Energetic music, loud signging and vivid clapping fills the air of the Maximilian Park in Brussels. The smell of barbecue, colourful tents and a joyful crowd competes with the gloomy Belgian weather. On the 24th of September the refugee camp at the Boulevard Bolivar street celebrates Eid, a Muslim holiday. For this very moment uncertainty, frustration and tiredness seems to fade away from people’s faces. The camp is mostly inhabited by Iraqis , however there are smaller amounts of refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria as well as Kurds from Turkey. The camp has been established by the end of August.
“Why here?” , Mariam Barandi, a volunteer representing European Muslim Youth and Student Organisation, that works at the camp asks rhetorically. “It’s because this is just in front of the Belgian immigration office and people can be there in the morning to register themselves. People were the ones that created the camp. At first one person came with a tent, because it was easier to get to the foreign office from here and then others started to come with their tents as well “, she explains. The camp is built and run with a crucial help of the non-governmental organisations such as Burgerplatform, Oxfam, Vluchtelingenwerk, Collectactif, Islamic Relief or Médicins du Monde.
“There is no boss here”, says Mariam. “The work is based on the mutual respect and a coordination”. At the campsite there are approximately 300 tents that accommodate 800 to 1000 refugees. Food and drinks as well as clothes are disseminated to the ones in need. Those are delivered in a large amount by the residents of Belgium that answer the needs listed at the camp’s FB page. There is a tent with an access to wifi, a medical point and a playground on which youngsters play football to kill the time. In a newly established blue tent, a mid-wife is tasked with helping women during pregnancy and with a delivery of a baby. The idea was proposed and implemented by two female Flemish volunteers. In fact everything is proposed by the volunteers. “There is no government presence in this centre”, says Mariam. ”They do create refugee centres, but you can’t get a place there if you are not registered. So this is why people stay here first.”
There are around 500 camp beds in another centre established nearby by the Red Cross supported by the government . “Yet at the beginning they did not take into account cultural sensitivity… There is not enough privacy there, uncomfortable opening hours and no washing facilities. Therefore some people prefer to stay in a place like a camp on the Maximilan Park”, says an integration expert that prefers to stay anonymous. “To the Red Cross facilities cannot enter those immigrants that still did not register themselves”, says Joelle Tintinger, one of the volunteers.
The amount of people living in the camp shrinks from a day to day. Once a refugee gets registered at the Immigration Office, he or she gets a place at the refugee centre. “Yet most of them prefer to stay here”,explains Mariam. “They get here good food and good time“, she says. “We are like one family here! They also can speak Arabic here so they feel like at home”. Hussain, a musician from Iraq, got a place in the centres. ”Usually the centres are far away from any village. There is not a lot of people so you can meet and talk with the others”, he says. This is why Hussain comes to the camp regularly.
A registered newcomer awaits for the interviews that will decide on his or her legal status. The interview intends to check is a newcomer a refugee or an economic migrant as well as to see whether he or she was finger printed in another country before. A person with a refugee status gets an ID and can start to work or attend school. But the road to it is long and full of challenges, such as language courses and different integration programs in Wallonia or Flanders, that one has to master before the new life can finally take off.
“People who are coming here, escape the war, discrimination and terrorism, in this sense they want a better life”, says Mariam. “But some of them when they arrive here, they find out that they are treated worse than before. They expect to be directly given a refugee status. We have Syrian and Iraqis we already know they are escaping the war, so why are we not considering them as such immediately?”
Ahmad, a young Afghan man from the Baghlan province travelled through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany to finally arrive to Belgium. He did not have an exact plan where he wants to end his journey. “I do not know, smuggler brought me here”, he says. He was travelling with his mother, brother and three sisters but he has not heard any news from them since days I lost my family between Greece and Turkey”, he says. He hopes to find them later. “The situation in our country is very bad, Taliban kill People”, he explains why he decided to leave his Country.
Ahmad from Iraq Photo: Katarzyna Mortoń
Ahmed lives in Ramadi, Anbar in Iraq. His first destination was Turkey, then he crossed the sea by boat to get to Greece from where he walked to the Macedonian border. Further on, he travelled through Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Holland to finally arrive to Belgium. “I am a student and I cannot complete my studies because of the war. I finished 12th grade”, he says. He was working as a house painter in Iraq. Ahmed travelled alone, leaving his family back home because as he says: “They cannot come with me to the sea. The road is too dangerous”. What he fears the most in Iraq is militias and Daash.
Hussein is a musician from Northern Baghdad, a founder of the band ”Solo Baghdad” that plays traditional Iraqi music. He studied at the Institute of Musical studies. He was also working for an American security company. “It’s always dangerous to stay in Iraq”, he says. “Before 2003 if you say what you want you get killed, and now if you walk around you may get killed.” Hussein’s three uncles were assassinated by Sadam Husain’s forces. Both of his parents died targeted by Al-Qaida in 2005 because his mother was politically active in the city council. To get to Belgium he travelled from Iraq to Turkey, then by boat to Greece paying 2600 dollars for the three hour trip. From Greece he got to Macedonia, Serbia and then to Hungary, Austria and Belgium.
Hussein from Iraq, Photo: Katarzyna Mortoń
Most of the people at the Maximilan’s camp are Iraqis. They run away from the threat of militias, ISIS and from a general instability that prevails in their country. They came to Belgium as they heard that the country welcomes refugees and treats them as ”human beings”. They have been well received and supported by many of the citizens and managed to create a small community within the camp. Yet the news from the federal secretary of state for migration and asylum, Theo Francken (N-VA), are not too promising: Since 3rd of September 2015 the Belgian asylum authorities have frozen asylum applications from Baghdad and surrounding districts. This decision was motivated as such: “The security situation in Bagdad has changed since 2014 and is no longer such that every applicant from Bagdad runs a real risk in case of return”, as the Federale Overheidsdienst Binnenlandse Zaken, the Belgian Integration office informs on their website.
“N-VA stands out, with its plea for a special statute for recognised asylum-seekers, who would have limited access to social benefits”. We either build a wall around our social security or build a wall around the Country”, MP Sarah Smeyers said last week on the online news platform Flanders Today. “The Belgian government behaves as it would not be ready for the refugees… But we do have the possibility to follow mass-media and we have a global vision of what is Happening”, says Mariam. “But probably Belgium was not happy to welcome those people, so we decided to not be ready.” Yet some of the Belgian citizens have a feeling that the government is doing its very best in tackling the problem. ”I think the issue of the camp and refugees is politicized”, says young Belgian citizen, ”no one could expect this amount of refugees. It is normal there will be some mistakes in the way it is handled.”
The tents on the pavement
At the beginning of October the community that created Maxinimilan Park’s camp decided to close it. “It’s too cold for people to stay in the park”, says Joelle Tintinger. Another reason was to force the government to do more. ”Six tents were moved in front of the Red Cross. They do not really want it there but we just build it anyway. Yesterday there were 157 new people arriving to Brussels and they had not place to stay as they were not registered”, she adds. On 3rd of October a representative of the government showed up to register people staying on the pavement. ”But they stayed 30 minutes and went away”, says Joelle. The situation around the Red Cross and the tents is constantly changing, the conditions are being slowly (some say too slowly or not sufficiently) adapted to the existing circumstances. The community organisers got also a room around 300 meters from the Maximilian Park from a Belgian citizen. The clothes are stored there, they try to organise some schooling , they serve a tea and coffee and persistently keep on welcoming Newcomers.
About the author: Katarzyna Mortoń is an MA graduate in Political Science (International Relations). She is a networker, trainer and a project manager dedicated to civil society&media capacity building with focus on the impact of communication channels worldwide. Katarzyna is the co-founder of menac and a former board member of the European Youth Press. She occasionally publishes as a journalists and runs the political blog: stuffbymorton.blox.pl. Katarzyna is a creative director, dancer, choreographer working on various projects with movement and visuals (www.gocreativekm.com). Finally she is an entrepreneur creating and leading the fitness brand partyrobics.com
Follow her on Twitter: @K_E_Morton