Maartje van Winkel and Derakshan Beekzada were two strangers linked by one goal. Together, they changed the minds of a nation.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a story telling you about my belief that girls will be our moral guides in this world of idiots and self-centred bullies. Then I read an article in one of the Dutch newspapers. Because I know that most of you don’t speak my language, I want to tell you about it. It is, again, proof that girls are the bomb. There is another reason why I want you to read this, though. If we follow these girls’ example, the shameful position of the refugees on Nauru will be over tomorrow. And we can change our reputation from a right-wing, harsh, Trumpite nation into one that has rediscovered its compassion and humanity.
It’s the late 1990s: two girls from different parts of the world are in trouble. Derakshan Beekzada, ten years old, lives in Afghanistan. The Taliban is in power and killing members of her family. Because she is a girl, she has never been to school. Her father has taught her how to write her own name, but in doing so he has risked his life. One night, he wakes up his daughter and her siblings. She can’t bring anything, not even her doll, and she has to be quiet. There are a series of cars and buses, boats with too many people on them, weeks of walking, the back of a truck. Then they are dumped on the side of a highway. This is The Netherlands, the truckie says, before leaving them standing there. Somebody brings them to the regional centre for asylum seekers. They get a temporary visa and in eighteen months Derakshan teaches herself the full curriculum of primary school. She is impressive, getting A’s all over the place. Soon they accept her in the highest echelons of the Dutch secondary school system. Her parents are illiterate, but Derakshan recognises the opportunity she has been given and takes it with both hands. She is going to be a doctor.
At school, she meets Maartje van Winkel. Maartje sees that she is scared and doesn’t know how to fit in. So she takes Derakshan under her wing and makes her feel welcome. Derakshan is grateful to belong, to be accepted. Then she realises that Maartje is also an outsider. Maartje is sick. She has pain, finds walking difficult, and then there are the horrific headaches. There are doctors, dozens of them. They do tests, but can’t find anything. They tell her mother that Maartje is probably just another teenager wanting attention. Banging it on to make her parents notice her. For years Maartje has been struggling. Trying to focus on school, but often not able to get out of bed. Like Derakshan, Maartje is very bright. She too wants to become a doctor when she grows up. Until that horrible afternoon, where finally somebody comes up with a diagnosis. Ewing sarcoma, a tumour in her spine. She’s got ten weeks to live, the oncologist says. When Maartje and her mother get back to the parking garage of the hospital, the battery has drained. It is raining, the car refuses to start. They feel completely lost.
It is 2004 by now, and the girls are 14. Maartje knows she is dying. Then Derakshan’s parents get a letter. The Minister for Immigration has decided that Afghanistan is a safe country now. They will be deported within months. It is part of what the Minister calls her “clean sweep”: 26,000 asylum seekers have to leave Holland in one go. The nation explodes. There are demonstrations, mayors of most cities sign a petition of protest, and everywhere, soccer clubs, churches and every other organisation you can think of come up with novel ways to say “no”. Filmmakers shoot little 15-minute documentaries of hundreds of the people who are threatened, in order for the Minister to see faces, hear stories. It doesn’t seem to work. Then Maartje comes up with something of her own. She writes a letter to the Minister. I am dying, she says. That means that my country will have one less person in it. You say that you are deporting people because we are full. But when I die, there will be a space for somebody else. My friend Derakshan wants to become a doctor, like me. So why don’t you allow her to do that, why don’t you give her my spot? It will be a zero sum game for you, but very important for us. Derakshan won’t have to go back to Afghanistan, where they don’t like smart girls very much. And I will die happy, knowing that I have done something of value with my life.
They get a temporary visa and in eighteen months Derakshan teaches herself the full curriculum of primary school. She is impressive, getting A’s all over the place.
The principal of Maartje and Derakshan’s school is moved, and proud. “In a time where most people only talk about me, me, me, Maartje is an example of ‘we’,” he says. And he decides to help his students out. There is a fundraising exercise and with the money the school buys 1,000 roses, one for each student. Everybody writes a little note, asking for a pardon for Derakshan, and attaches it to the rose. And one glorious day, Maartje, Derakshan and dozens of others travel to The Hague to present the flowers to the Minister.
Derakshan is pushing Maartje’s wheelchair. Both girls are wearing scarves. Derakshan because of her religion, Maartje because she is bald from the chemo. Hopes are high, but get dashed quickly. No, the Minister says, she can’t make an exception. Rules are rules. This is not her responsibility, but Derakshan’s parents. They shouldn’t have come here in the first place. And all this talk about Derakshan becoming a doctor…isn’t that a little grand for a girl from Afghanistan? Why not start a flower stall instead? The Dutch children’s news (who films the negotiations) puts the “conversation” on air that night. Afterwards, 700 letters of children arrive in one week. The general tenor is disgust and disappointment. If this is what it is like to be an adult, one girl writes, I don’t think I ever want to grow up.
The endless repetition of the same sentences infuriates the girls as well, but there is nothing they can do. A few weeks later Maartje’s parents organise a party, a farewell of sorts. All Maartje’s friends are dressed to the nines, laughing, crying, dancing, singing. Not long afterwards Maartje dies. The funeral is attended by thousands of people. Derakshan is inconsolable. But time goes on. Derakshan’s family goes through one legal procedure after the other, and is refused every step of the way. Then, in 2007, with a new Minister and after relentless pressure from the Dutch population, there is a turn-around. A general amnesty for every asylum seeker and refugee who has arrived before the year 2001. The Beekzada’s, who crossed the border in 2000, are safe for now. They get a temporary, five-year visa, something Derakshan uses to start her degree in medicine.
Of course, you can guess how this ends. Derakshan is an oncology specialist now, at one of the best hospitals in Holland. She has fulfilled “our dream”, she knows. Even though Maartje didn’t get her wish the way she hoped, and died thinking her friend would be deported, Derakshan still feels “wanted, chosen even”.
“I was just a girl, and somebody really saw me. That makes me feel incredibly special, and I bring that to my patients every day.”
Maartje’s mother is happy too. Despite the pain of losing her daughter, she is proud that Maartje showed people that “you don’t have to have 80 years of life to be important”.
“Maartje wanted to make sure that she made a difference in this world, and I think she has.”
She sure has. And why not, people? One for one, as Maartje showed us.
Wouldn’t that be something?
If you can understand Dutch, try these articles I used to write this piece: