Nikita and Stefan. What can a story of a friendship between a Dutch and a Ukrainian family teach us?

 

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Ordinary people in the Netherlands are doing everything possible to make their stay abroad easier for Ukrainians. As a token of gratitude, they always receive an invitation to Ukraine — after the victory.

Text by: Dmytro Syniak


Six-year-old Nikita can’t sit still for a moment, a veritable Petryk Pyatochkin [a character in a Ukrainian cartoon]. He must be everywhere at once, see and hear everything, touch everything and have fun with everything. He is a real handful for his mum. Especially without his dad. Nikita’s father is at war. The boy doesn’t really understand what it means; he is just sad that Dad is not around. Nikita’s mother, Anastasia*, does not wish to talk about her husband. It hurts too much. He enlisted as soon as he heard about the Russian invasion, and now he is fighting somewhere far away on the eastern front.

This ‘far away’ is much farther than before, when Anastasia and her mother, Lina, lived in Kyiv. They now live in the Dutch city of Oosterhout. It has a population of only 57,000 — a little less than, say, Irpin. After the three-million-strong Ukrainian capital, Osterhout seems like a small town to the Ukrainian women.

The family of six-year-old Nikita have found refuge in the Netherlands but dream of returning to Ukraine

They live in a local hospital called Amphia. Amphitryon is the Greek god of hospitality, and the hospital is named after him. After a new healthcare facility had been built a few years ago in the neighbouring town of Brady, a few of the upper floors of the Oosterhout Hospital stayed empty. As soon as the war broke out, Osterhout City Hall, living up to the name of the hospital, rented out vacant premises to Ukrainian refugees. Scared, confused, hopeless and in despair, they came here by bus and by car. They came from Kyiv, Kryvyi Rih, Odesa, Sumy, from the Donetsk region…

The Amphia Hospital in the Dutch city of Oosterhout where the City Hall rents three floors for Ukrainians

The Dutch responded to refugees from Ukraine amazingly well. Many locals brought them their belongings and money, and also volunteered as cleaners, cooks, translators, receptionists for them. Some locals still remember the stories of their grandparents about the occupation of the Netherlands by the Third Reich in 1940 and the horrific bombing of the Netherlands, which almost completely destroyed ancient Rotterdam.


The Ukrainian flag has been flying in the courtyard of the Dutch town of Ryan since February 24

One of those who came to the Amphia Hospital every day was Stefan Verbeek, a tall, slender man with grey hair and a beard. He is a Belgian married to a Dutch woman. Stefan has been living and working in the Netherlands for 14 years. He is currently an operations manager in charge of many things related to Ukrainians. In particular, he takes them to local second-hand shops where in addition to clothes, they can also get kitchenware, furniture, household appliances and anything else for free. Oosterhout City Hall agreed on this with the owners of these shops. That’s how Stefan met Anastasia. And, most importantly, Nikita.

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Stefan Verbeek and Nikita

“This little guy stole my heart,” Stefan says with a smile. “He’s absolutely great! Nikita, come here!”

The boy does not understand English, let alone Dutch, but he does not need any language to communicate with Stefan: friends understand each other at a glance. Nikita happily jumps into Stefan’s arms, and the man whirls him over his head with an airplane swing. “U-u-u-u-u!” Nikita hums happily, making the engine sounds.

Nikita’s mother is also watching this scene happily.

“Stefan was the first local we met,” she says. “He helped us a lot. We were in shock, didn’t understand anything, knew none of the local customs or laws. I speak very little English, so we couldn’t understand each other. And we had almost no things with us. We weren’t going to go abroad, thinking to wait it out a bit and go home. You can see how it turned out...

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Driving a Dutch car

“In Kyiv, we lived on the Left Bank, in the Rusanivka district,” adds Anastasia’s mother, Lina. “On February 26, they fled from there to relatives in Fastiv. It’s near Bila Tserkva and Vasylkiv, which the Russians were shelling all the time. Air raid sirens were sounding constantly. In addition, Russian troops tried to break through to Fastiv several times to surround Kyiv. In the third week of this life, I stopped eating and sleeping, and when I heard about the mass rapes in Bucha, I had a breakdown. I thought I was going crazy. One day we packed up and went to Lviv. We don’t have anyone there; we just went in blind. In Lviv, we were suddenly offered to go to Poland. I worked in Spain for six years, taking care of an elderly man there, so we considered making our way there first. But my daughter’s husband got in touch with a Polish acquaintance in the Netherlands. That’s how we ended up in Oosterhout. And here we met Stefan.”

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The centre of the Dutch-Belgian city of Baarle-Hertog

When asked if his wife was jealous of the Ukrainian woman, Stefan thinks for a few moments.

“She is!” he then confidently replies.

And bursts into a hearty laugh.

“Sometimes I have six Ukrainian women in my car at once. How could any wife not be jealous of that!” Stefan laughs. “But what can you do? Work is work. I honestly surprised myself with how much I liked this little Ukrainian and his family. My son and daughter are all grown up, but not enough to make me a grandfather. I am only 44… “Who is this Nikita?” my wife once asked me. “You talk only of him at home!” So I invited the whole family to have dinner with us. It was a difficult decision because we always separate family and work.

Anastasia already trusts Stefan so much that she lets her son go for a walk with him without any issues. The boy communicates with his adult friend mainly through Google Translate. After all, they don’t usually need words.

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During a joint leisurely trip

“We became very friendly with Stefan. He has wonderful children and wife,” says Anastasia. “My husband, of course, knows about this friendship and is not jealous of me. He knows how difficult it would be for us without the help we receive from Stefan. And Nikita would feel it the most. We want Stefan to come to Kyiv after the victory, where we could thank him for all the good he has done for us.

Stefan smiles: he already has more than three dozen such invitations from Ukrainians.

Nikita was enrolled into a Dutch school, which he likes a lot. When he cannot go to school due to illness, he throws a tantrum. The boy counts well and knows a few words in Dutch. He really likes the Netherlands. But his mother and grandmother dream of returning to Ukraine.

“The Dutch are very amicable people and help us a lot, but they do not fully understand what is in our hearts,” Anastasia says with a sigh. “Are you all right?” one of them would ask. “Yes,” I would answer, “thank you, I’m fine.” “Then why aren’t you happy?” they ask then. “You are safe now.” How do you explain that I can’t have fun without my husband who is in constant danger; in a foreign land, far from friends and relatives, without a home, without my country which is now being destroyed by the enemy?! They don’t understand… Most of us want to go home.

Stefan does not object.

“To tell the truth, everything I knew about Ukraine before was that it had Chernobyl and a lot of corruption,” he says. “I have never been interested in learning the name of the Ukrainian president. Now I know a lot about your country and I would like to visit it. Especially Kyiv. I believe that the friendship that has developed between our families will last a lifetime. I wish this insane war would end faster. I still can’t wrap my head around it! Now the whole world must help Ukraine to win, because the fate of this world itself depends on it.

 

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An ordinary Dutch street

Nikita is up to some mischief, and Stefan looks at him with a gentle smile. Anastasia grins at them both. At a short distance, the Ukrainian flag flutters on one of the façades. There are a lot of these flags both throughout the Netherlands and throughout entire Europe. They are raised in front of city halls and parliaments, ordinary schools and prestigious universities. They are now symbols of resistance and the struggle for justice, as well as a sign of the close ties between the peoples of the European Union and the Ukrainians. And judging by the story of Nikita and Stefan, these ties will last for a long time.

 

 

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