On Saturday afternoon, about a dozen students played with children and adolescents who were among the refugees who are currently being accommodated at Erasmus University’s Sports Centre, and helped them get some exercise.

The mood at the Sports Centre was peaceful. Around midday, it got crowded in the cafeteria when the refugees received their lunch. A few small groups of people hung out in the corridors, in the sleeping quarters and at the café’s outdoor seating area. Later on, they spread over the various rooms within the centre. Volunteers and employees of all kinds of relief agencies manned stands which dispensed food, first aid and clothing, and kept an eye on the various people entering and leaving the Sports Centre.

The students were favourably impressed with the situation at the centre. ‘You never know what to expect in these circumstances, but it isn’t too bad,’ said all three female students who were in an Erasmus Sports office, sorting out the heaps of toys which had been collected. They were trying to choose the right toys for the right age.

Huge pile of toys

An impressive number of cuddly toys, toy cars, craft supplies and other playthings had made its way to the Sports Centre. And these, it transpired, were just the items donated to Erasmus Sports. Later that afternoon, we learned that student football club Antibarbari had announced it would no longer accept any donations, as its clubhouse was filled to the brim with toys.

The three female students sorting through the toys are all members of Antibarbari, and they are hard and efficient workers. They went through the toys in a jiffy, then moved them to one of the smaller rooms at the Sports Centre, which had been converted into a children’s games room. ‘There’s a bit of a Wild West vibe going on here,’ said Evelien, herself an Antibarbari member, characterising the atmosphere. ‘There are loads of people here, and they’re all doing whatever they think is right at that particular moment.’

An interpreter was requested to announce in Arabic – which appears to be the language of communication for most of these refugees – that toys had arrived and that the children were welcome to go and play with them. It was mainly very small children who were playing with their new treasures and having fun. The slightly older kids – aged 6 to 8 – didn’t seem to be playing so much as picking toys they liked and trying to hang on to them. They clearly knew they would be leaving the refugee centre soon.

Football and selfies

The adolescents and a few young men were playing basketball and indoor football with the student volunteers. ‘At first, they laughed when they saw there were going to be three girls among their opponents,’ said Evelien. ‘But when they saw we could actually play football, they all said, “You’re good!”’ Afterwards, the students and refugees posed for selfies.

By 3.30 pm, Anna (a member of student indoor football club RS) and Auke and Joanne (both members of Antibarbari) were at the Sports Centre bar, still catching their breath after their game. They all said playing football with refugees was a very special experience for them. ‘When I received the call this morning to see if I was willing to come and play today, I found myself thinking, “Well, I might as well do something useful for humanity for a change,”’ said Joanne. ‘Beats staying in bed all day and watching TV, right?’

Outside the centre we came across two overseas students, Marta Dawydzik and Andrew Gebhard, who had applied to become volunteers through EFR. After helping sort through all the toys, they showed a group of refugees, who were students themselves before fleeing their countries, around the EUR campus. ‘They loved the view from the seventeenth floor of the Tinbergen Building,’ said Marta and Andrew. ‘We told them what kind of subjects can be studied here, and which subjects can be studied in, say, Delft. They are all keen to go back to uni.’

Meanwhile, Erasmus Sports’ regular bartender, Kevin, seemed to be on a sheer interminable shift. He was here on Thursday evening and all of Thursday night. He went home to catch a few hours’ sleep on Friday, bought groceries on behalf of the cafeteria, celebrated his girlfriend’s birthday for a few hours, then showed up for another shift very early on Saturday morning.

He was here when the refugees arrived. They were very quiet when they entered the building, he recalled. Several of them went straight to the sleeping quarters, whereas others stayed at the cafeteria for a while, had some dinner and played pool all night. He said he did not communicate much with the refugees. ‘We try to make ourselves understood using lots of body language. I briefly knew how to say “salt cellar” in Arabic, but I’ve forgotten now.’

In addition to serving the refugees, Kevin was trying to come up with a good roster for Erasmus Sports’ staff for the next few nights and days. All employees, regardless of whether they are bartenders or fitness instructors, are expected to help out with the refugees over the next few days.