TER APEL – Raffat Altekrete is battling the coronavirus one shopping cart at a time.
The 34-year-old electrical engineer from Iraq is also expressing gratitude and hoping to win hearts in a village that hosts the Netherlands' biggest residential reception center for asylum-seekers.
Altekrete, armed with latex gloves, a cleaning cloth and a spray bottle of disinfectant, volunteered to wipe down customers' carts outside a supermarket in the small Dutch community of Ter Apel this week.
His enthusiastic efforts -- he also ran his cloth over an elderly woman’s walker and other shoppers’ car keys -- were not only aimed at combating the virus outbreak in the Netherlands, which had reported over 12,600 cases and more than 1,030 deaths as of Wednesday.
Teams of refugees and migrants are helping out at stores in Ter Apel as a token of appreciation for the nation that took them in and where they have applied for asylum. About 1,900 migrants stay at the center situated on the edge of the village close to Germany's border.
“As refugees, the least we can do is to help the Dutch people as they have done everything toward us at Camp Ter Apel,” Altekrete said in Arabic.
The disinfecting, by teams of asylum-seekers at stores is also a way of improving the image of refugees and migrants in Ter Apel, a village some 200 kilometers (120 miles) northeast of Amsterdam. Storekeepers and locals have in the past complained of theft and disrespectful behavior by some of migrants.
All newly arrived migrants have to register at the center when they enter the Netherlands. Some are housed there for just a few days, others far longer as they await decisions on their asylum applications.
School teacher Karina Zuidinga welcomed the initiative as she headed into the Jumbo supermarket to do her shopping.
“I’m happy they’re doing it,” she said. “They are often in the news for the wrong reasons and that’s a shame because 95% are doing really well here, and I’m glad they can show that in this way to the rest of the village.”
While Altekrete is volunteering at Ter Apel's small shopping center, people in the Netherlands are finding new ways to help migrant children get through the days as coronavirus containment measures further limit their already restricted lives.
Gisele Azad, a Dutch-Iranian former asylum-seeker who has lived in the Netherlands for 24 years, coordinates art projects for children in the Ter Apel migrant center. She said people working for a foundation called “The Happiness” are finding new ways to help children even as visits are banned.
“We see so many different initiatives that are so creative, like we made a karaoke system where you can do karaoke at home," she said. "We see people starting YouTube channels with different kinds of art projects like building stuff out of paper or spoken word -- the possibilities are really endless.”