The Faces of Margraten

Sebastiaan Vonk, a master’s student of American studies at the RUG, is the director of The Faces of Margraten, a project to put faces to the names of thousands of American World War II soldiers buried in the Netherlands.

‘I adopted my first grave at the age of thirteen’, Sebastiaan Vonk recalls. ‘I feel like I have a really strong connection with that soldier, Corporal Lawrence F. Shea. He was only 21 years old when he died, almost the same age as I am. Sometimes, I think: what if I had to take part in the war? What if I had to fight? It is unimaginable.’

Cpl. Lawrence F. Shea, the first soldiers whose grave was the first that Sebastiaan Vonk adopted when he was 13. Shea was 21 when he died during World War II.

Cpl. Lawrence F. Shea, the first soldiers whose grave was the first that Sebastiaan Vonk adopted when he was 13. Shea was 21 when he died during World War II.

Vonk, a 22-year-old RUG master’s student of American studies, is one of the thousands of Dutch citizens who adopted and took care of a grave of the American War Cemetery and Memorial Netherlands, which lies in Margraten, a village in the south of the Netherlands. In that cemetery, 10,023 American soldiers who died in World War II are buried.

Memorial service

But Vonk’s association with Margraten goes even further. He directed the project The Faces of Margraten, which aims to tell the stories of those soldiers. ‘It is a project that started in 2014 out of my personal interest. Our mission is to give a face to every name. People submit photos of their loved ones through our website and we do research into who they actually were and what they did before the war’, Vonk explains.

The Faces of Margraten held a four-day memorial service last month to honour these fallen heroes once more, since the Netherlands celebrates the 70th anniversary of its liberation this year. During this tribute, all of the submitted photos were placed on display next to the graves and, for the first time, people could see the faces of their soldiers. The project was launched by the Dutch non-profit organization Stichting Verenigde Adoptanten Amerikaanse Oorlogsgraven (Foundation United Adopters American War Graves). Vonk is the chairperson of the foundation.

‘So far, we have matched only one-third of the graves, so there are still a lot missing. We know that we might not find all the photos in the end, but we will try to collect as many as possible’, Vonk explains.

‘Beyond our expectations’

He explains that he and his team, which consists of 25 volunteers, were aware of how important World War II is in the history of the Netherlands, but they were unsure how modern Dutch society would react to their project.

When the gates to the cemetery opened on 2 May, it became clear that many people still cared. ‘We saw people approaching the cemetery, cars parking and more people coming. That amazed us. The number of people who came between the 2nd and the 5th of May equals ten per cent of a year’s visitors, and that was totally beyond our expectations’, says Vonk.

According to Foundation United Adopters American War Graves, 25,000 people visited the cemetery during those four days.

The white cross headstone of Cpl. Lawrence F. Shea in the graveyard at Margraten.

The white cross headstone of Cpl. Lawrence F. Shea in the graveyard at Margraten.

‘People were very grateful for this tribute. Most people came to the cemetery just because the project was there. Many of them were curious to know if there was a picture of their soldier’, Vonk says. But even when the tribute was over and the photos were removed, that level of interest remained. Vonk and his team were inundated afterwards with questions and requests to place the photos next to the graves permanently.

 

Overwhelming

‘People wanted to know if we are going to repeat the project. They must know that they can still see the photos of their loved ones in our online database, Fields of Honor. For practical reasons, the photos can’t remain in the cemetery permanently. But we are also afraid that if we do so, they will lose their impact. It’s like a hit song: when you listen to it over and over again, you will get sick of it in the end.’

The project’s impact continues to grow. It has been a month since the tribute took place, and people are still submitting photos. Over the last month, Vonk has received more than 100 photos.

He confesses that the way people are responding is somewhat overwhelming. ‘Even now, weeks after the project is over, people come and talk to me. I have been on television many times and people recognise me. But it is funny sometimes, because they talk behind my back and they usually say: ‘Hey, that’s the boy, that’s the boy”, Vonk says.

Testimony

Although the project has been his number one priority since the day he initiated it, he has never forgotten that he is also a master’s student.

‘For me personally, it was really hard to follow the project and my studies. Even when I said that for two or three hours, I won’t reply to any e-mails and study, in the end, I couldn’t. The project is my passion. But on the other hand, I was very privileged since I had not only moral but economic support as well from my parents from the very beginning. It would be hard for me to volunteer and work at the same time’, Vonk says.

From now on, he will focus more on his studies but he says one thing is certain; he will repeat the project sometime in the future now that he has realised how important it was for a lot of people, including him.

‘I remember one man, he must have been in his 80s. He just came back from the graves with tears in his eyes, and he told me: ‘Finally, I managed to see that photo.’ It was the first time he had seen the soldier’s photo since 1945. Can you imagine? For me, this is testimony of the value many adopters attribute to seeing a photo of their soldier. For that reason, me and my team, we all share a great sense of pride that we have been able to complete this project.’

 

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An Unforgettable Experience

After finishing her bachelor’s degree in psychology, University of Groningen, Alka Tiessink decided to travel for a year before beginning a master’s degree. While visiting the city of Pokhara in Nepal about a month ago, she faced the most frightening experience of her life.

‘We were meditating and suddenly, everything started to move. I didn’t know what was happening. It took me a lot of time to realize it was an earthquake. Although it was around one minute, I felt it like ten.’

After the earthquake, she found a safe spot and informed her father that she was fine. She was able to be in constant contact with her parents and they were often her only source for updates.

The days following the initial earthquake were also tense. ‘We were sleeping with the light on, doors open, and even wearing our shoes so that we would be ready to jump in and run. We practiced our way out day and night with shoes or flip-flops. I was constantly wearing my money belt with all my money, passport and insurance papers inside’, she recalls.

Alka tried to help as much as possible while she was there. She signed up as a volunteer at several hospitals, but by then, they were not looking for any volunteers. Despite her willingness to stay and help, her family pleaded for her to return to the Netherlands – six days after the earthquake, she abandoned her initial plan to stay for an entire month.

She and four other Dutch people who were also in Nepal stayed up all night and organized their trip back home. In the morning, they left all of their belongings for the locals and took a taxi to the airport.

Although they asked the taxi driver not to drive through the city centre, he overlooked their request and gave them a ride downtown. ‘He wanted to make us realise that we need to help them’, Alka says. ‘It was heart breaking to see him trying his best to keep us there. We saw everything you see on TV, but I felt happy that I saw what exactly happened. It feels like you leave those people, who can’t leave Nepal since it’s their home, with nothing.’ Today, Alka is safe in the Netherlands, but her thoughts are still with Nepal. She organised her own small-scale fund raising to help: she is sending the money directly to the people that she met there.

‘After a week of being home, I am slowly getting out of survival mode’, she says. ‘My body wants to sleep, but my mind is still awake. However, when things are shaking, with every kind of vibration, my eyes open wide. That’s something I still have.’

 

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Disaster in Nepal

Aftershocks are still being felt in Nepal following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the Asian nation in April. For two Nepali RUG students and one alumnus who was there at the time, raising funds for disaster relief is a way to help, as well as to cope with the aftermath.

 ‘At first, I thought it might be a joke’, Pragyi Shrestha recalls. ‘I checked the news on the Internet, and it was true. I vainly tried to contact my family. There was no phone connection. I didn’t know if they were alive or dead. I was really scared and hopeless.’

Pragyi, a 24-year-old RUG master’s student in the medical and pharmaceutical drug innovation program, is from Kathmandu, Nepal. She finally managed to talk with her parents eight hours after the first earthquake hit. She says that those eight hours of unawareness were a nightmare for her.

‘When we finally spoke on the phone, my mother told me that everyone was safe, but I could still hear the fear in her voice’, Pragyi says.

In shock

Pragyi’s friend, Suruchi Nepal, is 27 years old and also from Kathmandu. She is currently a PhD student in medical microbiology at the University of Groningen, and she went through a similar situation.

‘I was in shock. I remember that I couldn’t sleep or eat for four nights in a row. How could I eat when I didn’t know my family’s situation? I felt helpless and alone’, Suruchi says.

Suruchi and Pragyi said that Nepal’s rural areas faced the most damage. The majority of those areas’ houses are made from mud and stone, so it is unlikely that they could have withstood such a strong earthquake. Both in the capital and outside of it, numerous historical landmarks and temples collapsed.

‘The most depressing thing is that we lost our people. But also, in one moment, our whole history turned into dust’, Pragyi says.

‘Our economy was already weak before the earthquake. Now, it is devastated. It was mostly relying on tourism and on our unique architecture. The earthquake struck both of them. We are a poor nation and now we have nothing. Our people just want to survive’, Suruchi says.

Nepal’s natural disaster didn’t end after the first earthquake. Several aftershocks followed, and a 5.7 magnitude earthquake occurred several days ago.

Process of losing

‘People had just started going back to their normal lives before the second earthquake. It was overwhelming for them. Now, fear is deep inside our heart every day. We lost so many things. It’s hard to accept it and the saddest thing is that we are still in the process of losing’, Suruchi says.

Nepal’s government was not prepared for such a disaster, Pragyi explains. People are disappointed with the way their leaders have dealt with the situation. Nevertheless, they are both proud of Nepal’s police and army. Those people risked their own lives and entered dangerous zones in order to help; some have even died in doing so.

The two girls thought that they also had the obligation to help.

‘Every time I would close my eyes, I would recall all those people crying for help. I knew I should do something. Going there wouldn’t be of any value, I have no skills or money to help the situation’, Pragyi says. They thought the best way to help from the Netherlands would be to initiate a fundraiser and use their own personal network to collect as much money as possible for the victims.

‘We are also afraid of an epidemic disease right now. Our professors Jan Maarten van Dijl and Han Moshage helped us to organize it. We placed Nepalese lunch in the hospital’s canteen in exchange for donations. Aat Wartena, who is responsible for the canteen, agreed to place it in the menu and everything went according to the plan. Thanks to those people, we felt like we are not alone anymore. We had moral support; they could feel what we were going through’, Suruchi says.

‘We designed a brochure, Call for HELP, and shared it through the Internet in order to collect funds. We use the people we know to spread our message. We are planning to send the money to two associations in Nepal and help them cover the basic needs of the victims. So far, we have collected around 5,500 euros’, Pragyi says.

As time goes by, people in Nepal are facing new fears. Monsoon rains will hit Nepal in June and July and make things worse for both the victims and the volunteers.

EPIDEMIC ‘Sometimes, it rains for a whole week. Imagine people sleeping outdoors without even a tent. We are also afraid of an epidemic disease right now’, Pragyi says.

‘Lack of wood makes it even harder for people to burn the bodies, and this can also contribute to a disease’s spread. Even when they bury the bodies, they are very careful because they are afraid of polluting the water. The situation is very bad’, Suruchi adds.

Both young women just hope that the country will recover soon. They are glad that people from all over the world immediately travelled to Nepal to volunteer.

‘I am thankful for all the support and positive energy I have received, especially from people here who are trying to help in every possible way’, Suruchi says.

‘I hope we will remain united as a nation in the next years. We are brave, and we will find a way to deal with it’, Pragyi concludes.

If you would like to contribute to Suruchi and Pragyi’s fundraiser, contact Suruchi at s.nepal@umcg.nl.

 

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Dealing With The American Police

“I live in North Carolina, a place where every black person is very aware that you’re looked at as a criminal or a potential criminal,” said Traline DeMon Spencer, who is currently living and working in North Carolina. “So when I do get stopped I say “yes sir no sir”, I don’t make any sudden movements that could make them think I’m trying to reach a weapon.”

Racial profiling is real in the US nowadays according to statistics. President Obama has also admitted in public that the problem exists.

Traline mentions that he has been a victim of racial profiling by the police many times. He recalls the first time.

He was still a senior high school student when his father bought him an Audi as a present. As he explains, him driving his new car to school was more than enough to catch one of his teachers’ attention.

“She asked me how could I afford such a nice car and I basically told her to mind her own business. The very next day I got called to the principal’s office.” The assistant principal and a police officer were waiting there for Traline. They informed him that they had to search his car, as they had received a tip saying that Traline might be carrying drugs.

“I was scared. They told me they needed my keys and my permission to search my car. I said yes because I was scared. I had to sit in the principal’s office while they took a drug dog and went through my car. I knew I didn’t have anything to hide but still, I felt sick like I had done something wrong.”

Traline mentions that he had never got into trouble as a student, so for him it was clear from the beginning that the police wanted to search his car just because he is black. “At that time I had never even seen pot before. I didn’t even know what it looked like. My dad was a minister, so my sister and I were very sheltered in that way.”

Dealing With The American Police

The police found nothing in his car and he was allowed to return to his classes. However Traline was still very upset.

“I thought it was funny that my white friend Brad got a BMW a few weeks before I got my Audi and no one ever questioned him or suspected that he was a drug dealer.”

A few days later the principal apologized to Traline for what happened that day.

Nevertheless, he explains that after many similar incidents that happened to him he has lost his faith in the police.

“I don’t feel like police are there to protect me. I feel like they are there to find a way to arrest me or harass me. All of my white friends are being treated by the police in a different way.”

Traline says that he does his best to avoid dealing with the police. This does not mean that he is not frustrated by the way the police treat him.  He has to hide it, however, when he gets stopped by a police officer, as he acknowledges that getting upset it won’t make the interaction any better.

Despite the fact that he has found a way to deal with racial profiling he is not optimistic about the future regarding this social problem.

“I don’t see how we can fix a problem when they don’t see a problem at all. Until police departments and police unions and law enforcement admit it’s a problem, it will never get better. Right now only a few of them acknowledge that racial profiling does happen.”

For him only higher placed governmental agencies could force a change at the moment, since the police keep denying that there is a problem.

“There was a study commissioned in Michigan to look into racial profiling to see if it was a real problem or not. When the results came back officers couldn’t believe that they were racially profiling. I guess they thought black people were lying all this time when we’ve been trying to get their attention about racial profiling.”

Even now that a black president is in charge of the U.S., for Traline the time for change concerning racial profiling has not come yet.

Dealing With The American Police

“President Obama has spoken numerous times about addressing this problem, but he hasn’t proposed any legislation that will properly address it yet. If Obama lets this issue slide past him I think it will be one of his biggest regrets leaving office. He has been president for some years now but he didn’t do anything.”

Even though Traline is pessimistic about the future he does not consider that moving to another place could be a solution to his own problems at the moment.

“I don’t think moving would change things much. I moved to Ft Lauderdale after graduation and really liked it there. However, racial profiling isn’t just an issue in southern states. It’s everywhere.  But, I do worry about how my kids would be treated if I decide to have some.”

 

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ERT: the crisis and the closure

“The atmosphere in the newsroom was really strange. People were nervous.” Around 3:00 p.m. someone in the newsroom of ERT, the state-run Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, received a phone call and then, panic prevailed. Anna Omiridou, an ERT journalist, didn’t know what was happening. The Greek government’s announcement was delayed for an hour. No one could imagine what was about to happen.

Simos Kedikoglou announcing government’s decision to close ERT

Legislative act for closing organizations with a ministerial decision which was enacted by virtue of Article 14B of Law 3429/2005 leaked in the morning of June 11, 2013. Later on that day, governments spokesman Simos Kedikoglou, announced the immediate shutdown of ERT, calling it “a deficient corporation” and claiming it had fewer viewers than private stations. He said the government would create a new organization under the name NERIT.

Omiridou, 35, had been working for ERT’s regional broadcasting channel in Thessaloniki for thirteen years. “Many people still doubt those were the real reasons for such a decision. They don’t really know why ERT closed. I want to say that ERT was not deficient as the government claimed. ERT provided surplus the last three years. Actually it was one of the most profitable Greek corporations.”

ERT began broadcasting in 1938 and its services included national radio services, three television broadcasting channels which used to emit from various cities in Greece and an orchestra.

“We are having a hard time since 2013. My husband also worked for ERT,” Omiridou said. She and her husband were among the 2,656 people who lost their jobs that night.

The night ERT was closed, the government promised a large payout to all employees. Some days after ERT closed, workers received the first installment and after thirteen months they received another one. These two installments amounted to four months' salary.

Omiridou, as well as some of her colleagues, received unemployment benefit for several months but this wasn’t enough to cover the cost of living.

“The government destroyed our future. Many of my colleagues not only lost their jobs but their houses as well and live in the streets right now and many passed away due to heart attacks”.

For Omiridou, the memory of the day ERT was shut down still lingers.            

“When ERT went black at 10:00 p.m., I was in the newsroom preparing subjects for the flow of the news broadcast. And then suddenly during air time the government cut the program. I watched everything happening from the newsroom and I couldn’t believe in my eyes. I had so many different emotions in the same time. I got angry, I thought it was really unfair for all of the employees. And now what?” Employees at ERT were overcome by anger and fear that night. As she described the scene, Omiridou couldn't hold back her tears.

She and her colleagues decided that no one should leave the newsroom. They wanted to stay and organize shifts in order to continue broadcasting with technical assistance from the European Broadcasting Union, via a satellite transmission. The EBU also began providing Internet streaming of the ERT broadcast.

Employees still believed that something could change. The Greek political scene was changing from day to day. One of the three political parties in the government resigned. The political volatility, in combination with mass support from citizens, led Anna and her colleagues believe that ERT would eventually open again.

Anna clearly remembers that she was sitting in front of a window in the newsroom and watched hundreds of people arrive to protest with them. Popular protests, mainly in Thessaloniki and Athens, went on for months.

“It was really surprising that despite the fact that it was summer people were willing to participate in daily protests and every day they became more and more. Many people felt for the first time that the Greek national television was open for them and they really wanted to get in the building and meet people who used to work there”.

Today, 16 months after that dramatic night, citizens are not protesting anymore. Anna still believes that only a political decision can correct what she calls “a political mistake.”

On May 4 this year, NERIT started broadcasting from Athens. But people who lost their jobs in Thessaloniki and other cities are still unemployed.

“There is a legal battle ahead but I want to be optimistic because I miss my job, I miss my office, my friends and colleagues. I miss my life”.

 

ERT: the crisis and the closure

 

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