From life-threatening refugee boats to canal cruises in Amsterdam

A Dutch artist rescued migrant ships in Lampedusa, turned them into canal boats and employed refugees to run tours.

A Dutch artist rescued migrant ships in Lampedusa, turned them into canal boats and employed refugees to run tours. [Daylife]
A Dutch artist rescued migrant ships in Lampedusa, turned them into canal boats and employed refugees to run tours. [Daylife]

Amsterdam, Netherlands – The narrow canals of Amsterdam are overloaded with purpose-built tourist boats but two stand out from the crowd. 

The tall red Alhadj Djumaa and its sister-boat, the smaller, blue-licked Hedir are conspicuous not only for their size but also their stories.

Both boats are, like their tour guides and captains, not from here. 

The Alhadj Djumaa, or Mr Friday as it is now known, was picked up in July 2013 by Italian authorities in the middle of the Mediterranean carrying 217 Eritreans and 282 Ethiopians to the Italian island of Lampedusa; the Hedir was picked up on the same route in August 2015.

Dutch artist Teun Castelein and founder of Lampedusa Cruises discovered the boats at the Italian island.

“There are so many boats there,” he says of the island where many arrive in search of a better life.

Several refugees have led the canal cruises in Amsterdam [Courtesy: Mediamatic]

Castelein brought the boats to Amsterdam and repurposed them to offer tours focusing on the city’s migrant heritage. 

Amsterdam has a long tradition as a refuge; over the centuries it has taken in large numbers of refugees fleeing religious persecution and war.

The tour’s narrative focuses on how migration stimulated the city’s rise to prominence in the Golden Age, as an increased workforce and influx of skills turned it into a powerhouse of trade and commerce.

The Netherlands continues to be a point of call for refugees; it took around 60,000 migrants and asylum-seekers in 2015 at the peak of the ongoing refugee crisis.

“In Amsterdam, you can be amazed where people come from,” says Tommy Hatim, a political refugee from Egypt and tour guide on the boats. “You can see all kinds of religions, cultures and traditions, it’s everywhere.” 

Like the Alhadj Djumaa, which also originated in Egypt, Hatim had a complicated journey to the Netherlands. He was a writer and activist in Cairo and worked at a TV station in the city; he also helped Syrian refugees who were flooding into the country in 2012. 

“One of my friends asked: ‘Why are you helping these refugees? They are taking our money, our houses, our jobs?’ So I told him, ‘Today I’m helping them maybe tomorrow I’ll be a refugee’.”

His prediction was realised when his life was threatened after helping the Muslim Brotherhood, the now outlawed organisation with links to Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president who was deposed by the military in 2013.

“I became a fugitive. I was kidnapped by the authorities in 2014 and tortured and investigated. Then they let me go but they wanted me to work as a spy,” he says.

Refusing to become an informer, Tommy fled and claimed asylum at Amsterdam airport. 

“Most people think I came by boat because I’m a refugee, but I came by airplane,” he says. He was in a detention centre for 11 months before being granted permission to stay. 

The boats of Lampedusa Cruises have become a tourist attraction [Courtesy: Mediamatic]

The boat tours, conducted mainly in English, have provided an opportunity for those who feel like outsiders to become a part of the city’s flourishing tourism industry. 

“I still remember the first tour I had,” says Hatim. “I wasn’t really confident with myself but last summer gave me a lot of confidence to do things. I believe if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.” 

The project has also become something of a launch pad: Hatim regularly speaks to children in schools about migration and refugees and he is still in touch with visitors who took the tour last summer, a Cambridge PhD student and an American professor among them. 

“Storytelling is a way of healing,” he says.

For some who took the perilous journey across the Mediterranean or Aegean seas to get to Europe, getting back on the water wasn’t easy.

But Yusuf, an asylum seeker from Somalia and captain on board, was more than happy to return to the water.

“For me, it feels like my old life,” he says. 

Refugee captains tell tourists their stories during canal cruises [Courtesy: Mediamatic]

Yusuf grew up on the south coast of Somalia and was a fisherman.

“I’ve been doing it since I was young,” he says.

As the captain, Yusuf concentrates on navigating the bustling canals as Tommy narrates, but in quieter moments he tells his story too. 

“When it’s not busy, then I can share with the people who I am and what I’ve been going through.” 

Yusuf left Somalia when his life was threatened and is waiting to hear if he can remain in the Netherlands. He emphasises the importance of the tour’s narrative in a city where over 170 different nationalities cohabit.

“We need to have someone to talk about the things migrant people have done in this beautiful city,” he says.

The Netherlands took in around 60,000 migrants and asylum-seekers in 2015 at the peak of the ongoing refugee crisis [Courtesy: Mediamatic]

The Alhadj Djumaa and Hedir have become tourist attractions themselves.

“Other tour boat companies often point us out,” says Castelein, the artist who rescued the migrant ships. 

Both boats are still waiting to be granted an official permit to stay on the canals and like those who have worked on deck, there is still uncertainty about their permanence in the country.

Once links between the fringes of two worlds, the boats are now seen by many as a pathway to integration and community within Europe. 

Those who worked on-board last year have gone onto a variety of different projects. One is doing a masters degree and Hatim and Yusuf are writing a play together about their experiences of being a refugee. 

“I start to feel like I belong here because I know the history of the city. I start to feel like it’s home,” says Tommy. “That’s important for refugees who are leaving their country and leaving their families to go to a new place. It can be terrible.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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