Hosting refugees in Brussels: "Your place is here"

Article published on April 6, 2018
Article published on April 6, 2018

The Belgian government is going to new lengths to arrest people without the right papers, following a Europe-wide trend. Despite the hostility, ordinary people are offering safety to refugees and migrants in their own homes.

Marie is one of the 39,000 people in Belgium who open their homes, night after night, to give refugees and migrants a safe place to sleep. Every day, she logs onto Facebook to find someone who can drive to BrusselsParc Maximilien, pick up one of the migrants waiting there, and bring them to her house, 20km outside the city. There, she offers them a hot meal, and a bed for as long as they want or need. They may be fleeing war in Syria or persecution in Eritrea, or they may have come to Europe in search of work. Some of them she never sees again, others come back to stay with her regularly. Marie does not consider herself “political”. But as the Belgian government, like governments across Europe, introduces ever more restrictive measures to crack down on migrants, she says she cannot simply stand by and watch. Through the Plateforme Citoyenne de Soutien aux Réfugiés (Citizens’ Platform for Supporting Refugees), volunteers like Marie are offering a vision of solidarity that is more than just symbolic.

“I can help here”

The Plateforme Citoyenne was launched in the summer of 2015, like many similar initiatives at the time, as a spontaneous effort to provide basic care to refugees arriving in Europe. Moved by the sight of migrants sleeping in the park in Brussels, a group of citizens set up a Facebook group to coordinate donations of food, tents and sleeping bags. Soon, volunteers had established a school for children in the park and safe spaces for women. Those activities have now been moved to the four-storey building in Jette, a Brussels suburb, and are a full-scale, full-time operation. The building is a warren of corridors and office-like rooms, almost as if it were a bureaucratic institution. When I visited, people were coming in and out all the time, and there were language classes, social gatherings and school visits all taking place next to each other. But the Plateforme is still entirely run by volunteers and its activities remain essentially spontaneous.

 At first, Plateforme Citoyenne was much like many of the other initiatives to help refugees that have sprung up in the last two and a half years. That changed late in the summer of 2017, when Belgian police carried out a series of high-profile raids on the Parc Maximilien with the aim of arresting those without documents and deporting them. “This was wrong,” Marie says, “the arrests really shocked me.” These actions led her to believe that the government was not just inefficient or lacking in political will to help migrants. When Marie took the step to sign up and become a host, in October 2017, there were about 5,000 members in the Facebook group. Now, there are 39,000 and counting, and every night 400 to 500 migrants find a bed through the Plateforme Citoyenne.

Of course, not everyone who is a member of the Facebook group is an active volunteer. Marie herself had already been a member of the group before becoming a host but, like many people on social media, only occasionally liked something or read a post and had not translated her virtual membership into action. Almost all the volunteers have full-time jobs and many have families. Marie, for one, is a single mother with two young children who works as an educator at an intercultural association. Nevertheless, some of the drivers do up to six trips every evening, and people like Marie host up to four people a night, seven nights a week.

Many people joined the Plateforme Citoyenne almost unintentionally, through friends or after being asked to help and then finding that they cannot stand back and not take part. Stella, another mother who works in an office in Brussels and volunteers as a driver, recalled the first time she got involved, in December 2017: “A friend called me and said, ‘I know you commute, you have a car, you have to help.’ I need you to go to Brussels, to the park, and pick up someone there. His name is Haroun, he’ll be wearing a red shirt, and he’ll be waiting for you at 2 o’clock. Even if he’s wearing something different, you’ll recognise him.” Stella drove to the park and the young man wasn’t wearing the red shirt: “Somehow I recognised him. I don’t know whether it was his smile, or what. Anyway, I drove up and opened the door and said, ‘Haroun, your place is here.’ He was clearly exhausted and I didn’t want to ask him any questions. I turned the music down in my car and let him sleep.” Stella had heard about the Plateforme Citoyenne on the news, but knew little about it, so when she took Haroun to her friend’s house, she asked about it. Her friend explained and Stella thought: “This is something I can do, I can help here.”

Not giving up

It was not possible to talk to any of the refugees and migrants currently being hosted by the Plateforme Citoyenne, as most do not have the papers to stay in Belgium and so do not want to be identified. Nevertheless, some migrants themselves volunteer at the Plateforme Citoyenne. Lubnan is a 23-year-old man from Iraq (he joked that his name means “Lebanon” in Arabic, just to confuse people) who used to cook for other migrants in the park together with Belgian volunteers. He said that he had tried four times to reach from Greece from Turkey in 2015, before travelling on foot all the way to Hungary. When he reached the Hungarian border, a smuggler told him to get into a truck along with other migrants to hide from the police. He was trapped in that truck for two days, without water. “It was scary,” he said. “We could hear the police outside, but it was so dark in there I couldn’t even see my hand.” He didn’t want to talk more about the situation in Iraq, preferring to talk about “good people, my friends.” He was recently granted asylum in Belgium and says he likes the country because of the welcome he has received from volunteer initiatives.

Ahmed, also from Iraq, arrived in Belgium seven years ago and now helps to educate people about the reality of being a refugee, for example coming to the project house in Jette to talk to a group of schoolchildren about his experiences. He was visibly shaking when he spoke of what he had witnessed in his country: “You cannot imagine the war. Maybe you think you can imagine it, you see it on TV, but you cannot imagine what it is like to open your eyes and see that, in front of you.” Before the war Ahmed had played with the Iraqi National Philharmonic Orchestra, and said he had “a beautiful family, a beautiful house, many friends, everything.” He lost everything. Nevertheless, after he gained asylum, he went back to university, learned French and English, and is now playing the violin again. “You can’t just give up,” he said. “You can’t just be thinking about war all the time. You have to continue your life.”

Indeed, the volunteers of the Plateforme Citoyenne don’t just offer practical or material help, but also try to help people do just that – continue with life. One of the two people Marie hosted on her first night, a young man from Sudan, now stays with her regularly, every weekend. “We get on really well,” she says. “My children love to play with him. And they are always asking, ‘Will we have a new friend tonight?’” She describes how she now has a network of friends among both refugees and other volunteers. She smiles: “Sometimes we get together just to have fun. We gather in someone’s house, we move away the tables and chairs, we put on music, and we dance.”

I ask how the volunteers, for their part, fit their activities in with their daily lives. Both Marie and Stella have full-time jobs, like almost all of those involved in the Plateforme Citoyenne. “It’s tiring,” Marie admits. The most difficult thing, she says, is not the actual hosting, but the coordinating and trying to find someone to drive her guests from Brussels to her house or from her house to Brussels. “Everyone is working, everyone is busy,” she says, and it takes time and effort in the mornings to find a driver when she is herself at work or looking after her children. But she says that the remarkable thing about the Plateforme Citoyenne, for her, is the “extreme goodwill” of the people involved. “Everyone, really it’s everyone,” she says. “People support each other and are always willing to lend a hand,” in a way that she feels is often lacking in other groups that are based on social media.

Human closeness, a political act

Marie says that people who aren’t involved tell her they admire what she does, but they wouldn’t do it themselves. “They say they are scared.” As a single mother, doesn’t she have a reason to be scared herself? After all, most of the migrants are young men. “No,” she responds, and it is clear that that thought would not occur to her. “These people are much more vulnerable than I am. They have so much more to lose.” More importantly, the people she hosts often become her friends.

The Plateforme Citoyenne is an apolitical organisation, and that is one reason, Marie believes, why so many people are involved. “It’s open to anyone,” she says. Nevertheless, the political stakes are high. The Belgian government is currently trying to pass a law that would allow police to enter people’s homes in order to search for undocumented migrants, a move many see as targeting the volunteers of the Plateforme Citoyenne. This has been accompanied by other measures that, many say, undermine the right to a life without fear in public spaces. In February 2018, police arrested undocumented migrants at a cultural centre, and raids have been planned on public transport.

Marie had never really been involved in politics before, but agreed that joining the Plateforme Citoyenne and hosting refugees was, for her, “a political act”. She wanted to send a message to the government that migrants should be protected, not criminalised. She also wants to reach out to her fellow citizens. “I hope we will reach more and more people,” she says. “Through human closeness, in fact.” Again she stresses that everyone involved in the Plateforme Citoyenne are “so nice,” and adds, "that reignites my faith in humanity." 

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