hen the skinheads boarded the Amsterdam tram, the whole car went silent. They clearly enjoyed the power to stop conversation. It signified respect. I knew this because I was one of them.
I was 19 when found myself aimlessly wandering around Rembrantdplein Square in central Amsterdam. I was alone and lonely. In Ohio, the thought of backpacking around Europe had sounded like a remarkable adventure, or at the very least an escape from my chaotic home life. What no one had told me in their colorful tales of munching on bread and cheese beneath the Eiffel Tower was how solitary and vulnerable the trip might make me feel. How any small gesture of kindness would be food for the emotionally famished self I would try to hold together.
And that’s how I came to stay with a group of skinheads. They befriended me and took me into their world.
There’s a lot of talk these days about how ISIS recruits young Muslims into their violent insurgency. Questions swirl and theories abound: disenfranchisement, lack of education and economic opportunity, religious fanaticism. But for me, none of those things applied. I was simply lost, lonely, and in need of comfort. Belonging of any association was preferable to the emptiness I felt inside.
I slept with the group in a run-down industrial apartment that felt dark and edgy. Something seemed like it was about to happen. There were eight of us and we ate cheap noodle soup, old bread, and drank endless cups of tea. I was given a worn blanket and slept on the tattered couch. I felt safe. I had friends. Most important, I was suddenly no longer alone. Nothing was more important to me.
The leader, a tall, bald guy with tattoos on his neck, offered me a t-shirt the group had made. I chose one with a bomb on the front and USA stamped in the center. The design was simple but bold with sparks coming off a lit fuse. I was glad to have something new to wear, bored with the clothes I’d brought from home.
The week I spent with the group was mostly uneventful. I recall lazy afternoons hanging out by the window looking down on people in the street. We walked the city together, stayed out late, and jumped trams without paying. It was the kind of experience I’d hoped to find in Europe. I was having fun with new friends and I was free.
After that week, I went back to the small village of Vandaam where a family hosted me briefly before I returned to Amsterdam. I recall the look on the father’s face when he saw me wearing the USA t-shirt. His color drained and his mouth went dry. He sat me down on the couch and asked me where I got the shirt and if I knew what it meant. I told him about the pale guy who’d given it to me and about the place I’d been allowed to stay for free. I told him how my new friends had shown me the city. He was visibly disturbed and I couldn’t understand why.
I see myself in the faces of the young women being stopped at airports on their way to Syria. Being a bride to a brave ISIS man who fights for what he believes in must be quite the draw, and far more exciting than staying at home or going to the mall. And I know for myself that feeling of belonging, at the moment it comes over you, can be more important than anything.