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Exhibition shares the human stories behind 200 years of migration in Brussels

23:00 19/10/2017
Just how did Brussels become a world city and a melting pot of so many different cultures?

People from 183 nationalities share Brussels as home. This fact has been widely reported over the past year and has been highlighted by such initiatives as Mixity Brussels 2017. But what are the actual stories of all these immigrants? And what led to this intense cosmopolitan existence?

Many people think that it is a recent development, driven by such factors as the creation of the EU. But actually, since 1830, there have been waves of immigration that over 200 years have transformed Brussels into a world city. For instance, scores of Chinese came to Brussels at the turn of the 20th century to study and many stayed, founding the Chinese community of Belgium.

Why did these people leave their original homes and how did Brussels greet them? That is the topic of a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Brussels. "A Safe Haven?" produced in cooperation with the State Archives and the Moroccan-Jewish Culture Centre (and associated with Mixity Brussels), presents a historical perspective, a contemporary view and an artistic interpretation.

First, through the use of vintage photographs, vintage films, personal objects and personal testimony it shines a light on these hundreds of thousands of people who came, some for a while and some for ever, some well known, such as Karl Marx and Leonidas Kestekides - others only known to their family and friends.

Curator Pascale Falek-Alhadef fits right in: "I am from Brussels originally, but with four grandparents born in Poland." She explains how in the mid 19th century most immigrants come from the surrounding countries but "during the decades passing you see that the people coming to shape the country, those who stay are more and more international.

"When you think about Greece you don’t necessarily think of one immigrant, Leonidas Kestekides, who came in the 19th century, fell in love with a Belgian woman, stayed, and created one of the most well-known chocolate factories. The relationship between Greeks and Belgium goes back much further than the accession of Greece to the EU or even the migrant workers pact of 1957."

And for the contemporary view, 16 immigrants from Argentina, Brazil, China, Congo, France, Poland, Romania, Sudan, Sweden and Syria were filmed. In their own words, their own accents and their own points of view, they tell us why they came here - fleeing from political oppression, hope for a better economic situation, or for love. Some came by plane, others via a gruelling Mediterranean crossing.

They are between 15 and 75 years old of various faiths, some have become Belgian citizens, others are waiting to hear and still others have never sought citizenship even though they’ve been here for decades. They tell us the obstacles they encountered, their misery at times but also their hopes and dreams for the future.

"60% of families in Brussels are bilingual and it’s not Dutch, English of French that is their main language," says Falek-Alhadef. "People are used to speaking different languages, they like to and you can live here for decades without perfectly speaking a language but you manage. That’s probably what makes the city a little more welcoming, even if you have a strong accent you can manage and that’s also why we love Brussels."

Eight artists and artist collectives from as far afield as Brazil and Rwanda, all working and living in Brussels, have created special works for the exhibition, from interactive installations, to photography, video, fashion, sculpture and mural painting.

There will be workshops, some specifically for children. "Fragrances from Near and Far" will expose participants to the many odours and fragrances that have been added to the Brussels environment by the influx of cultures. "Tales of the World" will entertain children with stories from all the continents. And there will be Tuesday midday lectures and concerts.

Until 18 March 2018, Jewish Museum, Brussels

Written by Richard Harris