Where Refugees Can Come Home

The 20-foot-high effigy of a refugee perched on a rooftop here does not have a name. To his creators, the anonymity of the figure crouched in an orange life vest, his arms wrapped tightly around his knees, reflects the universality of his plight. But it also reflects the way many Europeans view the refugees and migrants arriving in their towns and cities: a nameless mass threatening their way of life.

“They are always Muslim, and we are Catholic,” Emiel Van Den Bossche, a 58-year-old train driver, told me recently as he waited at Mechelen’s station for his next shift. “Maybe there are very few people who want to make war here, terrorist attacks, but you don’t know. We cannot see the difference. That is why we are scared.”

Inflatable Refugee, an installation by the artists Schellekens & Peleman, on a roof next to the Mechelen Cultural Center. Owen Franken for The New York Times
Inflatable Refugee, an installation by the artists Schellekens & Peleman, on a roof next to the Mechelen Cultural Center. Owen Franken for The New York Times

Mr. Van Den Bossche then confided that he had never actually met a refugee.

It is this difference — between “us” and “them,” refugees and natives — that Bart Somers, the mayor of Mechelen, wants to bridge. He aims to do so by stripping away that anonymity and encouraging interaction between locals and the new arrivals. The inflatable refugee on the roof is one of the more abstract of several initiatives he hopes will break down barriers in this city of around 85,000 people in northern Belgium.

The arrival last year of more than a million migrants — the majority fleeing conflict and persecution — brought panic across Europe. Now host countries need to think beyond immediate needs like emergency housing, food and medical care and address the broader challenge of making people feel included in the societies where they must rebuild their lives. This is especially difficult at a time when terror attacks in Europe by Islamist extremists have created tensions, and far-right political parties are stoking fear for electoral gain.

“People are afraid of the unknown,” said Gabriella De Francesco, a former teacher now tasked with Mechelen’s refugee-integration strategy. But if every person in the city could get to know a new arrival — learn their name, their background, their hopes — then, she said, “people learn that they are not the enemy — they are human like you and me.”
When Mr. Somers volunteered earlier this year to open a new center to house 150 more migrants and refugees, in addition to the 250 already living in the city, he arranged an open day so concerned residents could come and see the housing. Children at the center have been invited to join the local scouts group. A “buddy” program pairs new arrivals with a local. And at an adult education center a few blocks from the train station, where refugees learn Dutch, Belgians who also attend classes are invited to spend a day with their foreign counterparts.

Gabriella De Francesco, a former teacher now tasked with Mechelen’s refugee-integration strategy. Owen Franken for The New York Times
Gabriella De Francesco, a former teacher now tasked with Mechelen’s refugee-integration strategy. Owen Franken for The New York Times

The day I visited the school, a Somali, a Moroccan, an Afghan, a Palestinian and a Kosovar were engrossed in a lesson on telling the time. Learning the local language and accessing the labor market are the two most important steps to integration, and here they can do both simultaneously. Lessons take place for a few hours over lunch, then the students return to work with a cleaning company subsidized by the municipality.

It is a pilot project, and right now there are only 11 jobs available, but for the men and women taking part, it gives them independence and hope for the future.

“Here in Mechelen, for the first time I can help myself,” said Ilham Addilgadir, a 22-year-old Somali woman in a bold red head scarf. She fled Somalia when her father told her she would be killed if she refused to marry a Shabab fighter. Despite having no formal education, she is making swift progress and wants to stay in Mechelen.

The situation here is very different from what I’ve seen as I’ve reported on refugees across Europe over the past four years. In Sweden, I know a chemical engineer from Eritrea who has been waiting a year for her refugee papers. While she can in theory work as her application is processed, no company wants to hire her until they know she will be staying. Hanan al-Hasan, a Syrian mother of four, spends two-and-a-half hours a day traveling to her German-language class in Vienna, Austria, leaving no time for a job with regular hours. In Malta, I saw refugees housed in shipping containers stacked behind barbed wire near the airport.

It’s an “out of sight, out of mind” approach aimed at placating a skeptical local population, but it could backfire in the future, Mr. Somers warned. “We live in a super-diverse reality, and we have to see our neighbors as citizens, regardless of their origin, and we have to treat each other the same way.”

About 20 miles south of Mechelen is Brussels, which was the epicenter of one of Europe’s deadliest terror rings. The same distance to the north is the port city of Antwerp, and Mr. Somers says that the stretch between Brussels and Antwerp is responsible for 8 percent of all the Europeans who have left to fight in Syria and Iraq. In the nearby municipality of Vilvoorde, just nine minutes away from Mechelen by train, 28 young people have traveled to join Islamist extremist groups.

A language class for adult refugees in Mechelen. Owen Franken for The New York Times
A language class for adult refugees in Mechelen. Owen Franken for The New York Times

Mr. Somers says that not one Mechelen youth has traveled to Syria, despite 20 percent of his constituents coming from Muslim backgrounds. “There are mayors who said that if people of their city go and fight in Syria, they hope they will die there,” said Mr. Somers, who has been re-elected three times since 2001. “I say the opposite. I have to do everything to prevent young people going and throwing away their lives there, because they are kids of my town, they are children of Mechelen.”

The welcoming policies for refugees are an extension of that same outlook.

Of course, some of the policies that work with 400 refugees in a city the size of Mechelen may be difficult to replicate in a place like Vienna, a city of 1.7 million. But the fundamental principles — inclusion rather than exclusion — can apply anywhere.

Local concerns must also be taken seriously, which is one reason that in Mechelen, all residents can take advantage of new social policies, like subsidized work placement and language courses, whether they are refugees or not. Even the buddy program is open to everyone: Recently, a Belgian from the French-speaking south of the country enrolled to find out more about his new home, a city of cobbled streets, Gothic architecture and a Unesco-listed cathedral.

From his rooftop perch, the inflatable refugee, created by the Belgian artists known as Schellekens & Peleman, looks up to the cathedral’s bell tower. People are divided on the symbolism. The artists’ agent told me it was purely practical; Mr. Somers said it was because the tower represents home for Mechelen residents; Ms. De Francesco thought it symbolized understanding between religions.

For many Europeans, fear of a culture clash between people from Muslim countries and their predominantly Christian hosts is at the heart of their opposition to welcoming refugees. Dorothy Arts, a 46-year-old former consultant now retraining in the undertaking business, took part in Mechelen’s buddy scheme in part to address her own prejudices about the role of women in Muslim societies. “I thought, ‘That’s my fear, and I don’t want to give in to it — I want to go in there and meet them,’ ” she said.

The city is also working on a course for newcomers, which teaches cultural norms, like the role of men and women in Belgian society.

Mechelen town center, near the Gross Markt, with Sint Rombouts Kathedraal in the background. Owen Franken for The New York Times
Mechelen town center, near the Gross Markt, with Sint Rombouts Kathedraal in the background. Owen Franken for The New York Times

It’s a sensitive subject, but such courses could benefit everyone. Fahima Ghulani, a 27-year-old mother of two from Afghanistan, refuses to shake the hands of men, has no formal education and wells up in frustration at being unable to find the right words to express herself. In many ways, she represents the kind of person whom some in Europe fear can never integrate.

But when I asked her whether she liked Mechelen, she said: “In Afghanistan, women can’t go outside, but in Belgium I can go outside. Here, my children can go to school. European people, and me, an Afghan — we are all the same.”

Europe’s new arrivals overwhelmingly want to integrate and become part of the societies in which they have found themselves. Various studies show that refugees can be an asset to communities, bringing vital cultural rejuvenation and economic benefits. To fail to offer them the opportunity to fulfill their potential would be a mistake that will haunt Europe for generations to come.

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson is the author of Cast Away: True Stories of Survival From Europe’s Refugee Crisis.

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