This post is part of the UK Blog Tour for Dutch Book Week 2020.

Rodaan Al-Galidi spent nine years in an Asylum Centre in the Netherlands before he finally obtained Dutch citizenship as part of a General Amnesty. Two Blankets, Three Sheets, published by World Editions, is narrated by ‘Samir’, but is based on Rodaan’s story. Here, he describes what happens if an asylum seeker falls ill. It’s a case of fact being stranger than fiction.

After a few days at the ASC (Asylum Seekers’ Centre) my health began to pick up. I could still, however, feel the sharp pain in my back from having been being kicked in the cell at Schiphol. The Haarlem RC (Reception Centre) had a medical clinic, with one or two nurses on duty. If an asylum seeker felt ill, he could go to the clinic. There, he would be given aspirin for most things, and other medicine for infected tonsils, diarrhoea, or constipation. If he had something serious that required real attention from a doctor or a hospital, then the nurse said he would have to wait until he was sent to an ASC. (Asylum seekers were entitled to a basic health insurance, which only paid for simple illnesses.) However, when they got to an ASC, asylum seekers needing a more complicated procedure were informed that they had to wait until they got a residence permit, which could take fifteen years. So problems often arose between asylum seekers and staff at the RC and ASC medical clinics. As an official interpreter was too expensive for the clinics and I spoke passable English, I often translated for my fellow residents, and in doing so frequently witnessed this kind of situation.

For example, I remember hearing the man on the mattress next to mine groaning. His name was Farid and he had a toothache. He had already been to the clinic a few times, and each time they gave him aspirin. He wanted to see a dentist, even if the only option was to pull the tooth. But there was a weird regulation at the Haarlem RC, which must have been thought up by an internal staff member, because I’ve never encountered it anywhere else. It was this: only when three asylum seekers had a toothache, and only then, could they all be sent to the dentist together. Farid had heard tell of a Kurdish woman who also had a toothache. So the next day, Farid and the woman desperately scoured the RC in search of a third sufferer, until they finally managed to convince someone that he also had a toothache. He too was given aspirin for several days, until the staff at the clinic decided this wasn’t working, and that there were now three people with a toothache. That was good news: they had an appointment with a dentist the very next day, and they all had to assemble at the appointed time. Farid asked me to go along to translate. 

The dentist had two consulting rooms separated by a waiting room. First, the dental assistant ushered them, one at a time, into one of the rooms. I relayed which tooth or molar hurt. They got a shot of anaesthetic and had to return to the waiting area while the next one had their turn. Then, one by one, they were called into the other room, where the dentist worked. They were out again before you knew it. Some twenty minutes later, all three aching teeth had been pulled, although the Kurdish woman claimed, after the anaesthetic wore off, that they had pulled the wrong one. During all this, I asked the dentist why he was in such a hurry. He said that there was a shortage of dentists in the Netherlands, and that even Dutch people spent months on a waiting list if they moved to another city. That surprised me, the Netherlands being such a tiny country. If a Dutch dentist could help three people in twenty minutes, surely a hundred dentists should be enough for the entire population.

At night the pain in my lower back persisted. At the clinic they kept giving me aspirin.