5 things I’ve learned since working with child refugees

Everyone remembers those harrowing images of 3 year old Alan Kurdi’s tiny little body being washed up on a turkish beach. A wake up call for many Europeans who, despite the unrelenting bombing and human rights violations occurring daily in Syria, had felt themselves up until that point, so far removed from this modern day tragedy.

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For almost a year now I’ve been privileged enough to spend 1 afternoon a week with refugee children, holding a craft and questions session at their temporary school, next to their temporary home (an old office block). During this year I expected I would be able to help teach the children about life in the Netherlands, but what transpired is that these children have taught ME more than I thought possible.

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1. They don’t all come from Syria

After all the news coverage of the horrific civil war in Syria I expected all the children that I would come into contact with to be from this area. However I was totally wrong. Whereas Syrian kids do make up a large percentage of the group I work with (normally between 30-40%) the rest are from a huge spectrum of countries, with the second largest group being from Eritrea followed by Iraq, Iran,  Afghanistan, Macedonia, Turkey and Egypt.

This melting pot of different cultures and languages could make for a highly volatile situation, but these are children remember. They communicate through playing, swapping ideas, and helping each other. Language is secondary at this age. But that’s not to say that they don’t pick up it in an incredibly short space of time.


2. They learn the language super fast

Imagine having your house bombed, losing everything, then being re-homed to a complete different country in which you are expected to start school straight away. Oh and learn a new language. And yet these kids manage it in such a short period of time. Within weeks these children know basic words and after a couple of months the dutch conversation really flows. In fact many of them can sniff out my english accent a mile away and either start conversing with my in my native language or start giving me grief about why my dutch isn’t better after living here for so long ( in my defence it’s only been 4 years!!)

3. The asylum process is long

It appears simple. You flee your homeland because of war or fear of persecution. You get yourself to a safe country, tell them your story and trust that they can help you. But this is just the beginning. As part of working with the children I was expected to take part in a course covering the basics of the Asylum Procedure. If after the first 14 days of arriving in the Netherlands they get an ‘asielvergunning’ that means they are able to stay in Netherlands and apply formally for their right to stay here. This process can take up to a year, sometimes even longer, and during this time refugees are moved to a ‘central asylum seeker centre’, buildings that used to be prisons, convents or office blocks, and wait for their application to be approved. Or not in some cases.

A short video (in dutch) explaining the asylum procedure

4. Not all children are poor

It always angered me when people would judge those refugees crossing borders, climbing fences, and trying to board lorries who were pictured with mobile phones in their hands. It would always be the same comments ‘Well it can’t be that bad if they still have their mobile.’ Like fleeing your country which is in the midst of the worst civil war the world has seen, and poverty should go hand in hand. If the Netherlands was suddenly bombed now many of us would try our best to grab a handful of our possessions, including a mobile, which may be are only link to the outside world. Quite a few of the older Syrian children that I come into contact with have phones (though they aren’t supposed to bring them to school, but somehow they end up in their pockets!!). Some of these kids have family members still living in Syria, and apps such as whatsapp, facebook and insta mean they can still keep in contact.

Before the war, Syria was a bustling developing country, with a beautiful mix of old and modern buildings. The people who lived there had a wide variety of jobs, such as engineers, doctors,  and teachers. They even had shopping malls! Their home situations can be said to widely differ from those coming from 3rd world countries, such as Eritrea.

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Al-Shuhadaa Square in Syria before the war

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A snapshot of Eritrea

Most of the children coming out of Africa have spent a long time in different refugee camps and many have clothing not suitable to the cold dutch winters. These kids you see wearing thick socks with flip flops rather than a sturdy pair of boots and jumpers two sizes too big or small (you take what you can out of the charity shop pile).

But as in all walks of life there will always be a divide between those who have money and those who don’t, refugees are no exception. And what it makes you realise is that money doesn’t count for much when you are fleeing for your lives.

5. They are incredibly grateful.

In a world where we try to give our children everything we can, whether that be the latest gadget, the best trainers or amazing experiences or holidays, sometimes gratitude can be lost. And that’s not a slight on parenting styles or a dig that Westerners spoil their children too much, just an accurate observation.

These children walk into our class on a tuesday afternoon with the biggest smiles on their faces. It’s not a compulsory lesson, they can speak whatever language they want, and they just get to be kids and have fun with the limited resources available to them.

These children are told that Sinterklass (the dutch version of Santa) is not real, it’s a myth, because they will be receiving no presents on December 5th like other children all over the Netherlands. But does that dim their smiles? No, they are so happy to be able to take part in the festivities, dance around to all the songs  and make miniature versions of Piet & the Sint to take home. They are just so grateful to be here.


When the commercialism of the holidays seems overwhelming, it’s nice to be reminded that for some children this Christmas, and not just refugees,  having a roof over their heads and a place to learn and just be a child is more than enough.


If you would like to volunteer for Vluchteling Werk Nederlands please follow this link 




Duinrell Review

Being married to a TN’er (typical nederlander) means I’m constantly on the lookout for a bargain. And there’s no better bargain than a holiday one! So when I heard through the powers of facebook that BreakFree Holidays were offering cheap breaks in my adopted homeland I knew exactly where I wanted to book. Duinrell.


What is Duinrell?

Duinrell is a holiday park, theme park and water park all rolled into one. We visited here in the October half term, staying for 4 nights. We had booked through BreakFree Holidays for the bargain price of £230. Looking on the official website for the same dates (albeit staying in chalets as opposed to a caravan) we wouldn’t have seen change from £600!

Bearing in mind how little we had paid my expectations of our holiday were considerably low. I’d never visited the theme park before though my husband had visited both the park and water park about 25 years previously and remembered it being ‘ok’.

But I needn’t have worried. Our trip more than surpassed my expectations and we ended up having a truly wonderful holiday.


The whole complex is located on the edge of the dutch village Wassenaar. It is situated in Western holland so very handy if travelling by boat to the Hook of Holland or flying in to Amsterdam Schiphol airport.

Being on the west side means you have access to some great beaches such as Scheveningen, Katwijk, Noordwijk and Wassenaar Beach.

It is also only a 15minute drive to The Hague, where the dutch parliament buildings are housed. Leiden, a beautifully historic town, is only 20 minutes drive. And perhaps our favourite of all day trips was Madurodam. Located in The Hague, this is more than just a miniature village. It’s a fully immersive tour through dutch history and a celebration of all that is great about The Netherlands.


The holiday park is located on the outskirts of the amusement park, though it’s handy to know that when the theme park closes you are still able to walk through the park to access facilities on the other side, without having to take a massive detour.

The theme park itself is great fun for all ages. We especially enjoyed the Dragon Fly roller coaster, which my youngest was just tall enough for at 100cm. Being a huge DisneyWorld fan I set my expectations quite high when it comes to theme parks and whereas Duinrell is no where in that league, it does have some pretty decent attractions, and no I wasn’t brave enough to go on ‘Mad Mill’!

There are a number of food places available, such as snack bar that does takeaway pizza, La Place restaurant, buffet restaurant and also a well stocked supermarket. We personally found the food to be quite expensive and not the best quality.

The on site shop was very well stocked (except for one morning when they ran out of pain au chocolates) but we found it to be also overpriced. So we took the great advice of many before us and ventured into Wassenaar village and shopped at the local Jumbo.

The arcade is good fun and not badly priced at 1 euro per game. We never got to go bowling or hire bikes, but both are available at Duinrell.

Don’t forget to take a passport size photo of yourself which you need for access into the holiday park and water park. It doesn’t actually need to be a proper passport photo, I just trimmed up some photos I had lying around of us all into roughly the same size as a passport photo!

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As we had booked through BreakFree Holidays we were allocated a Eurocamp 3 bed 1 bath Esprit. Having read that these were somewhat older models, I was apprehensive. And yes the caravan was starting to show its age but it was spacious for our family of 5 and it had a huge deck which I can see in warmer weather being a fantastic addition.

What I loved most about the accommodation was how much room we had outside! Now we could have been just lucky but looking around, no one is crammed in. Every caravan or lodge/chalet had plenty of outside space. You are allowed to drive cars on the site but are expected to park them at the ample group parking spaces located all over the park.

Our caravan was opposite one of the entrances to the park, which meant we could roll out of bed at 9:50 and be on our favourite DragonFly at opening.

It seems that the cheaper the accommodation, the closer to the theme park you are. This absolutely did not bother us as we were happy to be able to nip back to use the toilet or grab something to eat, and we never had any problems with noise. However I can imagine that is not the same for all caravans, and those located nearer to the plaza may have some noise at nighttimes.



This is perhaps the only slight disappointment we encountered on our trip. The food offerings, whilst ample, were not the best quality and over priced.

We ate at the La Place restaurant, which is a self service type eatery, and also ordered food from the snack bar. Both experiences were a let down. Many tourists coming from the UK do so using only public transport, so leaving the site to do a big food shop or eat out is not possible. In my opinion Duinrell need to up their game when it comes to food offering. I don’t mind paying a slight premium but then I expect good quality. However there’s nothing to stop you hiring bikes and cycling off site in search of decent food!

We ventured out twice into Wassenaar for dinner and ate at two very nice Italian restaurants. My advice would be to utilise transport and eat out of Duinrell!


The Tiki Bad

Worthy of it’s own paragraph, the Tiki Bad is quite possibly the best water park in the Netherlands. With 16 different water slides, a dedicated kids and baby area, as well as a wave pool, this pool caters to everyone.

Be aware that there are height restrictions for many of the slides, and also for the use of armbands. My 6 year old son, who has his Swim Diploma, had to wear armbands due to being under 120cm. You can imagine his older brother’s delight when this happened!

The swimming pool opens at 10am and as we had booked through a third party (Eurocamp/BreakFree) we had to pay. We opted for 3 hours pool use for 6.50euros per person. If you book your holiday direct  through Duinrell you are entitled to two hours free pool time (during certain hours) per day.

My advice would be to get there early! We were in the pool at 10:05 and my oldest son and husband had done most of the rides without queueing, in the first 30 minutes. Leaving at lunchtime we could see just how busy the pool had become and were glad we got here early to enjoy the relative peace.

Overall Experience

Despite the disappointment with food we really enjoyed our stay here. There is literally something for everyone. We were very lucky with the weather which meant we usually spent our mornings in the theme park and the afternoon’s exploring the surrounding cities and attractions. And despite it being a school holiday the park didn’t feel too busy due the clever lay out of all the attractions.

The kids still talk about Duinrell and can’t wait to go back and make more rude gestures in the Shadow House!