Syrian girls, from left, Shahd Alamar, 8, Lana Alkhawaja, 9, Maya Alamar, 4, holding balloons, Amal Sakkal, 8, and Hala Alhalaby, 8, play in a corridor known as Kalverstraat, referring to a busy shopping street in Amsterdam, at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Syrian girls, from left, Shahd Alamar, 8, Lana Alkhawaja, 9, Maya Alamar, 4, holding balloons, Amal Sakkal, 8, and Hala Alhalaby, 8, play in a corridor known as Kalverstraat, referring to a busy shopping street in Amsterdam, at the former prison of Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Photograph by Muhammed Muheisen, AP

These Empty Prison Cells Are Now Home to Refugees

Amsterdam’s Bijlmerbajes prison no longer houses inmates, but asylum seekers awaiting their new lives.

To tell the story of migrants fleeing violence is to tell a story without an obvious face or setting. So when Europe’s migrant crisis began in 2015, Associated Press photographer Muhammed Muheisen decided to wait on a beach in Greece, watching the flow of refugees from Syria, the Middle East, and war-torn parts of Africa. “Most people think that once people arrive, the story’s over. But to me, that’s just when the story starts,” he says.

Muheisen focused his lens in the Netherlands, a country with both a willingness to accept migrants and a declining level of crime. Too many empty cells left the Dutch government looking for other uses for its prisons. So they began to fill them with migrants. In the Netherland’s Bijlmerbajes prison in Amsterdam, more than 600 weary refugees are given beds, warm meals, and a roof—all temporarily, until they can be granted Dutch residency, placed in real homes, and given jobs.

Over the past year, Muheisen has returned occasionally to Bijlmerbajes to photograph family life in a prison. The serious moments, the goofy playtimes, and the impatience of waiting for the next government decision to move them along to their new lives all unfolded in front of his camera. The only thing that didn’t seem to bother anybody was the setting. “We don’t care,” one woman told him about living, for now, in a former prison. “All that matters is that we’re safe.”

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