A year and a half ago, Sarah – a musical, cheerful Psychology student – moved to Rotterdam from Minnesota. The 21-year old lived just around the corner from EUR, in the residential complex De Snor on Kralingse Kerklaan. Many friends knew that she’d had some problems with roommate Joel S. However, it came as a huge shock to hear that he’s suspected of her murder.

Full of energy

The snowfall makes everything extra quiet at De Snor. Despite knowing that Sarah’s murder has nothing to do with security in the complex, the residents still think about it regularly. “For a few weeks, I didn’t want to go home,” says one girl who lives in the same building as Sarah and prefers to remain anonymous. She enters her flat via the side entrance, even though it’s less slippery to use the main entrance in this weather. “I don’t want to see Sarah’s place. That’s why I don’t use the main entrance of our building any more. It does mean walking around, but I don’t mind as long as I don’t have to pass through that particular corridor.” She knew Sarah, everyone knew Sarah. “She was bubbly, friendly and always full of energy.”

De Snor in Rotterdam-Kralingen
De Snor in Rotterdam-Kralingen Image credit: Feba Sukmana

Another neighbour is history student Arnold. He lives next to the unit where Sarah was murdered and he’s still very shocked. “It’s terrible that she’s gone.” She was very approachable and easy to talk to, says Arnold. “One day, completely out of the blue, she came up to me on campus and said, ‘Hey, I see you often. You live at De Snor too, don’t you?’ That’s how we met. We got talking and after that we always had a chat when we met. Usually it was just small talk, but she also told me that things weren’t going very well with her roommate and that she didn’t feel safe at home.”

Let it Be

The atmosphere at the Open Stage Night is casual. It’s crowded and cosy in the room, the tribute to Sarah hasn’t been announced. When Bonno, Sarah’s good friend, stands on stage and announces that his band wants to honour her, it becomes quiet. “A month ago, Sarah was still here behind me, on the drums. We didn’t know that it would be her last performance.” Together with friends, the singer and guitarist plays the song Let It Be by The Beatles, the last song that Sarah performed in December. Silence falls. Nobody says a word; people hold on to each other. The band doesn’t want to end the evening on such a sad note. After all, Sarah was a very happy person. So they play a more upbeat song, Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley.

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Bonno is doing International Bachelor Economics and Business Economics. He met Sarah through mutual musical friends. “She didn’t get into the Erasmus Music Collective, the university’s student band, and she was quite devastated. We talked all night about starting a band, about the songs we’d play, especially covers of famous songs from the sixties and seventies. She said that it was one of the best evenings she’d had since coming to the Netherlands, because she felt like she was busy making music again.” The American never had drum lessons, she was just very talented, says Bonno. “Sarah learned how to drum by watching and listening a lot, and obviously playing it herself. Her father’s a musician, so from the age of 10, she’d been listening and watching how her father performed.”

Great loss

Sarah’s positivity is missed in many places. On stage, in class, but certainly at HAS-Kebab where Sarah worked. She was someone who made work a bit more fun every day, her colleagues say. “There are still customers who say they miss her,” says colleague Özkan. “She always had a chat and was interested in other people.” “We miss her every day,” adds owner Fikret Egeman. He shares an anecdote. “Because of her gluten allergy, she could hardly eat anything we serve, except the salad. At some point, we introduced the rice box which Sarah was able to eat. We always kept a portion for her, so she could eat it at the end of her shift. If we didn’t have much rice left and a customer wanted the box, we always said we’d sold out because that rice was for Sarah. Sometimes we even made extra rice so she could take it home.”

Cool, tough, musical, super-fun, bubbly, ambitious, empathetic, a party animal and hard worker, Bonno has only good things to say about Sarah. Well, she could exaggerate at times. “For me, that was typically American. For example, she was convinced that the US would protect everything and everyone. But other than that, she was very full of life, so it was easy to feel comfortable around her.”

Difficult period

Sarah Papenheim at the Open Stage Night, december 2018
Sarah Papenheim at the Open Stage Night, december 2018 Image credit: Arie Kers

Everyone knew Sarah as a cheerful, smiling girl, but the American hadn’t had things easy. “She’s been through some horrible things,” says Bonno. Two years ago, Sarah’s older brother Josh committed suicide and it’s also well known that she herself was battling depression at one point of her life.

In ‘In Memoriam’, her fellow students write that Sarah was honest about having had a hard time. “Yet she managed to stay so relentlessly positive that the first thing everybody associates with her is her utterly disarming ear-to-ear smile.”

“Sarah taught me how to enjoy life and be happy with what you’ve got,” says Bonno. “It’s really sad that she’s no longer here, but I’m extremely grateful for the things we did together.”

Some personal information has been removed at the request of an interviewee.