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 suddenly 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 in a post 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, which included a gas attack on a village near their home.
Their journey took them to Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia — where her father stayed behind to work for the next four years — 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 reemerge. “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 20s,” said van der Zee. “I knew him as a very generous kind, soft, warm man.”
The only problem? He could only remember the man’s nickname. So he reached out to other former colleagues on Facebook, who remembered the man’s name. Van der Zee made contact with the man’s family on social media, 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.”
They quickly scrambled to arrange a meeting with Babakar, who was due to travel back to London in the coming days.
The next evening, Babakar was standing face to face with the man, Egbert, who asked that his last name not be shared for privacy reasons. He said the bike was just a small gesture, but he was happy it had brought Babakar back into his life.
“He was, I guess, equally overwhelmed,” Babakar said. “It was like seeing a family member that you hadn’t seen in a long time. It was really lovely.”
The pair went through old photos together and shared stories about the center where she and her mother had lived as refugees, and Egbert showed Babakar his orchid collection.
Van der Zee, who was there for the emotional reunion, said he wasn’t surprised by Egbert’s humility, but said the gesture was about so much more than just a bike.
“He couldn’t imagine it being so big, because all he did was give her a bike,” van der Zee said. “But that small gesture made her a person again, and that’s what has touched people all over the world.”
The pair parted with promises to stay in touch and Babakar said her mother hopes to one day meet Egbert. In the days since she first shared her story and the subsequent news of her reunion, dozens of people have sent messages of support and shared their own histories.
Babakar was “incredibly humbled” that her story had resonated with so many people around the world — both fellow refugees and those who just felt touched by the tale.
In an era when discussion of migrants and resettlement is politically charged and often very negative, she said she was glad to be a symbol of a positive refugee experience.
“I think it’s really easy for people to forget or to feel really powerless in the face of these big, abstract problems that we hear about all the time,” she said. “It’s really a comfort to remember we are all very powerful in the way that we treat others. Especially in the small acts, we are powerful.”