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Brussels border towns launch expat welcome service
From Flanders Today: Do you still remember what you found the hardest about your first few months in Belgium? Perhaps poor Dutch language skills led to confusion in administration? Maybe it took a while to get to know the local community. Or maybe it was just a heaving rubbish bag on your doorstep because you mixed up the collection days?
While memories of those initial niggles might subside when we feel at home in our new communities, all expats experience teething problems. That’s why a new pilot project to help integrate newcomers has been launched in three Flemish municipalities that have a high proportion of expats – Tervuren, Zaventem and Hoeilaart.
Expat op Pad, or Expats Explore, is a new reception policy that includes a website and local welcome teams. The multilingual website – in Dutch, English, German and French – is already live and has information on language lessons, voting rights, key phone numbers and more.
The office of minister Ben Weyts – responsible for de rand, or the Flemish periphery of Brussels – is supporting the project with €60,000 over three years, and there are plans to roll it out in other parts of Flanders.
“I believe in targeted investments in initiatives that create momentum in the Flemish municipalities surrounding Brussels,” said Weyts at the launch event. “Thanks to a congenial melting pot with a wide range of projects like this one, we can attract newcomers and, therefore, also expats.”
Those newcomers were also invited to the launch. Michaela Nagl from Germany said she was surprised at the “great effort” that’s been made by a small municipality to welcome its new residents.
That small municipality – Tervuren – has long been a magnet for expats, who make up 22% of the current population. Many of the more long-standing residents are volunteering with the scheme’s “integration teams”, offering information about social events and sports and providing a friendly face for residents who come with questions about their new municipalities, however mundane they may be.
“One of the biggest things people ask us about is their rubbish – when to put it out and how to sort it,” said Tess Finch, a British resident in Tervuren volunteering on the welcome team. “I know how difficult it can be for newcomers to find their feet. That’s why I participate in local activities. Now I feel strongly involved in the local community.”
Her co-member Dave Skinner arrived in Tervuren more than 40 years ago and said that expats who come to work at the EU institutions often receive a helping hand through their workplace. Finch noted that those who arrive without such a framework can find it harder to integrate, even those who have a smattering of Dutch.
And while Tervuren has a large number of EU employees, newcomers at the most recent welcome team events have come from further afield – Brazil, the US and Oceania. “That’s why this initiative is so fantastic,” she said.