn’t such a bad year after all…