From refugee boat to Amsterdam canal cruiser

Two boats that once carried refugees across the Mediterranean are now taking daytrippers along Amsterdam’s canals – a reminder to the city of its debt to immigrants

We wait on the quay, looking at a boat. It’s strangely familiar: the colour of rust, paint flaking, revealing layers of colour beneath, and Arabic lettering on the side. We’ve all seen fragile-looking, battered craft like this.

The Alhadj Djumaa, or Mr Friday, was once a people-smuggler’s boat. But rather than smuggling people across the sea, it’s now spread with cushions and plates of bread and dips, ready for Amsterdam’s most original boat tour.

Run by Rederij, a collective of locals and migrants, this larger of two boats takes “VIP” storytelling sunset trips out from the Eastern islands, while the tour group’s other, 12-person craft, Kleine Boot (once used to carry 87 refugees), tours the canals.

Amsterdam's refugee boat trips

Syrian captain Moe al-Masri waits with us on the quay. He escaped to the Netherlands via an eight-hour trip from Izmir, in Turkey, to Lesbos, on a boat packed with people, including 11 children and a four-month-old baby. “I had already lost everything,” says al-Masri, “I had nothing to lose.”

When he started training to captain the canal tours with Rederij, he had only ever taken one boat trip in his life, across the Mediterranean.

We clamber on board. There are around 40 of us, a far cry from the 282 people the Alhadj Djumaa once transported from Egypt to Italy. The engine judders and we chug out across the water, with central Amsterdam in the distance. Lying in the back of the boat, the afternoon sun turns everything golden, and light sparks across the water.

As Teun Castelein, a Dutch artist and founder of the project, explains: “Here we have a big tradition of pleasure-boating. But I couldn’t watch it any more without thinking of migrants of the Mediterranean.”

Amsterdam's refugee boat trips

Teun visited Lampedusa, the Italian island in the Mediterranean which has become an entry point into Europe for thousands of refugees, and was struck by its graveyard of smugglers’ boats. Someone said to him how rich Europeans must be, to throw these all away. He managed to persuade the mayors of Lampedusa and Amsterdam to help bring two of the boats here, to create an art-social project about immigration.

The tours tell how immigrants have helped to shape the city, linking the often-overlooked story of the foreign settlers who laboured to build its lavish canal houses with the migrant stories of today.

As we pootle onto the quiet expanse of water, chatting and drinking wine, it all feels perversely idyllic, with the boat’s former passengers ever-present. As al-Masri says: “This boat has souls on it … There’s a rule about refugees: better than talk about them, talk with them. This is like a living documentary, the story of someone who went on a boat.”

Rederij Lampedusa canal boat tours last for 1-2 hours and run May-September, €17pp; “VIP tours” run from April-September, by donation

Abigail Blasi

The GuardianTramp

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