Dutch Siberia

Saturday morning I drove across Holland to a part of my country I barely know. Along the way I recognized towns from the old yellow and green maps that hung in our elementary school rooms, with red squares for cities and red circles for towns. There were no names on the map. We were supposed to know the names. And here they were, Hogeveen, Ommen, Emmen, Ter Apel.  The province of Drente was never a destination; a quick drive-through on my way to Groningen when I had a lover there, eons ago.

This time I would be visiting a young woman who I worked with in Afghanistan. A set of circumstances that are hard to fathom landed her in Emmen three years ago, after an arranged marriage with an Afghan man who had lived there for some time. In those three years she has learned to speak Dutch so well that we no longer converse in English, as we used to do in Kabul.

It is Ramadan, but her God in Holland is more tolerant than the one in Afghanistan. They are not fasting. She no longer wears a headcover and she rides a bike. She also works as a volunteer for a humanistic society. Her life in Holland is as opposite to her life in Kabul as one could imagine. She is happy with the freedoms but sad to be so far away from her family.

After an Italian lunch (go figure) we drove further north to a prison museum that has received much attention lately because of a book I happened to have picked up at Amsterdam airport sometime in May and had finished by the time I landed at Logan. The book describes a series of misguided attempts in the 19th century to reform poor and homeless people. Some of the author’s ancestors had been caught in that net. The “colony” was set up in what was then referred to as Dutch Siberia. That is where we were heading. I had to see this place.

The old colony houses are still there and later real prisons were added. We took a tour of the prison that only recently closed and the stories about prison entrance and daily life would be sufficient to deter anyone from committing a crime.

The area is no longer a Siberia though many houses were for sale – the economy is not good here. The old houses have slogans on their gables that harken back to the ideology that produced the colonies first and then the prisons, as the former were pretty much prisons – easy to get in but hard to get out. The slogans read ‘Rust roest’ (rest rusts), ‘Arbeid adelt’ (work makes you noble) reminding me of the Babson Bolders in Gloucester (Be clean, Be out of debt).

We drove back in the pouring rain, passing endless fields of soaked campers who had streamed to Assen by the thousands to watch the annual motor races.

Back in Emmen we had a ncie Afghan meal and caught up on not having seen each other for many years. We skyped with her sister in Kabul, another colleague in Amman and Axel in the US.

3 Responses to “Dutch Siberia”


  1. 1 Melinda Stanford July 2, 2016 at 8:40 am

    I love your vivid writing– it really brings your trip alive. It’s interesting to think of your friend having freedom but not her family. It’s hard to know what I would choose.

  2. 2 Matthew November 10, 2016 at 9:54 am

    Sylvia, I found your blog when researching Veenhuizen. Please could you tell me of the name of the book you found at Schiphol? Was it in English?

  3. 3 svriesendorp November 10, 2016 at 9:59 am

    Hi Matthew, As far as I know it exists only in Dutch: Pauper Paradijs by Suzanna Jansen – http://www.suzannajansen.nl/?id=30


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