By Levin Stamm
A windy November morning in Amsterdam East. With the prospect of a long working day outside, Adel El-Sabagh puts on a pot of coffee. Two middle-aged men sit around the table of his office and chat. Both of them are seasoned maintenance and construction workers taking the last chance to warm up at least a little for the upcoming cold. DUWO caretaker El-Sabagh distributes paper cups and listens attentively: The mother of one of them has recently passed away, the pain is still deep. A pain that also 61-year-old El-Sabagh knows. He tells him about his own experience – as always when people come to ask him for advice.
The intimate atmosphere that prevails in the caretaker’s office this morning is characteristic of El-Sabagh’s work. For him, the human factor is paramount: “If the employees don’t feel comfortable here, you can forget about good results,” he says. In the midst of the emotional and wintry cold of the Netherlands, to which he has never quite been able to get used to, El-Sabagh spreads some human warmth. It is what has driven him for years and made employees and residents of the dorms become a “second family”, says El-Sabagh, father of four in his second marriage.
A big family. Over 1600 students live in the rooms of the two DUWO buildings at Carolina MacGillavrylaan. El-Sabagh has been managing them since 2007, already handing over the keys to the very first AUC student. Hardly anyone has observed the evolution of the AUC community over the years as closely as he has. It is what has made him grow into the remarkable role he holds at AUC today: “He is the good soul of this place”, says Leendert Lettink, Adel’s caretaker colleague.“Without him, these buildings would just be an empty structure. His care and passion for AUC are what make it so alive.”
On his daily round El-Sabagh checks all lifts and corridors. He knows the building better than the back of his hand: “My child”, he says with a laugh. However, him strolling through AUC’s corridors these days is just the result of a chain of unconventional events.
“Still feel the handcuffs on my wrists”
El-Sabagh grows up near the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria. Training as an accountant, job in a law firm. Until a friend persuades him to emigrate to Europe. “He promised me quick money”, El-Sabagh remembers. He thus leaves his well-ordered life behind and gets on a plane. Alone, his friend cancels last minute. Via Belgium he finally reaches Amsterdam.
What awaits him there is nothing less than a culture shock. “I didn’t understand a word of Dutch, didn’t know anyone.” Neither does he have a residence permit, just a one-month tourist visa. He finds employment in an Egyptian restaurant – and is promptly arrested by the immigration police. “I still remember the feeling of the handcuffs on my wrists”, he says, “they treated me like a criminal!” El-Sabagh spends several days in prison. To this day, he does not find understanding for the police’s actions he had to endure: “What does it even mean to be illegal?”
After his release, the authorities deport him back to Belgium. “The police told me I had two months to make some money and go back to Egypt”, El-Sabagh says. Completely lost, he spends several weeks in the streets of Antwerp. “But at least I was free again”, he says. Finally, the owner of the Egyptian restaurant picks him up and brings him back to Amsterdam.
Another two long years without residence papers follow. “Two years of fear – the worst of my life,” El-Sabagh says. Nevertheless, he somehow finds his way around: He waits tables at Restaurant Baba at Rembrandtplein and quickly earns a reputation with his open disposition: “Half the city knew me,” he says. And he gets to know Ria: the two fall in love and get married, putting an end to his life without documents.
“Within days, the building was deserted”
El-Sabagh unlocks the door of a common room and enters. Inside: Empty alcohol bottles, run-down furniture, dust wherever the eye looks. He makes a disappointed face: “Every chaos I encounter in the building gives me a stab in the heart,” he says. But the chaos he now faces is a symptom of something completely different. Since mid-March, the common rooms have been locked.
He remembers the beginning of the pandemic: “It was scary. Within days, the building was deserted. A terrible time.” El-Sabagh and a few students stay behind. One of them is Erika Mier y Terán Yamamoto, a second-year social science major. During the summer months she becomes a regular visitor at the caretaker’s office: “Adel truly cares about the students, you can ask him for advice about pretty much everything”, she says, “sometimes it’s just nice to talk to an adult.”
El-Sabagh’s accessibility has been a support for many students during COVID-19. “We must not give up hope. Hope is all we have,” says El-Sabagh, who still sees himself more as a human, here to support others, than anything else: “Nothing has really changed about my work. Whether as a waiter or caretaker, listening to people is the most important thing.”