The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Greater Than Themselves

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A month ago, a refugee camp sprung up in the middle of Brussels, as the number of asylum seekers who reached the country as a part of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe exceeded the capacity of the Belgian government to process them. As a result, many refugees who arrived in Belgium were left without food or housing for days at a time. In response, a group of average citizens organized to provide food, basic shelter, education, emergency medical care, and advocacy. This is one of a series of articles on this situation, looking at issues related to the crisis and the camp, both within Belgium and across Europe. For more see stephendau.com/blog.

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Eugenie is afraid she is going to be fired.

“It will probably happen any day now,” she says.

She works for a large multi-national corporation that provides a flex-time arrangement for its employees, allowing Eugenie to work from home a couple of days a week. Nearly a month ago she started spending her evenings volunteering at the refugee camp that has grown up in the center of Brussels. Then she began spending her weekends. Then she started spending her flex time days. OrganizingFor the past two weeks, she has gone to the office only for meetings. Today she is wearing rubber gloves and picking up empty cigarette boxes and plastic food containers and stuffing them into a large white trash bag.

“My office has started to suspect,” she says, as though she is confessing some hidden addiction. “I am sure of it.”

The refugees have come to the camp because they have to. If they wish any chance of being granted asylum status, they must register and give their finger prints at a federal office near the Gare du Nord. The Belgian government has allocated two hundred and fifty slots per day for the registration and initial interviews of newly arrived asylum seekers, but with more migrants than that turning up in the city every day, many must camp in the park across the street from the registration office, waiting their turn.

Unlike the refugees, the volunteers don’t have to be here. They’re here because they want to be, or as many will say, because they need to be. Their specific reasons for coming vary. Some already work with homeless or addicted people in Brussels. Some are immigrants themselves, or the children of immigrants, or the friends or colleagues. But one thing they all have in common is that they are seeking to be a part of something larger than themselves.

“For ten years we keep hearing about these terrible things happening,” says Sophie, a retired government worker who helps out in the make-shift kitchen the volunteers have built over the past month. “Now, they are here, the people running away from these horrible things, these wars, right here, in our city. I come to the park because I am tired of feeling powerless. I do not want anymore to be a victim of the news.”

Other volunteers feel a sense of personal responsibility for the conditions that sent the refugees fleeing in the first place.

“My country started this,” says Clint, an American student in Brussels on a foreign exchange program, who is helping to clean out tents abandoned by migrants who register and are then sent on to one of two dozen “reception centers,” often converted military barracks, located around the country. “I’m here to try to help clean up the mess we made.”

The work the volunteers do in the park is not glamorous. They pick up trash. They prepare food and hand it out to the lines that form at meal times. They clean toilets.Line They sort through the piles of donated clothes.

“One evening a week I work with homeless people in Brussels, giving out food,” says Isabelle, whose regular job is working as a freelance graphic designer. “So this is a natural extension of that.”

Many here accuse the federal government of creating the situation, whether through negligence, or deliberately, as a way of discouraging asylum seekers from coming to Belgium. Among those people is the mayor of Brussels, Yvan Mayeur.

“This is the responsibility of [Theo Francken, the Belgian secretary of State responsible for asylum and migration],” said Mayeur on a radio program recently. “By comparison, in London there have been 20 thousand people arrive since the beginning of the crisis. No one sleeps outside. Everyone is taken in. The Belgian state also has the capacity to handle this. It is [Franken’s] role. It is his jurisdiction. He simply doesn’t want to do it.”

Theo Francken, for his part, has explicitly stated that one of the reasons Belgium has fewer asylum seekers than, for example, the UK, is that he has made conditions here more difficult for them.

“We have offered them accommodation,” he said a few weeks ago, after a majority of refugees refused to abandon their tents and enter into a night-time only shelter that was opened in a nearby office building, “Perhaps we should have offered them a hotel.”

His statements, and those of other right-leaning politicians, echo the sentiments held by a significant proportion of Belgians, that the asylum seekers are nothing more than opportunists seeking handouts.

But this is the complete opposite of the impression held by the volunteers working with the asylum seekers in the park. Many volunteers have developed friendships and a sense of personal meaning from the work they are doing there.

Tutor“Here, I am part of something bigger than myself,” says Hamza, whose parents immigrated from Morocco in the 1970s. “There are many other things I could be doing right now. But this is not about me. It’s about doing something for others, and it feels very good to do this.”

Many of the volunteers have been here every day since the camp opened at the beginning of September. A few say it has given new direction to their lives, a way of engaging with the chaos that seems to be continually unfolding around the world. Many say they will stay here until the camp closes, which, most seem to agree, could happen any day now. And many say that they will remain engaged long after the park is closed, for as long as there is a need.

“Either the crisis will end, or I will be fired,” says Eugenie, picking a broken plastic spoon from the dust in her rubber-gloved hand and stuffing it into the trash bag. “I wonder which will happen first.”

Stephen Dau is a writer living in Belgium. More from this author →