Zuid-Limburg. Take the Geleen exit off the motorway, go through the village, cross the railway line, and then turn left. Out of the trees looms the stately asylum seekers centre of Sweikhuizen. Families are hanging out of the windows, and children are running around on the forecourt in front of the main entrance.

On a mound next to the barrier, which stays shut for journalists, there is a bench. And there is Ahmad. Eight months ago, the 17-year-old Syrian was living in a sports hall on campus Woudestein, and since then he has zigzagged across the whole of the Netherlands. As if he hadn’t seen enough already. Ilhame stops her car in front of the barrier, and as soon as she gets out there is a big hug.

Abandoned tennis club

The fact that he his here now, sitting on a bench in the middle of a forest in Zuid-Limburg, is the result of a long series of random events and circumstances. He never would have thought it possible five years ago, back in Syria when he lived in the city of Aleppo. In only a few months in the Netherlands, he has already lived in more places than the average Dutchman will live in his life.

But only in places where most Dutch people never go: the registration centre for asylum seekers in Ter Apel, the abandoned tennis club in Hellendoorn, the warehouse in Vijfhuizen, the backstreets of Doetinchem, and now in a former country retreat in Sweikhuizen.

'Little Brother'

Ahmad Ilhame Zarouka Zuid-Limburg asielzoeker syrië vluchteling (14)
Ilhame Zarouka

In September, he spent six days in Rotterdam, in one of the sports halls of Erasmus Sport. There he made friends with numerous students, including Ilhame Talouka, a second-year Law student at ESL. Together with EM, she has come to visit Ahmad in Sweikhuizen. It is difficult to have a private conversation in the asylum seekers centre, so we drive out to a traditional pub called De Kroon in Geleen.

Once we have seated ourselves at a table, Ilhame explained why they had stayed in touch all these months. “He is like a little brother to me”, says Ilhame. “I help him now and then to sort things out, like his residence permit or finding a course at college.” Ahmad gets coffee and hot chocolate, and insists that he pays. “Let him pay if he wants to, there’s no point in arguing about it. He’s going to pay anyway,” says Ilhame.

Ilhame, already a mother herself, has a special place in Ahmad’s heart. “Ilhame is one of a kind,” he says. “She always wants to know what is going on in my life. I like that.” They mostly chat on Facebook, explains Ilhame. “Sometimes we don’t speak to each other for almost a month, and then three days in a row. For example, if he is having trouble at school, or if I see an interesting photo on Facebook. Some of it is personal stuff, but also practical things as well. I feel like I have known him my entire life. His mother also calls me up a lot.”

Schinnen Retreat

Ahmad Ilhame Zarouka Zuid-Limburg asielzoeker syrië vluchteling (18)
Retraitehuis Schinnen

The former Schinnen Retreat is Ahmad’s new home for the time being. At least until he reaches the age of 18 next month. Then he can live anywhere he wants to. Not that Ahmad is particularly tied down by the rules of the Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA).

Because although Ahmad is a Syrian refugee, he is still just a teenage boy. “They keep contradicting themselves,” Ahmad complains to Ilhame. “If I want to go out in Maastricht, they tell me I have to be back by 12 o’clock because I’m under 18. But if I want to go to the university to check out a course, or go to the local council to ask about something, then they say I’m old enough to do it on my own. Mind blowing!” Ilhame has to laugh, because she was never allowed to stay out after 12 o’clock when she was a teenager. “Otherwise I would get grounded for two weeks.” That is exactly the punishment Ahmad got from the COA. “But I went out the next week again anyway. And I didn’t come home until five o’clock in the morning.”

Ahmad Ilhame Zarouka Zuid-Limburg asielzoeker syrië vluchteling (26)

No Visa

‘We can always keep in touch through Skype, Facebook and WhatsApp. She pops up everywhere I go’

Ahmad talking about his mother in Dubai

Ahmad’s mother is living in Dubai now. He was living there himself for a while after the war broke out in Syria, but he wasn’t allowed to stay. Eventually he travelled through Turkey and Greece to the Netherlands. His mother was allowed to stay because of her age, which means they are now 7000 km apart. And there is currently no possibility of them seeing each other again any time soon. “It’s impossible because she is Syrian,” explains Ahmad. “If she tried to catch a flight here, the first thing they would ask my mother at the airport in Dubai is ‘where is your visa?’ And of course she hasn’t got a visa. I miss my mother. But it is a hard reality I’ve got to face. We can always keep in touch through Skype, Facebook and WhatsApp. She pops up everywhere I go,” he says with a smile. “She wants to talk to me every day.”

Meanwhile, as a Syrian refugee he as a temporary residence permit and is going to a special school for refugees in Geleen. There, amongst other things, he is learning Dutch, which he is starting to get the hang of after eight months. Ilhame talks to him in Dutch, and the answers come back in English.

European history

Ahmad Ilhame Zarouka Zuid-Limburg asielzoeker syrië vluchteling (20)

After the summer break, he really wants to get busy. “I want to study International Business or European Studies. I’ve already experienced many different cultures, and I already speak good English and Arabic, and soon Dutch as well. I find European history fascinating.”

Ahmad doesn’t know where he will be going to college next year. Perhaps in Sittard, Maastricht, or Nijmegen. “Maastricht is amazing. It is like going back in time when you walk around here,” he laughs. Rotterdam is not on his list of favourite cities. He goes there now and again. “Whenever I am in Rotterdam, I always go and see Ilhame.” He has a few other friends there as well, people he met during his time at Erasmus Sport. After a second round of hot chocolate, this time paid for by EM, Ahmad walks out of the pub into the empty streets of Geleen, and heads back to the latest of his countless temporary homes.