It is Thursday when I am on duty and drive past all the maternity wives to see how they are doing. On my third visit, I get a call from a nurse from the hospital who wants to pass on a discharge to me. This is a Ukrainian lady who has given birth to her third child. She has been in our city for a short time, before that she lived in Ter Apel.
I drive to the address given. Standing at the door, I see that it is a real estate company. A young man, who looks like a younger version of David Beckham, opens the door for me. 'Can I help you with anything?' he asks politely. 'Well I guess I'm wrong' I say as I check the address again. He looks at my visiting bag which obviously looks like a doctor's bag. 'You must be coming for someone who lives up here', nodding at my bag. 'Come along and I'll show you'. I walk behind the man through his company and through the back door we step outside. An elephant trail has been made between the shrubs that leads to a door on the other side of the building. 'Just walk up here, I'm sure there is someone from the municipality who can help you'.
I walk in and see that I have to go straight up a flight of stairs. As I walk to the first floor, I pass an elderly man who is just walking out to smoke a cigarette. Kindly I nod at him. He looks at me briefly, says something in Ukrainian and walks on.
Doors in alphabetical order
Once on the first floor, I see no one, but fifteen locked doors with a letter on each door. I decide to walk through another floor and the same thing on that floor too. Fifteen closed doors but with different letters. No counter, no counter, let alone someone from the municipality. Lost, I stand still for a few seconds as I decide to call the hospital. 'Yes we have the same address but no letter of the right door,' says the nurse.
I walk back to the first floor. There, a door opens and quickly closes again when the woman in question sees me. A man comes out of another door. Before I can ask him anything, he re-enters another door. I try to call the given telephone number of the lady in question. While trying to make contact, I look around me. Old furniture stands in the corner of the corridor. There is carpet on the floor that looks like carpet from an old office building. At the end of the corridor, a fluorescent tube flashes nervously against the ceiling. 'You've reached the voicemail of...', with a sigh I push my phone call away again.
Then the older man emerges. A cloud of nicotine follows him as he passes me. "Excuse me sir, can you help me to find someone?" I try. He turns to look at me not understanding and raises his eyebrows. I decide to portray a baby with hand gestures. For a moment he looks at me in surprise and then sees my doctor's bag. Suddenly he seems to understand me and beckons for me to follow him.
After ten doors, he pauses and knocks on the door. A young man in a bare torso opens the door. He flinches for a moment when he sees me standing next to the old man and quickly snatches out a T-shirt, which he immediately puts on. The men speak Ukrainian to each other briefly, after which the young man beckons me inside. To be sure, I call out the first name I am looking for. The man nods and I step inside their home.
Now I am in a room of an estimated 5 by 3 metres. There is a small kitchenette, a cupboard, a small table with 2 chairs, a desk with a wheelchair, 2 double beds and a bunk bed. Quickly I consider that my own bedroom is just as big, but this one can accommodate 6 sleeping people. Using English, I try to communicate but soon notice that this does not work. There is no maternity care, no list of checks and a language barrier. Father and mother stand nervously watching me. Then I take off my coat and shoes and start up my Google translate, deciding to take my time with this.
Once the app has launched, I speak a message: 'Dobroho ranku', it sounds from my phone. Tensely, I wait for their response to see if they respond to my 'Good morning'. After all, I can't check because my Ukrainian language skills are comparable to the numeral zero. They nod politely and soon I see the tension on their shoulders disappear as they realise what I have come for.
I take my time with their questions and keep explaining until I am sure they understand everything around breastfeeding, nursing, registering with the municipality, the heel prick and the consultation centre. I do the checks on mother and child and she tells me that her 2 eldest children have both been breastfed for 2 years. I praise her for this achievement and compliment her that I am dealing with professional parents. For the first time, I see a smile on her face.
Once everything is explained and I have made a return appointment, I ask about their families. They are scattered across the countries between Ukraine and the Netherlands. These people fled when things really couldn't be kept down and the only word Dutch I hear them say is 'Safe'. I nod. For us it is so obvious. For them, it is no longer.
'Can I help you with anything else?' I ask her, as I have lived in the city for thirty-five years and know a lot. She thinks for a moment and puts her question to my phone which translates as follows: 'Maybe you know where I buy nice soap for neighbour. It's her birthday,' she says as she awaits my answer.
Enthralled, I leave the building. Someone who has been through so much misery and then still manages to think of the neighbour's wife's birthday when she has just had her 3the child has had. Ode to the Ukrainian population currently allowed to stay in our country by necessity.