Flemish students and teachers see refugee camps first-hand


The programme Road of Change took secondary school students and their teachers on a trip across Europe to see with their own eyes the lives being led by migrants lost in the system

Are you Syrious?

Turning migration from an abstract to a concrete topic by letting youngsters experience for themselves how what it’s like to confront closed borders in Europe. That is the goal of the Road of Change project, which saw 14 secondary school students and six teachers visiting refugee camps in Europe.

“There is so much fake news and a lack of accurate information on the refugee situation,” says Ann Vermeulen of the non-profit refugee support network Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen (VWV). “As a result, youngsters often think of it in black-and-white terms.”

To help them develop a more nuanced vision on migration and some political consciousness, VWV and fellow non-profit Bond Zonder Naam (Organisation Without a Name) launched Road of Change. Participants first visited the nearby refugee camps of Calais and Dunkirk, before making a 10-day-trip around Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy earlier this year.

“The students experienced how migrants their own age are treated like criminals and illegally pushed back across the borders, which are often closed off with heavily guarded fences,” explains Vermeulen. “That raises questions on how open European borders actually are and why countries are not investing the money they spend on guarding borders in initiatives for the social integration of refugees.”

The project also highlighted initiatives of “change-makers”: people, organisations or government bodies working on improving the conditions for refugees. In Slovenia, for instance, Slovene Philanthropy helps migrants adjust to their new surroundings and develop skills through projects such as the collaborative renovation of a house.

‘Very emotional’

Kaat Emmery, 15, from the Kindsheid Jesu school in Hasselt was impressed by the work of the refugee assistance group Are You Syrious in Croatia. She was also touched by the situation in Ventimiglia, an Italian town at the border with France. About 250 people there are sleeping under highway bridges and trying to cross the border.

“We saw with our own eyes how a minor was taken from the train to France and put on a train back to Italy,” she says. “I also vividly remember the image of a very small boy walking in a makeshift camp under a bridge. It made me very emotional.”

It also struck the student that several refugees no longer had dreams. “Some of them even said that ‘dreams are for people, while I’m just an animal’,” she recounts. “While many among them were doctors or lawyers in their home countries.”

I used to talk about numbers and migration streams; now I can make it tangible by relating the personal stories of refugees

- Geography teacher Bert Dusar

Emmery has been talking to different classes in her school about her experiences, and she hopes to do much more in the future. “I am thinking about studying law later and perhaps going into politics so I can contribute to human rights.”

The teen’s geography teacher, Bert Dusar, was also on the trip. “I used to deal in quite an abstract way with the migration topic in my lessons, talking about numbers and migration streams,” he says. “Now I can make it tangible by explaining about borders that are closed with barbed wire and by relating the personal stories of refugees.”

One of the refugees that made a strong impression on him was a Pakistani man in Italy who had worked for 2.5 years in a German car factory. He spoke German well, but his asylum application was ultimately refused because he was considered a purely economic refugee.

Photography exhibition

After their return, all participants were involved in the development of an action plan with policy recommendations for local, Belgian and European governments.

Among the Road of Change travellers were also documentary filmmakers and a photographer. Their resulting work will be shown at an exhibition in Antwerp's photography museum from 20 April to 20 May.

The experiences and materials gathered during the trip will furthermore be used for an educational kit for schools. The Road of Change project is Belgium’s candidate for the prestigious European Charlemagne Youth Prize. The winner will be announced on 8 May.

Photo: Refugee children in Ventimiglia, Italy
©Road of Change