From September to December 2018, Ana Olaru participated in the course of Civic Engagement. This program proposes to student to take part in the life of a NGO or association by helping voluntarily for a few time. She gives us her testimonial.
It is now, when I have already left dear little Belgium far behind, the land that has captured my heart so quickly as to seem almost indecent, that I allow myself to recall, with a smile, everything she has been willing to bestow upon me: a vicious cycle of exams, the most interesting courses of my brief academic life, the opportunity to imitate, with enthusiasm rather than any talent, an ordinary Belgian student, meetups with the friendliest young people in the world (and don’t dare accuse me of exaggeration – I’m already convinced of my guilt on that score – but it’s due to the fact I really miss everyone in Belgium, so I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do about it) and the time I spent as a volunteer with Fedasil made me very consciously aware of the refugee problem in which I found myself and the extremely special human relationships that I cultivated. And it’s the latter that I would like to talk about.
My choice: The Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (Fedasil)
The Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (Fedasil/Agence fédérale pour l’accueil des demandeurs d’asile) is a public authority responsible for receiving persons requesting international protection, as well as other target groups. The COO of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre is one of the observation and orientation centres for unaccompanied foreign minors in Belgium which is a Fedasil entity. The centre provides an initial welcome to foreign minors arriving in Belgium without a family. This is where I did my volunter internship for 2 months.
I usually spent three days a week there teaching foreign minors basic French, accompanying young foreigners on activities outside the reception centre (walks in the park and sports activities held outside the centre) and participating in tasks forming part of the centre’s weekly activities (organising board games and “Le Vestiboutique” – an activity involving the allocation of clothing and hygiene products).
A rediscovery of the concept of “Communication”
“Discovery” – this is the word I associate with my experience with Fedasil. The centre allowed me to discover something new on a daily basis. Interacting with refugee minors received by Fedasil, I learned a lot about the countries of origin of these youngsters and their cultures, but most of all I learned a lot about human relationships and the importance of being able to communicate effectively. I rediscovered the concept of communication from a different perspective because the majority of young people at the centre did not speak French, English or any other language by which I could have understood them. When teaching them basic French, I often had to find alternative ways to explain things. It definitely required creativity on my part. (Now that I think about it, I am sure I’d be able to pen a genuine ode to hands and gestures.)
When participating in various activities aimed at allowing the youngsters to socialise, I often had to communicate without using language and this taught me that it sometimes takes a lot of effort to reach consensus with young people from countries with cultural viewpoints that are quite distant (compared to Belgium), countries like Eritrea, Afghanistan, Albania or Cameroon.
A way to know myself better
I must admit that I often found myself exploring Belgian society through their eyes. As an Erasmus student, I discovered along with them what kind of people the inhabitants of Brussels are. It came as less of a shock to me, perhaps, but I often understood their astonishment. That being said, I cannot conceal the fact that my first time in Belgium was marked by a very palpable feeling of loneliness. When I was at Fedasil, where there were also young people who felt lonely, I felt that I could understand what they were going through and that I could at least help them by having a nice chat with them, and this always made me feel better. I often thought that in my case it was I who had chosen this loneliness, but the extreme loneliness they encountered was usually a loneliness forced upon them. This realisation made me keenly aware of the freedom I enjoy and that I can help a person by understanding him or her. That’s how the activities in which I participated at Fedasil helped me to discover myself.
As an Erasmus student, I discovered along with them what kind of people the inhabitants of Brussels are. (…) I cannot conceal the fact that my first time in Belgium was marked by a very palpable feeling of loneliness. When I was at Fedasil, where there were also young people who felt lonely, I felt that I could understand what they were going through (…). I often thought that in my case it was I who had chosen this loneliness, but the extreme loneliness they encountered was usually a loneliness forced upon them.
A way to meet extraordinary people
My experience of volunteering at Fedasil has equipped me with a generous trove of memories from which I could produce copious pages of anecdotes. However, constrained as I am by space, I shall use this short article to recount one little story. The hero of this one is Ali*, a young person I met at Fedasil who spoke neither French nor English. I used to play checkers with the youngsters at the centre and was able to teach some of them how to play, but this was not the case with Ali. He was genuinely apprehensive about playing checkers, probably because he couldn’t understand any of the words I used to explain the rules of the game. He refused to take part. After a week at the centre, though, he stopped by to follow my game of checkers with another youngster. He watched for quite a while, and then, finally, he decided to give it a go. He made me understand that he wanted to play and we started our game. Whenever Ali broke the rules, I made him understand, without using words, that he had done so. And we were able to play our game.
After that, Ali would wait to play checkers with me each Friday. I am glad I met him. I will likely remember Ali for a long time, as he was living proof of the fact that one can get along without words and that with a little courage, effort and patience, it is possible to create human bonds without speaking.
I stopped playing checkers during the exam period. Now my exams are finished, I’ve already left Belgium and Ali has left the centre (the youngsters can only stay there for a month), but I still think about him. I would like to meet him and play another nice game of checkers.
*This name was changed for reason of privacy.
Author: Ana Olaru, Erasmus student September to December 2018