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Pay it forward: Volunteering in Belgium
There are many reasons why you might want to give your time to help others. There’s something about living abroad, spending time away from family and friends, that makes you realise that we rely on the kindness of strangers to get by. Most of us have been helped through rough patches by others, and there may come a time when we feel in a position to give back.
Expats can find themselves with spare time, especially single people without family responsibilities or older people with a more flexible schedule. The role we used to play – even something as simple as cheering up an elderly relative with a weekly visit – is gone and can leave a void.
Brussels is also an exceptional city in that wealth and poverty live side by side, with international workers living extremely comfortable lives in the “Eurobubble” while people lie homeless a kilometre away. With all the privileges that life can bring – company car, housing allowance, compensated travel – it’s a big contrast to the experiences of some people in Brussels that we never see or think of.
You can volunteer in a way that suits you. Helping the homeless isn’t for everyone, but anything that makes a difference to those around you is worthwhile: coach a sports team, teach English, use your skills to help others or just keep someone company. Ask around, talk to people and see what they’re doing.
And there are benefits for volunteers, too. It can give a sense of belonging and foster a community spirit, helping you feel integrated and at home in your adopted country.
Serve the City
Serve the City is ‘a movement of volunteers serving cities in practical ways’, which started in Brussels in 2005. They believe that many people doing small things together can make a big difference, and they work with the homeless, the elderly, asylum-seekers and disabled people. Katie Murphy, 29, from Belfast, is a team leader at the organisation.
When did you start volunteering with Serve the City?
I started three years ago with a friend who had heard that an organisation was looking for baby clothes. So that was the first squat I visited – with Roma, Chechens and Afghans. I wanted to get outside the bubble, I wanted to get more involved, so I started going one night a week to help out.
Tell us about a project you’ve taken part in
There were Kurdish asylum-seekers who had no water where they were staying, so we took a group of 20 or 30 kids to the sports centre in Ixelles on Sundays to have showers. They were brilliant there, so great. The commune helped set it up. We had only one hour to get everyone in and out, during a basketball game when the bathrooms were free. We had it timed to perfection. The kids ranged from three or four years old to teenagers. For girls that age, it’s so important to have a shower.
What’s the best way you’ve made a difference?
One girl had sight problems and we raised money for an eye operation. Medecins du Monde will perform the operation for free. It’s so tangible; she’ll be able to see again.
You must have seen some difficult situations
There was a squat of 220 people at Botanique, attached to the Jesu church. There were no showers, and major issues like prostitution; the police didn’t want to go there. The kids there had been exposed to a lot.
Are there ever conflicts with other volunteers?
Not really; there’s never really any friction. People’s intentions are good and it’s fundamentally not about you.
Where do the volunteers come from?
It’s very international. I’ve worked with a Spanish guy and a Romanian, and I’ve wallpapered a squat with a Nigerian and an American. I’ve met good friends through it. It’s a great experience.
How can people help?
Go to one of the monthly focus days, on a Saturday, when they go out into the neighbourhoods. You can even help by giving English lessons or visiting the elderly – everything helps.
You can also start your own organisation, which is what Pierre-Henri Garcia is doing with a group of friends.
What is Solidare-It!?
These days we use social networks online all the time – we’re very connected but it’s often in an individualist way. We wanted to set up an organisation that uses a social network to connect people with those who need help.
Where did the idea come from?
It came from a friend, and some couch-surfing contacts. The first idea was to help people who were homeless. And then from speaking about it, there was an evolution of the idea.
How will it work?
Through donations, and also services like helping people directly. We want it to be a high-functioning website; that’s a priority. That’s why we’re working with UCL – we hired student developers to help us set it up properly. We crowdfunded to raise money to do that. We’re beta testing the site from June and we hope it will be ready in time for winter.
How can people help?
Right now we could use help from developers and graphic designers to improve the look of the website, as well as marketing and communications people.
Have you volunteered before, or ever needed help?
I’ve volunteered on and off since I was a student. I gave French lessons to asylum-seekers in Brussels. I’ve never needed a lot of help, but even something such as needing a place to stay when I moved to Brussels – it can be as simple as that.
Who needs your help?
Convivial: An organisation that is the first point of call for asylum-seekers in Brussels and works regularly with volunteers.
Samusocial: Helps the homeless in Brussels.
The Red Cross: Projects include calls to visit isolated elderly people at their homes and accompanying children on prison visits to see their parents. Depending on your level of French or Dutch, this may be an option. You can also give blood.
Counselling: The Community Help Service in Brussels offers vital mental health services to English-speakers in Brussels. Their 24-hour helpline is staffed by trained volunteers.
Hospitals and associations often need volunteers, to accompany sick people to appointments, to give support at hospitals and to raise funds. Contact your local hospital for information.
Schools often need help fundraising or coaching. There are many international schools throughout the city that may need your help.
Photos (c) Dani Oshi
This article first appeared in The Bulletin Newcomer