LONDON – Memories of a brand-new bicycle — and the mystery man who gave it to her when she was a 5-year-old in a Dutch refugee center — have played out as vignettes in Mevan Babakar’s mind for most of her life.
Babakar, now 29, said the generous gift from a man whose name she couldn’t remember had shaped her childhood. On Tuesday, she found herself reunited with the man whose face had flickered through her memories for more than two decades.
And it all began on Twitter.
“I was a refugee for 5 yrs in the 90s and this man, who worked at a refugee camp near Zwolle in the Netherlands, out of the kindness of his own heart bought me a bike. My five year old heart exploded with joy,” Babakar wrote on Twitter, before pleading with the internet to help her track him down.
The photo she shared — a fading snapshot of the man that her mother had kept — was among a handful of belongings they had from that time. When he gave her the bike, she said, it made a lasting impact.
“I remember feeling so special — I remember thinking that this is such a big thing to receive, am I even worthy of this big thing?” Babakar said. “This feeling kind of became the basis of my self-worth growing up.”
She and her parents fled Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s brutal crackdown on the Kurdish population in the early 1990s. Their journey took them to Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia, and eventually to the Netherlands, where Babakar and her mother lived for a year before settling in London.
“For a really long time, I felt this was something that happened to me and not something that I really owned,” she said of the ordeal, in an interview. “And I really wanted to understand where I came from in a bit more depth as an adult.”
Babakar took a sabbatical from her technology job in London this summer to retrace the journey, and visited Zwolle to spend a few days attempting to piece together her scattered impressions of her time there.
“It’s like a tickle in the back of your mind,” she said of the memories that began to re-emerge. “It’s a very strange feeling.”
While there, she wrote a Twitter post that she described as a “last-ditch attempt” to learn more about the man who had struck up a friendship with her and her mother, and gave her the bike.
Within hours, Arjen van der Zee, who volunteers for a nonprofit news site in Zwolle, saw the photo and recognized the man.
“I looked at the picture and immediately knew this guy who I had worked with in my early twenties,” said van der Zee. “I knew him as a very generous kind, soft, warm man.”
Van der Zee made contact with the man’s family, and they put the two in touch.
“He started to tell me that he remembered Mevan and her mother,” van der Zee said. “He said he always told his wife, if there were people he wanted to see again in his life it was Mevan and her mother.”
The next evening, Babakar was standing face to face with the man, Egbert, who asked that his last name not be shared. He said the bike was just a small gesture, but he was happy it had brought Babakar back into his life.
The pair went through old photos together and shared stories about the center where she and her mother had lived as refugees.
“It was like seeing a family member that you hadn’t seen in a long time,” Babakar said. “It was really lovely.”