Dying Dutch girl saves Afghan refugee’s life, education

Afghan refugee girl Derakshan Beekzada, now a doctor, photo Linelle Deunk

This photo shows Afghan refugee, Derakshan Beekzada, who recently became a doctor. Her Dutch friend Maartje saved Derakshan’s life and education when she was a teenager; when the Dutch government tried to deport her refugee family back to the Afghan war.

Translated from Dutch daily De Volkskrant, 27 November 2018, by Ellen de Visser:

Living instead of Maartje

In 2004, 14-year-old Maartje knew: she is dying. Her friend Derakshan is in danger of being deported. Maartje writes a letter to Minister Rita Verdonk,

a bureaucratic and xenophobic right-winger

whether Derakshan would not be allowed to stay if Maartje would no longer be there. Fourteen years later, Derakshan, in the Netherlands, makes Maartje’s dream come true.

In the fall of 2004, just after she heard that the cancer was back, 14-year-old Maartje van Winkel wrote a letter to Minister Verdonk in which she transfered her place in life. She will die, she will not live for much longer, so a place is available for her Afghan friend Derakshan.

Maartje's letter to minister Verdonk about her friend Derakshan, from Judith Koorn's collection

Five years earlier, Derakshan and her parents and brother came to the Netherlands, fleeing the Taliban, but now she has been told that she must go back. She burst into tears in the classroom.

Two girlfriends, who both know how dangerous their lives are: the timid Derakshan, headscarf knotted under the chin, who still has to find her way, who startles when a man sits down next to her on the bus, at the Breukelen high school befriended the cheerful Maartje who gives her the feeling that she is welcome. After years of war, Derakshan knows what it feels like to face death; Maartje, defenseless against a disease that slowly destroys her, wants to make sure that her friend does have a future.

It is the year in which the conflict about the Dutch gpvernment’s asylum policy started. The government has agreed with Minister for Immigration Affairs Rita Verdonk’s plan to return 26 thousand asylum seekers who have exhausted all legal remedies to their country of origin. The decision leads to demonstrations, resistance by mayors, moving letters, protests by villages, school classes, football teams. Under the title “26 thousand faces”, Dutch filmmakers film asylum seekers who are in danger of being deported, short films broadcast by the public broadcaster.

Derakshan is one of those 26 thousand faces. When the Jeugdjournaal (Youth News) TV show hears about the letter, the story of the two girlfriends becomes national news. On Christmas Eve, a heavily emaciated Maartje, a pink scarf around the bald head, looks into the television camera from the bed in her girl’s room. “Derakshan could take my place if I will be no longer there”, she says. “I always wanted to be a doctor, so she can do that for me.” After the broadcast, 700 letters arrive at the Jeugdjournaal.

It is a reason for the minister to travel a month later to the coucil house home in Maarssen for a personal inquiry. Outside on the street, with a curious cat on the windowsill, the Jeugdjournaal catches her after the conversation. Verdonk understands the emotions, she says. “But we also have laws in the Netherlands. Derakshan has been safe here for a number of years and she can now return to Afghanistan.”

Three months later, on a Monday morning in April, Maartje dies, unaware of the future of her best friend.

Thirteen years later, a weekday afternoon in April, a full lecture hall at the Emma Children’s Hospital in Amsterdam. The same hospital where Maartje, after months of hope, once heard the fatal diagnosis: department F8 Noord, pediatric oncology. Her friends are there. The former neighbours. The vice-president of her school. Nurses from then. The radiotherapist who is already retired. The doctor. The music teacher from her old school wears the framed portrait that has hung with him in the classroom for so long.

Judith Koorn, the mother of Maartje, presents the book that she wrote about the life of her daughter, the heartbreaking story of a girl who, for all her inexplicable complaints, was not taken seriously for far too long. There were doctors who thought she was begging for attention, who referred her to a psychiatrist. When a thorough orthopedist finally had an MRI scan made, it turned out to be too late, there was a tumour in her spine that had caused metastases. The disease showed its cruel side, the cancer ran wild, Maartje had to endure a horrible dying process.

Just before she died, she told about her fear that no one would ever mention her name again. Her mother writes that everything she had said and had done might be erased over time. But ask her doctor, ask the teachers at her school, the doctors who treated her, the presenter of the Jeugdjournaal, the girls from her class, and the fellow villager who left a letter on her grave, and they all tell the same thing: that they have learned so much from Maartje. …

“When she realized that her world was finite, she wondered what else she could do.”

“She could think beyond her own illness”, recalls Liesbeth Staats, presenter of the Jeugdjournaal at the time. “She knew she wasn’t going to make it but she remained clear and sober. Derakshan had to go back and the argument in the asylum discussion was always: there is no place here. Maartje’s response was: then I give up my place, literally, then she can get my social security number and later my scholarship, she doesn’t have to cost anything. There was nothing to argue against that except that Verdonk said no.”…

Derakshan Beekzada, photo Linelle Deunk

Maartje’s legacy has been decisive for one young woman. She sits in the front right of the lecture room that afternoon, attentively and confidently, the long dark hairs loose around her face: Derakshan Beekzada, 29, has made her best friend’s dream come true. Every day she accompanies cancer patients as a doctor at the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Hospital, the story of her friend is in the back of her mind. “I dedicate my success to her”, she says. “Much later I read her letter, she wrote: I’m dying, can she be me? It can still silence me.”

Escaping from Afghanistan had to be in a hurry, late at night. She hated that she could nottake her doll along. She remembers changing cars again and again, a boat which nealy capsized, endless nightly walks through mud and the last long part in a truck. Somewhere along a Dutch highway they are dropped.

She had never been to school, 11-year-old Derakshan; that was not allowed by the Taliban, who had taken over large parts of Afghanistan four years earlier. When she arrives at the asylum seekers’ center in Driebergen, she can only write her name, but in a year and a half she will learn all the material of primary school. She might go to junior high school, but it became senior high school. She works hard, writes flawless Dutch, is one of the best students in the exact subjects. “I can’t remember her ever scoring less than [maximum score] 10”, her maths teacher says. Director Dick van Steenis can remember her flawlessly after all these years. “If all students would have 10 percent of her perseverance, then everyone would succeed here,” he says in his office.

The first tests in her third high school year are only just finished when everything changes. The Taliban have been driven out, Afghanistan is once again considered a safe country, Derakshan has to return with her parents. She realizes what that means: her father has serious heart problems, her mother is being treated for ovarian cancer, not only will medical care will be lacking there, she will soon also have to earn a living in a country where she does not know her way. And although the Taliban are no longer in power, their influence is still great. Friends and relatives have fled or been killed, her parents are terrified.

The school takes action at the initiative of a few teachers involved. All a thousand students write on a card why Derakshan should stay, a local florist makes roses available and so the class goes on a Tuesday for the Christmas holidays with a thousand roses and a thousand tickets in a bus to The Hague. The camera of the Jeugdjournaal records how Derakshan pushes the wheelchair of the sick Maartje towards the Ministry of Justice, a bunch of roses on Maartje’s lap.

Derakshan pushing Maartje's wheelchair in The Hague anti-deportation demonstration

It is an image that summarizes everything, says Van Steenis, deputy school principal: “A girl whose life would end and a girl whose life might very well end, in a different way.” Only then does Derakshan hear of the letter by her female friend. “It is not easy to write in a letter: I am dying. It was very brave that she could put that on paper”, she says a week later when the Jeugdjournaal comes to film at her home. …

Two years after Maartje’s death, the fourth Balkenende government, of which Rita Verdonk is no longer a member, is putting an amnesty arrangement into effect. A year later, Derakshan hears that she can stay on the day when her father was able to leave intensive care. He had a heart attack in the courtroom during the last case he conducted against their deportation. …

Rita Verdonk says she has no need to look back on the case.

Judith Koorn, Maartje’s mother, describes the Friday afternoon in November when her daughter gets her death sentence in the hos[ital. The chemotherapy that initially seemed to work is no longer effective. The treating oncologist is not there, his replacement tells Maartje that she still has ten weeks to live. It appears blunt and brusque. In the parking garage they discover that they have switched on the light of the car, the battery is empty, the car does not start. Much later they drive home in the dark, through the pouring rain, on the A2 highway, totally devastated.

It will prove symbolic for the misery to come. With the death of Maartje, friends and acquaintances disappear. “I saw people diving away, no one ever called again”, she says. “The outside world will avoid you if you lose a child, that is a nasty loneliness.”

The only one that keeps coming is Derakshan. “I unconsciously tried to take over tasks from Maartje after she died, to become a kind of new daughter. My parents really encouraged me in this. Friends told me they didn’t know what to say to her mother. Could they still remind her of Maartje? Wasn’t that too painful? Understandable. Then, looking away is easiest. …

Yet it is not strange that Maartje’s cancer has gone unnoticed for a long time, says Utrecht orthopedic surgeon René Castelein. The Ewing sarcoma, the malignant bone tumor discovered in her, is rare, he says: every year it occurs in less than ten children. Usually that type of cancer reveals itself in the lower leg or arm, where a bump develops. You don’t see anything on a back. Castelein is alarmed when he examines Maartje, has an MRI scan made and immediately sees what is happening a day later. “But I don’t know,” he says hesitantly, “if the disease had given such a convincing impression at an earlier stage.” The last doctor, he says, the doctor who makes the diagnosis is always right. …

It is no coincidence that she wants to become an oncologist, says Derakshan, when, after her working day at the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Hospital, she sits down at the restaurant. “What I experienced really plays a role. First my mother got cancer and I had to assist her as an interpreter while I barely spoke the language. And when my mother got well, my best friend died from the same disease. It’s great that I now get the chance to cure people. Cancer patients realize that life can be short, they will appreciate everything so much more. I find that special.”…

She no longer wears her headscarf, after a conversation with her father, she took it off in her last high school year. “I explained to him that it didn’t make me a better Muslim and that the headscarf stopped me from being myself. People look at you differently, I noticed, it stood in the way of my development. That is also my fault, but my father said: if it feels better for you, you have to do it. From that moment on I suddenly succeeded in making it much easier to make contact.”…

A year and a half after Maartje’s death, her mother finds a rainy envelope on her grave. It contains a letter from a girl from the village. She is suffering from a major depression and she has recently attempted suicide. When she returned to school, she had heard that Maartje had died, and she found it so unfair that she had drawn strength from it. “You wanted to live so badly but it didn’t work, I stayed alive while I didn’t”, she writes. “From your day of death I have always told myself that I should be happy with what I have, with who I am. I survoved thanks to you.”…

For fourteen years, Derakshan was afraid she still had to return to Afghanistan, years in which it seemed impossible to become a Dutch citizen because she could not get the birth certificate that was required for this. Four years ago she was finally allowed to pick up her Dutch passport on a Monday morning in March. “Only then did I think: now I can really be someone here.” Every day she puts on her white doctor’s coat at the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Hospital, she has her girlfriend in mind. “What she wanted to do for me was so great that I can never pay her back. I live my happiness in her name.”

London Grenfell disaster residents protest against cancerous waste

London Grenfell disaster area people protest over cancerous chemicals from Grenfell blaze, 5 April 2019

By Ceren Sagir in London, England:

Friday, April 5, 2019

Kensington residents protest over cancerous chemicals from Grenfell blaze

Grenfell justice activists brought traffic to a standstill today in a protest against the continuing presence of toxicity in the area around the tower that was devastated by fire two years ago.

By Thomas Scripps in England:

Surrounding land left highly toxic after Grenfell Tower inferno

6 April 2019

The preliminary findings of a study into the widespread presence of toxic substances in the area around the fire that destroyed Grenfell tower in London were published in the journal Chemosphere.

Carried out by Professor Anna Stec and a team from the University of Central Lancashire, its findings were reported to the government last February and ignored. Public Health England (PHE) has only ever tested for airborne pollution and always insisted that “the risk to public health from air pollution remains low.”

However, the Stec study described how “huge concentrations” of potential carcinogens are present in the dust and soil around the tower, as well as in the burned debris that had fallen from it.

Even when these findings were brought to national attention in the Guardian eight months later, in October 2018, PHE and the government attempted to evade the issue. They dismissed Stec’s work as not yet peer-reviewed and claimed that the chemicals she discovered could have come from “a variety of sources.”

Although a chemicals consultant, AECOM, has now been appointed to investigate the issue, not a single government-organised soil test has been carried out 21 months after the June 14, 2017, fire.

The publication of Stec’s full study confirms her original warnings, detailing “significant environmental contamination”. The carcinogen benzene was found in concentrations 40 times greater than the guideline level for urban residential areas in soil samples taken 27 metres away from the tower, six months after the fire. Samples from 142 metres away still registered up to 30 times the guideline level. Both sites had higher concentrations than would be expected for commercial land around petrol refineries.

Six carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were found within 140 metres of the tower, at levels up to 160 times greater than other urban areas. Soil sampled 27 metres away contained more than five times the guideline level of the most toxic PAH, benzo(a)pyrene, which can damage the lungs and the immune system and is related to increased risk of cancers.

Soil and debris sampled within 50 metres of the tower contained phosphorus flame retardants that are potentially toxic to the nervous system.

A balcony 160 metres away from the tower, sampled 17 months after the fire, contained traces of isocyanic acid, ethyl isocyanate and propyl isocyanate, potential causes of asthma, rashes, swelling and lung inflammation.

The researchers conclude that the findings could not have occurred naturally and that they are inconsistent with surrounding areas. They make the point that any study would have been much more valuable if begun in the immediate aftermath of the fire.

Stec said last week, “It is now crucial to put in place a long-term health screening plan to assess any long-term adverse health effects of the fire on local residents, emergency responders and clean-up workers.”

Her report is a vindication of the concerns expressed by the local community and a damning indictment of the authorities’ refusal to act.

Speaking to the World Socialist Web Site, local resident Kerdesan explained, “The children are sick all the time. My son goes to primary school next to the Kensington Aldridge Academy [at the base of Grenfell Tower]. They all have similar symptoms: coughing, chest pains, sore throats and ears, headaches. They haven’t done any tests in the school for the children, no screening. The community is fighting for it, but the authorities don’t care.”

Kerdesan herself suffered a bloody cough soon after the fire that antibiotics couldn’t cure. Seventeen months later, after a Grenfell survivor raised her case in a public meeting, she finally received a hospital appointment.

“They said your area must have very poor air quality. They asked if I smoked or if anyone in my family smokes, and none of us do. So they asked where I lived, and I explained it was near the Grenfell Tower. They asked if anyone else had done these tests. I’m due to meet a consultant on April 15 who will tell me the extent of the damage.”

Asked about the role of the Conservative government and the [Conservative] Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council, Kerdesan said, “In the morning after the fire, the entrance to my house was covered in debris. I had to clean it myself. … I filled up four bin bags. I rang the council to ask for help, and they said no, you have to contact the housing association. I rang my landlord, and they said no, you have to contact the council. Why couldn’t we get this service as an emergency matter? It was all left there for us to deal with. Three weeks after the fire, I got a knock on the door from someone who’d come to clear the debris!

“I think they should screen everybody now. That’s the first thing they should do. But they want to hide the truth.

“Last October, when people asked how safe it was for people to eat fruit and vegetables grown in the garden, PHE said ‘Just wash it before you eat it.’ We asked what about the children playing, rolling around on the ground, which they’ve been doing for the last 17 months, what will happen to them—because nothing’s been properly cleaned? They said, ‘Just tell your children to wash their hands.’ This is how they risk people’s health, and every time it’s about costs.”

Joe Delaney, a local resident who lived adjacent to Grenfell Tower and has a long record of fighting for safe and decent housing in the area, condemned the government’s efforts to avoid a serious investigation.

“Professor Stec came into the area in December 2017 and took samples, she told them of her findings in February 2018 and they sat on it and did nothing. Then it leaked in October 2018, and we all trooped to the Hilton Hotel for a meeting where they said they were doing something. And now here we are in April, and still nothing’s been done.

“They’ve appointed AECOM to do an investigation for the area. I was contacted by Lisa James, who works for the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, in late December. She said she would like to meet me and discuss appointing a consultant and how to move forward. …

“Lisa James and her assistant Cecil Sinclair are the community engagement team of MHCLG. She has been brought in from the private sector, where she is a motivational speaker. He is someone who has been seconded internally, and he’s come from the Troubled Families Unit.

“Why are MHCLG running a highly technical, specialised area of science that will need rigorous study that can carry the confidence of a community that already doesn’t trust the authorities, and you give it to the housing people? It’s an old trick in the civil service, when you don’t want questions asked, let alone answered, you get a complete generalist to do a specialist’s job—and they don’t know what they’re doing. The situation is being managed.”

Joe explained that AECOM was the only bidder for the consulting position, in a tender process that lasted less than 48 hours. Their tender document was completed and submitted by December 12, 2018, before any meetings were held with Joe or other residents, who were told nothing had been decided. AECOM worked with RBKC as recently as 2016, when environmental studies had to be carried out during the Kensington Academy Leisure Centre rebuilding project.

“It’s the magician’s trick, pick a card any card, and somehow you end up with the one that he wants. And if you read through their document it’s all talk about ‘managing expectations’.

“There are academic institutions around the country that could have done this work. Or internationally even, if you really wanted to avoid questions of impropriety.

“When they appointed AECOM, what they were basically saying was, ‘Come on now, enough time has passed, we just need to get on with things, so there’s no point objecting to AECOM.’ In other words, we’ve wasted almost two years, so we might as well do something—even if that something is useless and not what you want at all. Now they can say about the chemicals, well this stuff could have come from anywhere, it’s years later.

“These synthetic vitreous fibres, there’s no way that they could have come from anything else except Kingspan and or Celotex products—the fibres didn’t exist when the tower was built.”

Celotex supplied the RS5000 insulation sandwiched between the equally dangerous aluminium panels that were clad to Grenfell during its refurbishment. When RS5000 burns it gives off toxic fumes that contain cyanide. Highly flammable insulation was combined with aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding with a highly flammable polyethylene core.

“What PHE said was, yes there may be stuff in the area but Victorian people lit fires and had factories. Firstly, there weren’t factories. This area was a slum, bits of it were a racetrack owned by the Earl of Ladbroke, and farmland. We didn’t have chemical industries. If you look at the dispersal pattern for PAHs, the heaviest concentrations are around the tower and they seem to decrease the further away you go, so more likely than not they came from the tower.

“We were subjected to institutional indifference before the fire, institutional inadequacy when the relief effort failed, and now institutional inertia because they don’t want to investigate.”

Grenfell area residents demonstrate against toxins

London Grenfell disaster area, cancer danger

This 28 March 2019 British TV video says about itself:

Grenfell Tower soil contamination increases cancer risk

Residents say the report confirms their fears about contamination following the fire in London, which killed 72 people.

Analysis of soil, debris and char samples of insulation boards used on the tower has revealed heightened concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals and proven carcinogens including benzene within 200m (656ft) of the tower.

Researchers from the University of Central Lancashire have recommended a long-term health screening process be put in place for residents and emergency responders who attended the fire, and called for a further independent analysis of the health impacts.

By Marcus Barnett in Britain:

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Grenfell tower area contaminated by cancer chemicals

CANCER-CAUSING chemicals and other potentially harmful toxins are present close to Grenfell Tower, according to analysis of debris and soil samples.

Samples from six different locations within a mile of the west London tower, where 72 people were killed in the June 2017 fire, were analysed by researchers from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

The study, which was published in the Chemosphere academic journal yesterday, said that the samples showed signs of “significant environmental contamination.”

Pieces of soil and fallen debris taken within 50 metres of the tower were shown to contain toxic phosphorous flame retardants that are used in insulation foam.

Researchers also concluded that there was an “increased risk” of local residents developing cancer and asthma.

Nabil Choucair, who lost six family members in the disaster, said the lack of government interest was “another disrespect to the people and the community.”

UCLan chemistry and toxicity professor Anna Stec said: “It is now crucial to put in place long-term health screening to assess any long-term adverse health effects of the fire on local residents, emergency responders and clean-up workers.”

Shadow fire minister Karen Lee said: “It is unacceptable that the surrounding community continue to suffer.

“Toxicity tests should have been undertaken immediately after the fire, and appropriate health and safety measures put in place by the government instead of leaving residents at risk.

This government’s lack of urgency to permanently rehouse survivors and offer appropriate safeguards is typical of its wider inaction. It’s time that the needs of survivors and residents are rightfully made the priority.”

See also here. And here.

Publish Monsanto-Bayer Roundup cancer research, court decides

This 18 August 2018 video says about itself:

Monsanto Hit With $289 Million Jury Verdict Roundup Cancer Coverup

Last week a jury in California found that Monsanto had covered up the dangers of Roundup and awarded to plaintiff $289 million in damages after he developed cancer after just a few years of exposure to Roundup as a groundskeeper. Ring of Fire’s Mike Papantonio and Farron Cousins discuss this issue.

Monsanto is Bayer now.

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

Research into effects of weed killer Roundup should be public

The European Agency for Food Safety (EFSA) should therefore publish scientific research into the toxicity of glyphosate and the risk of cancer. That is what judges of the European Union court judged in Luxembourg.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in many pesticides and herbicides and has been authorized in the EU since 2002. The corporation is mainly known from the Roundup brand.

In two previous cases, the agency judged that documents about the dangers of the substances did not have to be published. According to EFSA, disclosure of that information could, eg, seriously damage the commercial and financial interests of the corporations that submitted the studies.

European judges judge that it is in the public interest to have access to information about substances that end up in the environment. People also have the right to know what the consequences are, says the court.

Carcinogenic or not?

In March 2015, the International Cancer Research Center warned that glyphosate may be carcinogenic, but the EFSA later concluded in a review of that study that the substance does not pose any risk of cancer to humans. The studies were based on tests with animals and not on humans.

Glyphosate was developed by the American corporation Monsanto, which marketed it under the name Roundup. France decided in 2017 to ban the product within three years. The European Union decided to extend the permit by five years, but left individual countries the space to ban it.

Last summer, Monsanto was ordered to pay a compensation of tens of millions of dollars to a man who says he got cancer from the herbicide with glyphosate.