“What do you want to know?”, Svetlana asks. “I can tell you the cliché story about expats who get a job and move to Leiden, but we can also talk about the crisis in my country and the strong women who are crucial.” “I prefer the last one,” I say, “at least if that is not dangerous for you.” “I’ll take that risk.”
“My husband got a job at Wolters Kluwer. We moved to the Netherlands in February 2020, six months before the elections in Belarus. We traveled back to vote. The three opposition candidates had already been arrested, but their wives put themselves up for election. When the current dictator lost the elections, he did not step down and lied about the outcome. Since then, there have been protests.”
“In the beginning they only arrested men, so it quickly became the women’s revolution. Every Saturday we were dressed in white with flowers in our hands along the main boulevards of Minsk. All the passing cars honked to encourage us. People spontaneously brought coffee and sandwiches. We are a people of solidarity. On Sundays, everybody went on the streets – men, women and kids, every week again. The police were very violent. Entire families ended up in jail.”
She swallows and starts crying softly. “All good people are in jail, including friends of ours. No one has had a fair trial. Many are tortured, first physically, but now mainly psychologically. People even have been killed. The situation has become unbearable.” Her husband, Ivan, who is helping with the translation, takes her hand to calm her down.
“I actually didn’t want to move to Leiden. My husband got the job here, but I thought it was too big a step. Now I don’t want to go back anymore. This is a good place for our daughters. They are seven and eight years old and they deserve better than what our country can offer them right now. I am so relieved that we are safe, but at the same time I feel guilty, because I am no longer participating in the protests.”
“I am now learning Dutch. And I’m a personal trainer in crossfit for other women who live here and also speak my language. Of course, I train myself every day. The gym has become my second home. I made a lot of new friends there.”
We’re going to take the picture. “Are you going to lift all of that?”, I ask. It looks heavy, but she has a mental asset. To lift it up, she yells out loud to herself: “Remember your homeland, Svetlana. Think of your homeland!”