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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Amsterdam hotels gives Syrian refugees a sense of hope

Staffed and run by asylum-seekers, mostly Syrians, who are being temporarily housed by the Dutch government

The former Bijlmerbajes prison, transformed in The Movement Hotel, staffed and run by asylum-seekers. Cris Toala Olivares/Reuters
The former Bijlmerbajes prison, transformed in The Movement Hotel, staffed and run by asylum-seekers. Cris Toala Olivares/Reuters

A beaming Syrian refugee called Monjid welcomes guests to Amsterdam's newest hotel, offering them hummus and olives before walking them from the bright pink reception area to their cell.

The Movement Hotel, which opened this month in one tower of the Bijlmerbajes, once the Netherlands' most notorious prison, offers both a unique experience for its guests and a glimpse of a more hopeful future for its employees.

The hotel is staffed and run by asylum-seekers, selected from a group of 600, mostly Syrians, who are being temporarily housed by the Dutch government - not under lock and key - in other parts of the complex.

The staff know their residence status is uncertain, but all hope to gain experience and build up their resumés as they dream of future employment in a more normal life.

"We heard from the [Dutch] government that if the situation in Syria is safe, we must go back," said the hotel manager, Hachem, who like other staff asked that his surname not be used because of the potential danger to his family in Syria.

Once he has been in the Netherlands five years, however, he hopes to get permission to remain long-term.

Rob Hoogerwerf, the Dutchman who organised the project with donations and the help of various authorities, says the staff are working toward a certificate that would let them work in the hospitality industry in the Netherlands - or wherever they end up.

"We are helping them, or at least we would like to help them, to find their way."

For guests, the hotel offers an experience of a bit of Amsterdam history, complete with observation cameras in the elevators and barbed wire on some of the outer walls. The prison was shut in June 2016.

"We were looking for something different ... and at the last moment, we saw this place," said Andrea Legaspi, a Spanish law student attracted by the chance to get some kind of feel of prison life.

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Sure enough, she found a name carved into her cell, and had a view through the bars down into the prison exercise yard - as well as a comfortable bed and wifi.

The Bijlmerbajes once housed notorious criminals, including the group that kidnapped beer magnate Freddy Heineken in 1983 for a €17 million (Dh74.6m) ransom.

The prison's name comes from the Bijlmer neighbourhood to the south-east and "bajes", a slang term for jail.

Last week the city announced that next year it will start redeveloping the whole area into a new "Bajes" neighbourhood designed by the architecture firm OMA. That means the hotel will probably have to close on January 2, though Hoogerwerf is hoping for an extension.

Rooms cost €99 to €140 a night. Each is decorated with a single word on the wall intended to invoke the many contradictions of the place: "Freedom?"