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'Buddy' project aims to help newcomers integrate better in Brussels

Two young women enjoying discovering Brussels together, Sunday 09 February 2020. (BELGA PHOTO NICOLAS MAETERLINCK)
06:06 02/06/2021

New Brussels residents will soon be able to discover the city with their own 'buddy'. The CoNnect project brings new arrivals and current residents together to get to know each other and their perspective on life in Brussels.

The CoNnect project intends to help new people in Brussels build a social network, according to Pascal Smet, state secretary and member of the Flemish Community Commission (VGC) for culture, youth, sport and community centres.

CoNnect is financially supported by the VGC and the European Asylum and Migration Fund and is part of the Flemish government's policy to offer newcomers more opportunities for social participation.

"With 'newcomers', we refer to a very concrete group: the people who have an ongoing integration contract with the Brussels reception office for integration," explained Janna Moonens of the VGC.

Bülent and Emine Özeler, a couple who migrated to Belgium two-and-a-half years ago, know that it is not easy to find your way as a newcomer. "A buddy can make it easier to take the first steps and get to know other Brussels residents,” said Bülent. “Exchanging experiences and getting to know each other's lives and culture better... this way we can build beautiful friendships."

"I know what it's like to be alone and living in a new city," said Brussels resident Pieter Van Leemputten, who wants to become a buddy. "It is useful if someone helps you find your way. I became a father two years ago and I think it would be nice to do fun activities together with a family that is new to Belgium and Brussels. It is also interesting to learn about how they look at our city."

The intention is that the participants meet at least twice a month and choose their activities together. The VGC and Federation of Global and Democratic Organisations (FMDO) provide guidance throughout the process and organise joint group activities.

"We want people to know 100% what the project is all about, so we first organise a basic education programme," Janna Moonens explained. "There we discuss, among other things, the needs of the newcomers and what questions the buddies can expect." The training focuses on intercultural action, dealing with multilingualism, accessible Dutch and getting to know the social map with supporting organisations.

Both the buddies and the newcomers participate in an initial interview to gauge their expectations. "Based on those conversations, the two groups will be linked," Moonens said. "After that, fixed training sessions continue to take place, depending on the needs that the participants themselves identify. If there are more questions about dealing with multilingualism, for example, we organise an in-depth session about this."

If you are interested in participating in the project, you can register via the VGC website until January 2022. "The first possibility to apply begins on 24 June," Moonens explained. "By January, we want to have put together about 150 pairs. This is followed by an assessment process of about six months after which we evaluate the impact of the project."

Written by Nick Amies