Guided tours follow in refugees’ footsteps through Brussels


The non-profit Tochten van Hoop offers tours to the places frequented by asylum seekers in Brussels in an effort to educate students and the public on the current refugee crisis

Not your average tour

Every day hundreds of individual asylum seekers start their journey through Brussels, which brings them to all the locations and agencies involved in their challenging quest for safety and shelter.

Due to the increased media attention on the refugee crisis in August and September, most of the public is familiar with Maximiliaanpark where thousands of refugees spent weeks in tents waiting for their initial interview session at the nearby Immigration Office.

But there are other, lesser-known yet indispensable stops that refugees pass through in the capital. Take North Station for example, where dozens of them still weather the night alongside the local homeless population.

Or take the Saint Roch church, where the NGO Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen distributes hot soup every day at lunch. Or the historical site Klein Kasteeltje, former barracks that have for decades served as an open reception camp.

Or finally, the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons, which deals with the refugees’ dossiers and decides on their political status.

To show this journey across Brussels to those of us who have the luxury of a Belgian ID, the Tochten van Hoop Brussel (Journeys of Hope), a non-profit organisation supported by the Flemish Community Commission, organises guided walking tours along this journey.

Popular with schools

The aim of these tours is to show sparks of hope: social initiatives, community projects and groups of volunteers determined to make the best of it. Schools, companies, clubs and organisations can all apply to take part in Tochten van Hoop.

And there are more tours, as well – on poverty, unemployment, loneliness and inequality. In short, the typical social problems associated with a large metropolitan area.

We’ve noticed that many of them have only a vague knowledge about the issue

- Pol Arnauts

Since the current refugee crisis is dominating news coverage, the walking tours focused on asylum-seekers have become hugely popular. Schools, particularly secondary schools, are using the initiative to teach and inform their students about what it’s like to arrive and live as an asylum seeker in Brussels.

“Since the beginning of the crisis, the number of tours with the tagline ‘In the footsteps of asylum seekers’ has doubled,” says Pol Arnauts from Tochten van Hoop. “It seems that the current events have urged schools to focus on the matter and to discuss it with their students.”

The narrative presented by the Tochten van Hoop’s guides is constantly updated to reflect the current reality and assumptions, such as that most asylum-seekers come from war-torn Syria. In the Klein Kasteeltje or on the walls of the office of Voyaach (a non-profit that gives support to undocumented residents in Brussels), says Arnauts, “you can read which wars are being fought around the world. Syria, of course, is not the only conflict-ridden country.”

So how are the tours received by the students? “We’ve noticed that many of them have only a vague knowledge about the issue,” he says. “By telling the stories, we open their eyes. It’s like the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once said: ‘Meeting people and listening to their stories opens more doors through which we want to study the issues further’.”

Sense of solidarity

Arnauts thinks that when we are touched by personal stories, we create a sense of solidarity. “A lot of young people engage themselves as volunteers or as professionals in the on-going refugee situation,” he says. “Their engagement appeals to the students we guide on our tours.”

It's an experience enriched with bits of reality that most of us only know from TV

- Pol Arnauts

During the tours, the groups also come into contact with asylum seekers. “This concerns mostly those people who have already been here for some years and either have or still haven’t acquired a residence permit,” Arnauts explains. “These asylum-seekers also offer support to the newly arrived refugees.”

Raf Van der Veken is one of Tochten van Hoop’s guides. He confirms that there’s an overall feeling of understanding among the students. “But we’ve also experienced some criticism,” he says. “The typical argument that we can’t take care of the entire world is frequently being used. And many people think that the cultural differences between us and the asylum-seekers are just too wide for any successful integration – which, in any case, is a long economic and social process.”

According to Van der Veken, the reactions of the students are sometimes really moving. “There were students who admitted that they felt really uncomfortable about the whole situation,” he says.

Arnauts observes that the walking tours have proved an instructive experience for most groups that have participated so far. He says the tours are “an experience enriched with bits of reality that most of us only know from television”.