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 ‘De Jongerenhuiskamer’; A collective defiance to make life better

by Amanuel Mehari

It is around 03:00 p.m at this relatively tranquil location at the Derkinderenstraat 44, in the west of  Amsterdam. A bunch of youngsters, scattered in small groups around the entrance of the building, is a routine view you would see every Monday and Thursday. A bystander who looks at them from afar, may not have a clue that those people are in the midst of uncertainties. Notwithstanding, various circumstances conspired against them to get the residence permit to live in the Netherlands legally. Subsequently, they  have neither a place about which they can say ‘home’; nor do they have the right and access to the  basic necessities such as: education, health care or pocket money. A bright mind which they could utilise to learn and work has become a dwelling for stress and overthinking. Albeit their respective dismal story, they often cheer together and support each other emotionally.  Exchanging banters is typical of them. Furthermore, they share with each other  what they have. A real comradeship in rather treacherous circumstances. 

A moment later, everybody goes to the giant hall where they usually catch-up and do various activities. Selamawit (not her real name), one of the few girls who regularly come to the location; roams around the kitchen corner of the hall; to arrange the equipment for the Eritrean traditional coffee ceremony. In the meantime, her fellow women took their role to arrange the lunch. Selamawit, a shy but charming girl, has been in the Netherlands for three years. Her asylum request was rejected. As a result, she is obliged to wait until it is possible to make a new request. The black spots on both sides of her bright brown facial skin is visible. But, that does not hinder her from smiling with hope and optimism. She does not often look up, as she keeps herself busy with the coffee pot on a gas stove in front of her.

Despite her limited verbal interaction with the people surrounding her, the importance of Selamawit at the centre of the coffee ceremony is vital. This is due to the fact that the Eritrean coffee ceremony has a deeper meaning that goes beyond merely drinking coffee. It is a means of harmony, togetherness and  entertainment. In Eritrean culture, making coffee is supposed to be the responsibility of a woman. By this token, for the youngsters,  seeing Selamawit making coffee is a throwback to the old beautiful times, where their respective mothers or sisters used to  make coffee in a family time. “I am looking forward to the moment when all my problems vanish, and I begin a new chapter in my life,” she says, in her usual low tone voice.  “It has been such a difficult three years without residence permit and the pertaining rights. Despite my anxiety, I hope that God will make my problems end soon.” She summed up her immediate wish. This defiance gives her extra energy and patience. 

Although the “Jongeren Huiskamer” (roughly translated as Youngsters living room) may not be an entertainment site of the highest quality and with sufficient facilities; it has what it takes to give the youngsters pleasure and fun. A bigger portion of the hall is utilised by the youngsters as a football court. They often play; a quick pass game with four to five players. It is such an amazing view, as few of them are endowed with incredible footballing skills. One can imagine, ‘what if…..they have the privilege to nurture their talent at the right moment in their life?’ It is fair enough to say that some of them would have been decent footballers. The aura of excitement is visible on their face. They often make loud noises as they make quick runs, twists and turns to receive and pass the ball. It is even funny to see some of them shoot the ball so hard as if they are playing on a real football pitch. No wonder, that does not distract the employees in the location, to do their daily activities just near them. 

The table tennis at the corner, near the entrance to the hallway is also a valuable asset where the youngsters spare their time. They play rounds of games until the time comes when they should go to the places where they sleep at night. The very nature of table tennis is played with high mental concentration; enable them to shift away from their subduing circumstances temporarily. Beside this, it is also a source of great interaction and communication. The youngsters try their best to express themselves and make technical explanations about the game.

Now that the coffee and lunch are ready to be served; everybody is gathered and seated on the couches and chairs. At this moment, the sense of togetherness and empathy is even higher. One of them took the initiative to serve the food to the rest; with love. Selamawit called another youngster to distribute the coffee which is customary in a typical Eritrean household. That gives the togetherness extra spice and life. “TUUM…TUUM” (roughly translated as ‘so delicious coffee’) is redundant feedback from the ones who have their first sip from the tiny coffee mugs. That makes Selamawit smile expressing her gratitude in shyness. The coffee ceremony is finished after three to four rounds. It is around six o’clock. The events for the day are wrapped up. The youngsters have to leave the ‘jongeren huiskamer’ in a few minutes. Their spirit is uplifted at least for the time being. They leave the location together hoping that the next day will be a turnaround for them. They are hopeful that the long dark tunnel they came through will one day be illuminated.