A visit to Afghan refugees in Belgium

activistA church in the middle of Brussels, outside a few men are hanging around. It’s Sunday afternoon.
The signs outside the door inform that this church is used as a shelter by Afghan refugees.
After reading these signs me and two of my dear friends enter the church.
Before us a small path leading through the whole church. To the left and to the right all kinds of mattresses laying on the ground, one next to the other. No space left between them. A variety of blankets and sheets in all sizes and colors cover the mattresses. A few of them have a little camping tent above it. Little packages are laying next to the pillows at the back of the mattresses. I suppose they contain the ‘personal stuff’.
On some of the mattresses a few people sit together talking. Friendly they direct us to the end of the church to a young man who speaks French and English. He says he’s responsible at the moment. We explain that we came to bring some stuff to help, clothes, toys. No, they can’t accept the clothes, because when it doesn’t fit anyone or when it’s to old stuff they have to get rid of it and it creates a garbage problem. But blankets and shoes for men are welcome. No, no toys for children, there is no space in the church to create a corner for kids to play. Every inch is filled with mattresses.
I notice how tidy everything is, basic but clean and very tidy.
Of the 450 Afghan refugees out on the streets, 250 live here. I try to imagine how it must be to sleep on those mattresses with 250 men, woman and children in one big bedroom!
A photographer with camera at hand is talking with two men… I hope that his photographs and perhaps his article can achieve something to help these people.

A few stairs are leading to the platform where the altar should stand. I can’t figure out if it’s there because more tiny camping tents on the platform catch my eye and attention. The big sign in front of them says: here live the people who support the Afghan refugees with their hunger strike.
I look up and see the paintings of the saints look down on them from the walls… the space for offering has become a space for sacrifice, the sacrifice of the health and well being of the hunger strikers to appeal for justice for these Afghan people. In my imagination I see the priest at the altar during the offering. I hope that the sacrifice made by the hunger strikers opens the gates of heaven for all those refugees!

Just one street from here there is a big Christmas market with lights, food, a carousel for the children. The weather is fine and many came to visit the market. There’s hardly a parking spot left. The taverns are filled with people… but in the church was just us, and a photographer and the many mattresses, and a little boy trying to play on the small corridor between them.
It’s almost Christmastime. In two weeks we celebrate the birth of a little child in a stable. He and his parents were homeless also. In the comfort of our homes we will celebrate his birth and exchange gifts with our loved ones. But perhaps the people in this church are closer to this child than we ever will be.

I wonder if the policy makers who decide about the lives of these people that try to survive by leaving a country devastated by war, will celebrate Christmas with a peaceful mind.
I wonder if it would change something if our policy makers would spend those days together with these refugees on those mattresses. I wonder how happy they would be to celebrate the coming Christmas holidays in Afghanistan, a country where their lives would also be in danger, a country they think these refugees should return to.
I wonder how a modern so called civilized society can let these refugees – and many other homeless people – live their lives on the floor, in the streets, in poverty, with no papers, no opportunities, no perspectives for a dignified future.

What kind of strange disease must be consuming our hearts and minds to make us to afraid to share some space and resources with people who need a helping hand and some decent shelter? What makes us hold on to inhuman so called ‘laws’?
How can we really feel joy at Christmas knowing that these people are out there? How can we let them stay ‘invisible’ in our society?

The only way I can imagine a joyful Christmas is standing with hundreds, no tens of thousands of fellow human beings around that church with a symbolic Christmas light in our hand, and STAY there just as long as their human rights are not being respected by the people we have voted for.

On our way out of the church one of the men sitting on a mattress offers us a cookie. This gentle and kind man who has nearly nothing still has something he wants to share… I am glad that my friend accepted the cookie. I don’t have the stomach for it. I am to ashamed of being a Belgian citizen today.