Meet Sister Bets Verbakel. An honorary citizen of Eindhoven who has been awarded the first peace prize in Eindhoven.
It is was granted to her for her continuous effort and for her relentless fight for peace, equality and humanity for the needy, helpless displaced refugees. She is 89-years-old and still working towards the betterment of those in dire need of help. She contributes largely to the activities of both the congregation and the foundation ‘Stichting Vluchtelingen in de Knel‘ (Refugees in trouble/need), She is an enormous source of inspiration for everyone around.
Chaitali from Eindhoven News wanted to know what is the source of her motivation, how did it all begin.
She smiles hearing that question. In her eyes I could see the wistfulness of the decades gone by. “My work is my motivation. It all seems so long ago now. In the beginning when we – three other sisters and I from the Congregation came together in this house at Hoogstraat, in the year 1983, we had no idea what we would do with such a big house. We had free rooms available. Very soon we were approached by the then ‘Vluchtelingennetwerk’ (Refugee network) in Eindhoven. They wished to have our rooms to put up two refugee students from Congo and Bangladesh. That was the start, although at that point of time we had no idea what it meant to be a refugee and what were the legalities involved in housing them. In our eyes, they were humans, devoid of their home and hearth, looking for shelter in a strange country and as fellow humans, we could not have refused them away.”
When the two students left, the sisters decided to continue their work with the displaced refugees and their work continued in this same manner till the year 1987. “In the year 1987 the government came up with a new policy for the refugees under which providing shelter to these people became the responsibility of the local municipalities. So our help in this regard was no more needed.”
The right to exist
Vluchtelingen in de Knel is a non-profit organization that stands up for the basic rights of (rejected) refugees, based on the firm conviction that every person has the right to exist. Refugees who ask for protection in the Netherlands often live in great uncertainty.
“(Rejected) refugees who are awaiting their follow-up procedures or are unable to return, must survive on the streets or be imprisoned. They cannot work, cannot live in the society, cannot study, they simply do not exist. We, as an organisation, stand up for the rights of refugees, legally, medically and socially, out of compassion and fellowship,” she explains.
The compassion and fellowship has been the hallmark of Bets Verbakel’s life. “It gives me great pain to see boat load of migrants drowning in the sea. As fellow humans, how can we tolerate this? Yes, there are political aspects to everything, but refugees are humans, first and foremost,” is what she strongly believes in.
In the year 1987 a cooperation was started (Samenwerkingsverband Vluchtelingen in de Knel) and thereafter a foundation was created in the year 1996. This foundation – without any official status – provided help to those displaced humans who had appealed for protection/shelter in the Netherlands, but whose appeal were rejected. “These refugees were not able to return back to their own country at once. In some instances their case needed to be reopened and refiled again. During that interim period they were still humans with human needs. We sought to work with our partners – the churches, pastors, other groups working for the refugees, advocates and lawyers to fight for the rights of these ‘undocumented’ people.” Sister Bets recalls how the other members of the society helped them in those days. For example, in the first decade, GP’s attended the patients free of charge and the patients could avail the medicines too.
She has been instrumental in working towards the goal of bringing hope in the lives of the hapless refugees where there was none. In the year 2000 the Foundation Vluchtelingen in de Knel was officially established. They hired more legal experts who could help the refugees fight their cases and in this regard Sister Bets mentions Rian Ederveen, a very well known Human Rights activist, whose help to the organization has been enormous.
How does it feel to be the recipient of the first Eindhoven peace prize?
“It feels good to know that human rights have been respected, but I have not done this alone, I believe this is a recognition for all those people who have supported us in our mission. I must also say that we have always had the support of Eindhoven municipality in our works, they have always listened to us with patience which is quite heartening.”
Of course we want to know: Does she feel any difference in the work from then and now? “Not really. The work must go on, that is the motto. We, the sisters have now moved out from Hoogstraat and relocated to Schijndel. But the younger generation to whom we have given this mantle are equally capable and I’m very sure they will be able to carry forward the good job with success.”
Hope glimmered bright in her mature wise eyes and it was with this feeling of hope that I left her.
For Eindhoven News Chaitali Sengupta
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