I was able to take part in July 2012 in a short term international volunteer project in Yvoir, Belgium, living and working at Red Cross centre hosting asylum seekers from many countries, with 7 other volunteers, for three weeks. There were about a 120 residents, comprising singles, minors and families. Some were new arrivals, and others had been awaiting a decision on their asylum claim for years.
Our work was divided into two parts. In the mornings, we worked on creating a video that would explain the rules of the centre to new arrivals without using language. This is so that the video would be useful to individuals from any nationality and without the language skills when they arrive in Belgium.
In small groups, we spoke to staff members who highlighted the most important rules of living within the centre. We then started writing scenarios for each rule, to be shot for the video. We then spoke to residents and invited them to take part in the video, playing various roles.
Creating this video allowed us to interact with the adult residents of the centre, find out where they were from, their previous ways of life, and the difficulties they face as asylum seekers in Belgium and as residents within the centre.
There were many funny moments and many shared laughs during the filming. The residents enjoyed feeling that they were being an active part of the centre, taking part in something that would be useful to future arrivals, and also interacting with us. We were often invited for traditional meals in their kitchens. It was humbling that despite their difficult circumstances, they made time for us, to tell us about the centre, about their lives, cook and eat with us, and even play sport games together.
In the afternoons, we spent time playing and co-ordinating activities with the children of the centre. It was the summer school holidays, and with Yvoir being a small village with very little to do, and their parents being financially restricted, I felt that the children really appreciated having us in the centre. The weather was lovely most of the time, so we played outdoors; many games that brought back childhood memories. We also organised a bread making workshop, parties, and a sports competition day. The children were very energetic and loved to play with us, regardless of whether or not it was officially playtime! They were very sad to see us leave the centre, and took the time to make us individual drawings and presents which they surprised us with on the last day.
We were a very close group of 8 volunteers, and all got on extremely well. This helped make the experience much more enjoyable; as we cooked and shared our meals together, did our food shopping together, and went on weekend excursions to Brussels and Bruges. There was a real group and community spirit amongst us, and also amongst the residents of the centre as a whole.
The experience was an amazing one for me. As somebody who arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker at the age of 15, I am very much aware of the injustices of the system and the isolating effect it has on people. I wanted to take part in this project to understand how the system works in another European country; to meet new people and challenge myself, as for a long time I had been isolated; to contribute a little to the understanding and awareness of what it means to be a refugee; and most importantly, to help make a difference to the experiences of the residents in the Yvoir centre. I felt that I was able to do all of these things, and now more than ever before feel that I really do want to use my freedom, my education, and my awareness of refugee issues to help create a better world.
I am so grateful for Concordia and the partner organization in Belgium JAVVA for giving me the opportunity to join this project: without their support and kindness, I would not have been able to live this experience.
Mary, Summer 2012