An asylum-seeker, though similar with refugee, is technically a person that has asked to be legally recognized as a refugee and is not yet granted the same legal protection and material assistance as a refugee.
My name is Carmen Chong from Service Civil International Malaysia. I am currently under an EVS programme (European Voluntary Service) in SCI Belgium for 3 months.
I have the opportunity to join an international workcamp to work for in an open centre for asylum-seekers in the center of Florennnes, Belgium for two weeks. (A village located in the South of Belgium, 1 hour by bus from Charleroi, in a rural area.)
The aim of the workcamp is to propose new activities to the residents of the centre during school holidays, and to promote intercultural dialogue.
This centre hosts 580 people (including 100 over children) from various countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Albania, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan etc.
Our volunteer group consists of 6 people (5 female, 1 male) which is Sarah, the camp coordinator from Switzerland, Pauline from Brussels, Coraline from Taiwan, Amira from Denmark, Guilherme from Portugal and myself.
Bed, Bath, Bread
We arrived at the centre on the first day and we were treated equally as the asylum seeker by the reception centre. The reception centre provided us with the same basic need of residents that are legally entitled to: a place to sleep, meal and the sanitary facilities. We will be staying, playing, cooking and eating together with the residents.
There are many facilities to offer the residents a meaningful way of passing their time including badminton court, table tennis room, gym room, kitchen, movie room, TV station, public kitchen, swimming pool and a multi-purpose room for activities. There are several internet rooms so that residents can keep in touch with friends and family at home.
Every asylum seeker is entitled to medical care in the small clinic in the Centre. There is always a doctor and nursing staff affiliated with the reception structure. In addition to medical care, asylum seekers are also entitled to psychological assistance to deal with their psychical problems especially depression, stress, traumas in their homeland.
Various activities will also be organised by the centre to involve the residents with the community in the neighbourhood such as football friendly match, watching movies in the cinema, BBQ party, visiting the zoo and museum.
The asylum seekers can take up courses such as language course mainly French, cooking class, IT classes, so on. The children are obliged to attend school in the neighbourhood.
The residents can carry out different tasks: serving meals, cleaning the toilets, helping administrative work, etc to receive an extra pocket money in addition to their weekly allowance.
The canteen. Breakfast serves at 830am in the morning, lunch serves at 12noon and dinner serves at 6pm in the evening. The food here can be a very huge problem. Due to budget constraints by the government and the increasing number of asylum seekers, they budgeted less than 5 euro (less than RM20) per person for 3 meals in a day.
It depends, some meals are quite okay…
When working with the asylum seekers it’s important for volunteers to have knowledge of the background of the residents, they may have serious trauma experiences. We were told by the staff that it is important to be culturally sensitive to their experiences.
We went through a proper briefing and short training session that prepared us to work through language barriers (as most of them don’t speak English or French), and we learnt some creative approach to deal with problem solving.
This is the multi-purpose hall that we used to have activities with the kids. There’s a nice garden behind the hall and empty space for us to play with the kids.
Our activities with the kids divided into two sessions. The morning session starts at 10am in the morning until 12 noon and the afternoon session starts at 130pm until 430pm. There will be a debriefing session at the end of the day to evaluate our activities of the day and to discuss the activities to be discussed for the next day.
Due to language barriers with the residents, we have to think of the activities that do not require much explanations through words. It was a challenging yet a good platform for me to think out of the box!
Various activities were carried out for the children including: face painting, origami, football, swimming, badminton, decorating the vegetable pots. Also, it was the environmental week for the centre, we organized 3R activities (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle ) to raise awareness among the residents such as using recycable items to make arts and crafts.We were glad that the children enjoyed our presence very much and it was very fruitful to spend our time with them!
I have made good friend with an Afghanistan asylum seeker named Ahmad Ahmadi, 18 years old. “You don’t know what a small gesture means to a refugee,” he adds. “Even just a smile can mean so much”. I realized it is very important for volunteers to create a welcoming atmosphere, it really matters a lot for the asylum seekers to feel welcome, valued, respected and treated as equal and always listen to them.
I received the first hand knowledge of their sufferings experiences from my friend Ahmad, on how they smuggled from their country to Europe for safety. It was really heartbroken to know that their whole country collapsed including electricity and safe water supplies. Their family members were killed and there are still wars everyday back at their home. Many of them have to leave their high paid jobs such as lawyers, accountants, professors etc.
It took them months by foot, boat, train to reach Belgium and they told me how bad it was when they don’t speak French or English when they arrived Belgium and no one can understand them.
Many of them are having significant mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of trauma. Often their crime in their home country was standing up to the government or other sources of authority. Taking a principled stand had led to physical attacks, death threats and, in some cases, torture and the murder of family members. They were left with psychological torture of the fear of what was to come next and doubts over whether they and their family would still all be alive the following day.
They have no choice on how they want to live and who they can live with. Everyone is anxious about the future, but hoping to pass the interview.
”All we want is to be a normal human being with a job and to be reunited with my family.”
In the meantime, travelling anywhere remains impossible.
Their only choice is to wait and hope.
It was the most unique and eye opening voluntary experience for me. After working two weeks in this asylum seeker centre, it was so hard for us to say goodbye as our relationship with the kids, residents and the staff were very close. The residents even organized a farewell party to thank us for bringing love in their live.
Strangely, we ourselves are very blessed by them. Sometimes we have to really remind ourselves to count our blessings instead of all of our problems.
Love knows no boundaries, races ,age, religion and culture. The things that we did for them might not be great but we did small things with great love.
Let us continue to make this world a better place for everyone.
I pray and wish them all the best.
Article written by Carmen Chong published on her personal blog, Workcamp Asylum Seekers Center-Florennes- Centre pour Demandeurs d’Asile de Florennes, August 2016