Andersen: Beer, pizza and a Syrian refugee with hickies |

Andersen: Beer, pizza and a Syrian refugee with hickies

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Maher, A 17-year-old Syrian refugee, spoke eloquently of his unimaginable journey. It is one thing to read about Syrian refugees, but quite another to have a refugee serve you pizza and beer, and then tell his story.

This happened two weeks ago when my son, Tait, and I were at the end of a month-long cycling trip through Northern Europe. We had spent the morning battling a 30-mph headwind into Stavoren, a small Dutch seaport on the Ijsselmeer.

After buying tickets for the ferry to Enkhuizen, raw hunger began gnawing at our ribcages. The restaurant we chose was empty, which was a good thing because we hadn’t showered that day and had ridden hard for six hours. A handsome young waiter greeted us in English, and soon we were gulping cold Dutch beer and noshing a combo pizza.

After our animal needs were met, our waiter asked about our travels. Feeling rather accomplished by our long journey, we told him our ride from Oslo, Norway was physically demanding. He raised his eyebrows and smiled. “That’s quite a trip,” he said.

Impressed by this poised young man, I complimented him on his English. “Do you think I’m from Holland?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “Then where?”

Maher said he had only recently escaped his native Syria to avoid fighting the civil war in Bashar al-Assad’s army.

“I couldn’t do that,” he said, “so I walked 10 days to get to Turkey.”

Maher had learned English working at resorts in Dubai, where he saved enough money to pay for his long journey, which now made our biking journey seem trivial. Where our tour was a recreational blend of challenge and discovery, Maher’s journey was a life-and-death escape rife with fear, loneliness, risk and alienation.

After reaching Turkey, Maher found a boat to take him across the Aegean Sea. He survived the crossing and landed on the small Greek island of Leros. After two weeks, he found his way to Athens where he bought a forged Canadian passport. He flew to Amsterdam, was given a temporary work permit and landed in this quaint seaside town serving beer and pizza to a couple of hungry — and sympathetic — American bike tourers.

In the span of just a few harsh months, this hapless teenager was propelled by global events into the big, wide world, all on his own. Tait and I were thoroughly humbled by Maher’s journey, especially when he added another twist.

“I’m a two-time refugee,” said Maher, explaining that his grandfather was born in Palestine and fled to Syria during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Since Palestine is not recognized as a country, Maher’s nationality is in limbo. He is literally a man without a country, and his papers show it. We asked him, what’s next?

Maher shrugged and smiled. He said he needs to pass a language test in three years before he can receive a long-term residency permit in Holland. Dutch is not an easy language, but Maher’s future hangs on his ability to learn it well.

Tait and I knew immediately that Maher had two linguistic teachers – the beautiful blonde Dutch baristas who had been giggling with him behind the bar.

Earlier, we overheard Maher, in English, sharing with these winsome lasses his wisdom on love, romance and relationships. His life credentials, he said, came from an accelerated maturation process due to the trials of his refugee flight from home.

Maher’s charming persona and beguiling manner of familiarity is apparently irresistible to young, romantically inclined Dutch girls. This was affirmed when we noticed two huge hickies on both sides of Maher’s neck.

This resilient refugee has endured hardship and upheaval in his young life, but evidently he has been taken in by the locals with some measure of affection. Hickies from chickies is a silver lining to his otherwise dark cloud.

For Tait and me, our journey suddenly paled to insignificance, as did the trials and rigors we encountered. Bicycling across Europe was a matter of choice. For Maher, the choice was war or flight, leading to a journey far beyond what most of us can imagine.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at

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