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From wrongly convicted prisoner to motivational speaker

From wrongly convicted prisoner to motivational speaker

Photographer:Fotograaf: 400 letters from my mother - Joseph Oubelkas

There is a rare moment of intense silence during the Inkom in the lecture hall of Business and Economics when author and motivational speaker Joseph Oubelkas shows pictures of a Moroccan jail. It’s not unlike the one he spent 1,637 days in after being unjustly convicted for smuggling drugs. Men are sleeping on the floor of a dirty cell – and even on the toilet – packed upon one another. “And in the pictures you don’t see the cockroaches, you don’t smell the indescribable stench,” Oubelkas adds.

Child of a Dutch mother and Moroccan father, Oubelkas grew up in a bilingual (French and Dutch) household in Raamsdonkveer – a small village in the south of the Netherlands. “My life was going great, until 23 December 2004.” That morning, Oubelkas, who worked in Morocco on behalf of a client for his IT company, arrives at an office for a business meeting, only to find policemen with shotguns. “I asked what was going on. A policeman took me to two white vans filled with brown packages. ‘You know what that is?’ he said, ‘8,000 kilos of drugs’.”

Oubelkas is asked to show his passport and to come down to the station to answer some questions. “I thought I was helping them with their investigation, like on CSI, so of course I said yes.” To his surprise, he had to stay the night. “It’s all procedure, they said. Yet, they kept me in day after day. Suddenly they started talking about my case. What case, I thought.” When, after weeks of uncertainty, he’s brought to court, Oubelkas is convicted to ten years imprisonment for drugs smuggling. The fact that the evidence is easily refutable means nothing to the judge. Even an independent report from a Dutch lawyer doesn’t help. “I said to myself: ‘I know I’m innocent and the people who love me know. I realized the system was designed to destroy you as a person and I refused to let that happen to me. Attitude is everything.”

Supported by his mother – whose uplifting letters full of life lessons will help him through his bad days – Oubelkas starts to set goals for himself. “I decided I wanted to leave that place with all my own teeth. So three times a day I stood in that filthy bathroom and I brushed and flossed my teeth cautiously. My second goal was to interact with my inmates. This meant learning Arabic, slowly, without books.” Oubelkas continues to build a world within the prison; he teaches English to other inmates, befriends the guards, works in the prison shop and even keeps a small garden in the courtyard. After 4.5 years, he’s transferred to the Netherlands to finish the rest of his sentence. Here, he’s released.

“I was almost 30 and I had no job, no home, and no relationship. Nobody was waiting for me, but I realized that nobody is ever waiting for anyone. You have to go out there and present yourself.” Oubelkas wrote a book about his experiences – 400 letters from my mother – and now goes around the world telling people about what it has brought him. He took her life lessons to heart and never became resentful. “Whenever I couldn’t sleep in prison I would sit by the window, re-read my mother’s letters and fantasize about my life once I got out. Never could I have imagined it would be as great as it is today.”

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