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Feel like a local: Get involved in your community and make the most of life in Brussels
Feeling like an insider instead of an outsider is the best thing that can happen to an expat living abroad. One way of stepping out of the bubble is by getting involved in your community. Brussels offers many opportunities for experiencing local life, whether it be via citizen action, joining a residents group or volunteering.
With the Belgian capital home to 186 nationalities, involvement in a group or an action often means going beyond national boundaries, which is ideal for widening your social circle. It can also be a form of networking and have significant consequences. More and more people in the international community are finding that they are actually able to influence life in the city.
They include campaigners tackling environmental issues such as the growing grass-roots initiative launched by British expat Sarah Ehrlich, Free Tap Water in Belgium (Eurostar-Brussels Midi image, pictured above). Encouraging businesses to reduce single-use plastic by offering tap water to customers, it has led to 700 restaurants and cafes now offering a free glass of water. Ehrlich has also convinced Brussels Airport to review its sale of bottled water. The latest news is that the airport will be installing a new bottle refilling station in January, with the current plastic water stand being completely dismantled.
“Ever since arriving in Belgium 16 years ago, I silently complained about the country’s tradition of refusing tap water in cafes and restaurants. So I decided to do something and after asking on Facebook if anyone else was irritated, a campaign was born. We now have a growing team of volunteers from around the world and with their help a Google map and free app are showing the growing list of refill stations. Continually updated, it already has around 10,000 users. The volunteer spirit is very much alive in this country,” says the dual British-Israeli national.
Estonian Kadri Soova became involved in the clean air campaign Filter Café Filtré in her Schaerbeek neighbourhood (pictured above). It calls for car-free streets around schools and infrastructure favouring pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. As a migrants’ rights lobbyists, she has been able to exploit her professional skills for the wider good.
With a determinedly political mission, 1Bru1Vote campaigns for regional voting rights for non-Belgians, a commitment to increase citizen participation in mainstream politics that is driven by a savvy and well-placed bunch of expats. It is continuing to put pressure on local governments to address the lack of representation for non-Belgian residents in Brussels.
Another example of an expat putting her professional expertise to good use is communications professional Alice Coates-Doyle. “I have been an administrative volunteer at the Community Help Service (CHS) for over a year. I was able to use my experience in the role of publicity coordinator to help promote the services of CHS to the international community of Brussels. As a non-profit, CHS is reliant on a team of volunteer staff for its 24/7 English-language helpline as well as providing administrative support to its clinical team and helping with publicity and fundraising (CHS participating in Darkness into Light suicide-awareness walk, pictured above).
After moving to Belgium to be with her Belgian partner, the Australian’s motivation to help arose from a desire to connect with the international community and meet new people as well as devote her time and experience to a good cause.
“I have always been passionate about mental health and, as a new expat, appreciated the demand for English-speaking resources,” says Coates-Doyle. “Every week, I meet expats, freshly facing the confrontations of relocation, who have skills and time to share. If you’re in that position, ask yourself ask 'What am I passionate about? How can I help?' Volunteering is a wonderful way to understand your new city better and meet like-minded people.”
Long-term expat Rozina Spinnoy’s incentive is “a fire in her belly” when it comes to tackling systemic inclusion and promoting diverse communities. Through an inter-linked series of projects, the designer and social entrepreneur (pictured above) is making her mark on her adopted city. Originally from Scotland and with an Asian heritage and Flemish husband, she is convinced that “cultural richness should be embraced”.
The former designer is the founder of the non-profit Business Improvement Districts – BIDs Belgium (pictured above). “I wanted to create socio-economic regeneration at a grassroots level and keep local partnerships: education, business and active citizens with also the public sector jumping in,” says Spinnoy, a Koekelberg resident.
By looking at other cities in other countries she set about designing healthy communities along a holistic model, presenting them to both past and present mayors and administrations in her municipality.
Spinnoy’s motivation to design inclusive communities is also personal as her middle son is on the autism spectrum. “I was inspired to set up an inclusive educational programme, mixing special needs with mainstream education, which managed to get some government funding. The inclusive concept places importance on creative and digital skills and out-of-the box thinking as well as a holistic approach. Otherwise my son would be saying he's feeling excluded at times and questioning why he's in a different school from his brothers.”
Collaborating with local schools and seeing them embrace an alternative approach by going for EU funding proved a rewarding exercise and spurred Spinnoy to look into other mental health challenges. A member of Mental Health Europe, she was involved in the 12 Hours for Life live music event in Brussels (pictured above) for World Mental Health Day in October. Campaigning against young people self-harming, she says “is an example of how business and communities can be more inclusive”.
Another of her projects implicating inclusion and diversity is Women100, which brings together women in Brussels from various socio-economic backgrounds, “linking women from the 19 municipalities from Molenbeek to Ixelles and empowering them to connect and work together”.
Spinnoy is a frequent collaborator of American Larry Moffett, who is a familiar figure in expat circles and also involved in the 1Bru1Vote action. The business consultant and event organiser specialises in creating social networks, putting his extensive contacts book to use when mobilising the international community.
One of his current preoccupations is the citizen’s movement Rise for Climate - Belgium (pictured, top and above). which has been marching through city-centre streets over the past year, reaching out to the youth climate movement and lobbying EU institutions to implement environmental measures. “In the core group there are two Belgians, three French citizens and myself; we’re really open to everyone,” says Moffett.
Why does he get involved? “I don’t like to see things that seem wrong and could be corrected, and I have faith in people power,” he says, recognising that a combination of persistence and self-employed status also help.
Moffett identifies two reasons why expats are adept at giving back to their community. “They have experience of similar problems in their home countries or other countries they have lived in. If you live in the same place for decades you can become resigned to things not working properly, while if you have travelled, you can be motivated to question how things are done and try and change them.
“Secondly, expats are generally quite educated and can have an expertise or wealth of knowledge in their professional lives that they can put to good use.”
Chalks Richard Corriette is another widely-travelled business and social entrepreneur, who appears to seamlessly interweave his professional and personal commitments, encompassing volunteering, charities and global community building.
Says Corriette: “Complimentary to my role in business, I ensure that I contribute to social initiatives that also address youth alongside other key issues. I am a Group Scout Leader (GSL) with British Scouting Overseas, President of People to People International Belgium, a director at ACE of Brussels school and in the past I was heavily involved with the amazing team at the volunteer programme Serve the City (pictured, above). I am driven to use my skills and network to benefit communities that will deliver big returns to society because they are successful.”
And the motivation for his extra-curricular work? “My parents served in their communities both at church and at the local cricket club – this in turn, influenced me to do everything possible to add value, wherever I can. I was put on this planet to play a leading role in creating a brilliant world that we can all be proud of.”
If you don’t have the time or inclination to campaign or volunteer, the perfect introduction to interacting with your community is joining a neighbourhood or residents’ association. Nearly every municipality and area in and around Brussels communicates via Facebook groups and blogs. From influencing urban projects and saving trees to ensuring neighbourhood safety and organising get-togethers, they are an opportunity to discover what’s going on, a chance to meet your neighbours and possibly tempt you into the wider world of citizen action.
The Bulletin in collaboration with Visit.brussels