Former Dutch prison helps asylum-seekers fit in

Former Dutch prison helps asylum-seekers fit in

In Syria, Mishleen Kafa was terrified when her mother went out shopping — that she would never come back or that someone would kill Mishleen and her brother while they were alone in their apartment.

Now the 10-year-old’s home is a former Dutch prison, but she’s much happier than in Damascus.

“I play all the time, I have many friends and I feel safe, I’m so happy that we are in the Netherlands,” she said. “I go to school, am learning Dutch, I know how to roller-skate and I have a Dutch friend called Eva whom I met in a church during a Sunday mass. I want to grow up here and become an eye doctor.”

In this Friday, July 7, 2017 photo, refugees and migrants play football at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

She and her family are among about 600 people living in the Bijlmerbajes prison complex in the southeast part of Amsterdam. Most have fled war, discrimination or poverty in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea.

The influx has slowed — from 58,900 asylum applications at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015 to 31,600 in 2016, according to the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service — but people are still coming.

Meanwhile, with crime declining in the Netherlands, the country is looking at new ways to fill its prisons. The government has allowed Belgium and Norway to put their prisoners in empty cells and several Dutch prisons have been temporarily pressed into service as asylum-seeker centers.

In this Saturday, July 22, 2017 photo, Afghan refugee Zafar Sahil, 22, exercises in a yard at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In the Bijlmerbajes complex, four of six towers are being used to house refugees and migrants. Most already have permission to stay in the Netherlands but are waiting for housing. Meanwhile, they participate in activities designed to help them integrate into Dutch society, said Menno Schot, who runs the center.

“We do our best to make the residents, new and old, feel part of a community as we are their guide in Holland,” Schot said. “We often hear from residents who moved to their homes that they miss the days they had at the Bijlmerbajes.”

Nadia Gattas, an 82-year-old Syrian refugee whose home in Deir el-Zour, Syria, was destroyed, can’t wait to move to a permanent home. She praised the COA, the Dutch government agency responsible for housing asylum-seekers.

In this Thursday, July 13, 2017 photo, Ethiopian migrant Mako Husa, 40, looks out from a window of a corridor at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

“Regularly I visit doctors and feel safe and happy to be surrounded by my sons and grandchildren,” she said. “I miss my home in Deir el-Zour so much, however if we remained there we would have died.”

COA board member Janet Helder said it’s important that the COA not just shelter people, but also provide language courses and help them get to know Dutch society and the job market.

“We believe that a fast integration and participation within the Dutch society is so important for a great future in the Netherlands,” she said.

In this Saturday, July 29, 2017 photo, Angel John, 25, right, a migrant from Sierra Leone, cleans the ground in front of his room, while a Filipino migrant, bottom left, sits by the doorway of his room at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Zafar Sahil, who fled violence in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2015, was housed in another former Dutch prison before being moved to Bijlmerbajes. He was separated from his mother and younger brother in Iran as they tried to reach Turkey and he still isn’t sure what happened to them. He said exercise and a positive attitude help him get through the days as he waits to find out if he will be granted residency.

“I never felt I am in a prison,” he said. “It’s the opposite — I made many new friends from several countries and met many neighboring Dutch people who visited us and I was invited to their places and they helped us to understand the Dutch culture.”

In this Monday, June 26, 2017 photo, Meza Negadtu, 29, a migrant from Eritrea, prays inside her room at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Wednesday, July 26, 2017 photo, Bacardi Zouberou, 25, a migrant from Cameroon, sits in a corridor opposite his room at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Wednesday, July 19, 2017 photo, Syrian refugee girls, from left, Shahd Alamar, 8, Lana Alkhawaja, 9, Maya Alamar, 4, holding balloons, Amal Sakkal, 8, and Hala Alhalaby, 8, play in a corridor known as Kalverstraat, referring to a busy shopping street in Amsterdam, at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Tuesday, June 27, 2017 photo, Mariam Traore, an 8-month-year-old migrant from Ivory Coast, moves on a chair near her mother's room at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Monday, June 26, 2017 photo, a Syrian refugee man and his son smoke a waterpipe, or shisha, in a yard of the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Thursday, July 6, 2017 photo, migrants carry a bag while walking back to their room at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Sunday, July 9, 2017 photo, Iranian migrant Adel Nazari, 32, trims his beard in his room at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Wednesday, June 28, 2017 photo, refugee Hani Nashed, 53, from Aleppo, Syria, offers prayers while his young neighbour Lith Mashhadi, 3, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo, peeks on, at Hani's room in the former prison of Bijlmerbajes, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Tuesday, June 27, 2017 photo, 20-month-old Naya Mahmoud, a refugee from Aleppo, Syria, sleeps in a crib inside her family's room at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Friday, June 30, 2017 photo, refugee Sandi Yazji, 5, from al-Hasaka, Syria, holds a mobile phone while standing inside her room at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Monday, June 26, 2017 photo, Ugandan migrant, Mariam Nebas, 31, holds her 5-month-old son Imran at her room in the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Friday, July 7, 2017 photo, Syrian refugee Ahmad Alshebly, 25, left, checks his mobile phone while Iranian migrant Hussein Azari, 25, is having a haircut by Iranian migrant Mohammed, 33, in a room at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Wednesday, July 12, 2017 photo, an elderly Iraqi refugee man walks back to his room through a corridor of the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Friday, June 30, 2017 photo, elderly refugee Nadia Gattas, 82, from Deir el-Zour, Syria, sits by a doorway at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Thursday, June 29, 2017 photo, refugee Sondos Alnaji, 17, from Damascus, Syria, hangs her laundry outside her room at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Friday, July 28, 2017 photo, Syrian refugee girls, Mishleen Samir, 10, right, from Damascus, and her friend Claire Alzain, 10, from Damascus, run after each other while playing in a yard at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Monday, June 26, 2017 photo, refugee brothers from Baniyas, Syria, from right, Izzeldein Moustafa, 6, Abdulrahman, 10, Ahmad, 12 and Amir, 8, play table foosball in a corridor known as Kalverstraat, referring to a busy shopping street in Amsterdam, at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Thursday, July 20, 2017 photo, a group of Syrian refugee girls enjoy a swing ride in a yard at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Monday, July 3, 2017 photo, Aimable Nasbimana, 37, right, a migrant from Burundi, teaches his Congolese friend Prosper Baseka, 37, how to ride a bicycle in a yard at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Sunday, July 16, 2017 photo, Rawaiz Bhatti, 26, a migrant from Peshawar, Pakistan, plays guitar and sings in his room at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Sunday, July 9, 2017 photo, Eritrean migrant Ksanet Goitom, 23, points at pictures that she brought with her from Eritrea showing family members and friends, displayed at her room in the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Friday, June 30, 2017 photo, refugee Nadia Gattas, 82, from Deir el-Zour, Syria, right, lies on a bed in her room in the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Friday, July 7, 2017 photo, Eritrean migrant Solomun Drat, 7, sleeps on a bed at his family's room in the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Tuesday, July 18, 2017 photo, refugee Amal Sakkal, 8, from Damascus, Syria, plays at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)


Text from the AP news story, AP PHOTOS: Former Dutch prison helps asylum-seekers fit in, by Muhammed Muheisen.

Muhammed Muheisen is The Associated Press’ chief photographer for the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.

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