The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He gave her a bike when she was a refugee. Decades later, the Internet helped her find him.

Mevan Babakar traveled to Zwolle, Netherlands, to retrace her and her family's steps as refugees and one of the camps they stayed in more than 20 years ago. (Video: The Washington Post)

Mevan Babakar wanted to say thank you, but first she had to find the man who had given her a bicycle while she was staying at a refugee camp as a child. So she asked Twitter for help.

And in a rare moment of Internet goodness, the World Wide Web answered the call.

Babakar, 29, had been on a journey to retrace her Kurdish family’s steps after they fled Iraq in the 1990s. Before eventually finding safety, they traveled for five years, through Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia and to a refugee camp in Zwolle, Netherlands.

It was in Zwolle where Babakar, head of automated fact-checking at United Kingdom-based Full Fact, found herself Monday, with lingering questions about her family’s history. She was not able to dig up much information about the refugee camp, even after talking to local historians and librarians. And she could remember only a few details and moments from that time.

But she did remember the feeling after she was given the bike: disbelief, a new sense of worth, that she mattered, that she could hope for more in her life.

So, on her last day, she sent out a tweet with a photo of the man, asking the world if they might know his name. He had given Babakar and her mother a bike, and she wanted to express her gratitude.

“As a refugee child, moving from place to place, not really knowing whether you’re going to have any safety that night, what you’re going to be eating that evening, if you’re going to be eating at all,” Babakar told The Washington Post. “It was a magical thing to be gifted something that I thought was just too big for me. And I think that gift became the basis of how I felt about myself.”

That’s when people online stepped up. Within hours and hundreds of retweets later, she was working with a local journalist in Zwolle to find the man. They tracked down family members and associates. At 10 p.m., Babakar received the news.

They had found him — Egbert — in Germany and were driving to meet him the following day.

In the car on the way there, Babakar was a mix of emotions. She was nervous and anxious but also excited. “We’ll have just a quiet moment together to catch up,” Babakar said during the drive. “And we’ll hopefully end up with a few photos, as well.”

Outside of Egbert’s house, Babakar knocked on the door. This would be her first time speaking to him in more than two decades.

“It felt like seeing a long-lost relative, really, in the same way you might see someone at Christmas and you talk about nothing and everything in one go.”

They spent a few hours together, getting caught up on all that had happened in the intervening years. Babakar said Egbert was proud of her. She met members of his family, and he showed her his garden and the orchids he grows. They even called Babakar’s mother, who expressed her gratitude for Egbert’s generosity some 24 years ago.

After the initial tweet, Babakar saw a rush of support from around the world. Even if people couldn’t help connect her, some shared photos and stories of their own experiences as refugees.

Babakar said she thinks everyone has their own red bike story and can recall a gift they received that helped them feel valued.

“Even in dark and bleak times, there are always acts of kindness that can shape you for a lifetime.”

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