Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Afterthoughts and Details of My Visit to Humanity House

Prior to my return to Amsterdam to prepare for my actual purpose of being in The Netherlands, I decided to grab a coffee and drop my items* at central station. There was still one place I wanted to check out before I left The Hague – Humanity House.

Many of you probably know the history of this city. For those who don’t, it’s known for being the international city of peace and justice. The International Courts (Justice and Criminal Courts) are located in the city, along with one of the UN’s largest offices. So, finding a place called Humanity House on the tourist map intrigued me.

When I arrived at the museum, I was given a quick rundown of the operation. First, there were two exhibits – one on the process of refugees/asylum seekers in the country, and the other on the impacts of violence in the Ukraine. The former was quite eye opening, as it showed how difficult it is to gain entrance to The Netherlands (a country that is also known for being quite open to taking in those seeking a new home), and even more so the challenges and realities of those who are denied asylum. It also features several pieces of artwork and photography, which further demonstrate these hardships. The latter was made up of a dozen or so photographs featuring quotes from the stories of those captured in each image. I must say, some of them were quite difficult to take in.

This is from the exhibit on the asylum process, and the one piece that really had an impact
on me. This is a single mattress filled with stuffed animals that people send thinking they
will be of use. Just another point at how unbalanced our priorities are in the West.
I feel a more detailed post coming on this piece - still processing. 
The third component of the museum is, what they call, The Experience – and this was really what I’d come for. This is an attempt at recreating the process of seeking asylum. It lasts about an hour, and although it gives only a very small glimpse into the reality of those actually facing these decisions, it was quite well done.

The Experience starts by obtaining the participant’s identification papers. Basically, they take your picture, ask for your nationality and date of birth. Once you receive this, you are sent to the basement of the building, where a room replicating what one’s home might look like is awaiting you. When you close the door behind you, things begin to quickly unravel. In the background you hear unsettling noises – people screaming, gun shots, those sorts of things – and this is perfect for setting a tone of disorientation.

As you move from room to room throughout the house, there are radio messages urging evacuation. You find a room that has been torn apart, as those who had once occupied it had hurried to grab what they could before departing. And as a participant, it was easy to get swept up in it all. I found myself on edge, not sure of what to expect next**. Then it was on to walking through dimly lit (if at all) hallways, which eventually led to an elevator that takes you to an immigration office.

Once I reached the office, I was taken aback by the many binders that covered the walls. It is at this point that you are asked to file your identification papers in the binder that corresponds to your last name. After that you have to wait in line (or at least you would have had to if you weren’t the only person currently undergoing the Experience), where you meet with an immigration officer.

This was the moment where it truly hit me. Up until this point, everything was in several languages, including English. But when you enter the tiny room – basically a closet with a wooden stool, and a glass window to separate you from the officer, it is confusing. For one, even if you had come with others, you can only enter one at a time. And, once you’re in there, there is no English – it’s just the voice of an impatient and unsympathetic Dutch-speaking man***. The tone alone, startled me. But the fact that I had no idea what he was telling me, made it even more challenging. Eventually, I figured out what I was supposed to do and carried on, but even now – a week later – I can’t stop thinking about that, and how awful that must be in a real-life situation.

After this, it gets a little easier. You go through several rooms that provided stories from people who have taken these journeys for real. These stories share what they have lost, what they have gained, and perhaps most importantly what they had taken for granted.

When I finished, I returned to the admission desk, where the lady who had checked me in asked how I was. I found it difficult to piece together any words. I was struggling to hide the tears that were surfacing – not because I didn’t want to cry, but because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stop.

Everything within Humanity House is meant to get you thinking. Even the washrooms are not free from this. The picture below doesn’t actually show the impact of a washroom sink, but those words written above it are more than just that. As I reached for the tap closest to me, I was unable to turn it on – it was glued so that it couldn’t move. Next, the tap handle turned, but no water came out. It wasn’t until the third attempt that I found one that actually provided water. Just let that sink in a bit (no pun intended). I mean what better way to truly demonstrate the very harsh reality of water availability?

The sink. Such a powerful piece.
This was a pretty powerful experience. I left feeling completely depressed, but ultimately thankful I had made the trip. Again, I know that this is only a miniscule glimpse into what it would actually be like to face this reality. I am so fortunate to have wonderful people in my life, that unfortunately have only entered it because of these very processes. I cannot imagine what this would be like or how disorienting it would be to have only minutes of preparation before embarking on such a terrifying and uncertain journey.

This experience will forever be held with like ones, such as that of my Cape Coast and Elmina Castles in Ghana, or that of TerezĂ­n in the Czech Republic. They have all placed me in a point in history (or present day for the most recent), that have made me step back and consider what the reality of those places would have been like. They haunt me, but equally inspire me. They are so important, not only to make us appreciate all that we have, but to continue becoming more empathetic humans.

After I left Humanity House, I walked quietly half in thought, half taking in the beauty of the city surrounding me. 

Binnenhof - or Dutch Parliament.

It took me a few years to get to The Hague, but it sure was worth the trip!

-the Orange Canadian

*A task probably far too challenging for this ‘ol thing!

**Partly terrified that something would jump out at me… did I not mention my strong dislike of haunted houses?!
***This is actually one part of visiting this country that always humbles me - English is not THE language, but rather a language used in addition to it's own - Dutch. 

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