Camp lets young asylum-seekers enjoy Flemish rite of passage


A summer camp organised by NGO Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen invites teenagers whose families are seeking asylum in Flanders to get away and have fun with others in the same situation

A different perspective

It could be a scene at any Flemish Scout or Chiro camp. A group of teenagers are waiting together for lunch to appear on the table, talking, laughing, busy having fun. But what makes this camp special is that there are 11 nationalities around the table, and all are going through the process of seeking asylum.

After the meal it’s time to do something active: this afternoon’s programme involves a workshop on making animated films. In small groups, the youngsters busy themselves with paper dolls, clay figurines and writing stories about migration. They film and then edit everything on tablet computers.

The film by Elmaze, Ivo and Rahime is finished. On one side of the sheet on which they’ve made their animation there are kangaroos bounding between the Atomium and a chip shop, representing Belgium. A high wall separates them from a ravaged country where ghostly figures wander. “On this side there are zombies who chase the kangaroos. The kangaroos have jumped over the wall to Belgium where they are safe,” explains Elmaze. And the zombies? “They can’t jump, so they can’t get over the wall.”

This is the second time Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen, an NGO that supports asylum-seekers, has organised the summer camp. Ivo, from Mozambique, took part last year, while Elmaze from Kosovo and Rahime from Serbia are new here.

“During school we met up with the people from last year, and we took part in the Brussels marathon and other events,” says Ivo. “But at the camp here almost everyone is new. That’s what I like best, getting to know other people. You get different perspectives from it.”

Elmaze and Rahime have known each other for a while, as both live in Nevele, East Flanders. “It appealed to me immediately, to go on a camp,” says Rahime. “I wanted to get to know people from other countries.” Language is a motivation too, says Ivo. “You can refresh your Dutch skills here. If you don’t go to school for two months, you forget a lot.”

“We arrived on Friday,  made some arrangements and played  games to get to know each other,” says Elmaze. “On Saturday we did plays about migration that we made up ourselves. At first I thought it was going to be boring, but actually it was really nice. I learned a lot about how you can deal with problems. It was also very nice to work on something in a group, like the workshop we did today with those movies.”

Uncertain futures

All three are going through the asylum process, and have little certainty about the future. How do they deal with it? “That uncertainty can be quite heavy to bear,” says Ivo. “During the school year I don’t think much about it, because you’re busy and you have your friends around you. But in the holidays when you sit at home with nothing to do, thoughts of the future play on your mind much more. But here I don’t have time to worry about it. I even forgot to call home.”

Rahime understands what Ivo means, but he has a different view. “I’m someone who always tries to see the positive side of things. I go for it and see how far I get.”

Here I don’t have time to worry about it. I even forgot to call home

- Ivo

This is their last night, and tomorrow the camp is over. Are they glad to be going home? “No, I definitely would have liked to stay a little longer,” says Rahime, something about which the others immediately agree. Ivo fears saying goodbye will be hard. “But there’s always Facebook,” he says.

When everyone is ready, the films are screened. As well as kangaroos and zombies, there’s a story about a mermaid who wants to live on land and gets new legs, a football flying from India to Belgium, and a migrant smartphone. Roman, the workshop facilitator, congratulates them on what they’ve done.

Other voices

Rein Antonissen, deputy director of Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen, is also visiting today. He talks about the reasons behind the project. “We felt a large group of refugees were being forgotten, especially those who were caught by the choices of their parents and whose voice is seldom heard during the asylum process.

“It’s the parents who request asylum and tell their story. The focus is on families, not on the young people themselves. There was a need to look into what is most important to them. Very little research has been done, so we thought we would just ask them.”

The intention is to build a network and to keep their finger on the pulse, says Antonissen. “We want to reach a conclusion, a kind of recommendation to our policymakers. That sounds weighty, but it’s just a representation of what 40 young people who have fled with their parents think of our asylum system and the procedure in Flanders. How do they see their future, and they are ready for it?”

Building networks and contacts is empowering, says Hanna Flachet, head of the youth project. “But to let them relax, to have a break, is the most important thing to us. Most young people here are still in the process, and so can’t leave the country. Often they sit at home during the holidays. Language can be a major barrier when it comes to taking part in activities.”

She points out that many young people end up in small villages where they’re the only ones with the experience of migration. “We’ve noticed that they’re very pleased to get together with others who share that experience,” she says. “They get the chance to think about their lives, regardless of the family situation. But not everything here revolves around migration. We also do the things you would do at a normal Scout camp.”

Music and dancing

Jasmine and Yacine are two of the volunteers who supervise the youngsters on camp. Both have been in the youth movement, Jasmine in Chiro, Yacine in the Scouts. “Last year I stopped being youth leader at Chiro,” says Jasmine, “so this year, I wouldn’t normally go to camp. I’m still looking for a job and when I saw the chance to be a volunteer here I was immediately interested. It seemed exciting to work with a completely different group of young people than I’m used to.”

Young people are basically the same, even though they come from very different countries

- Yacine

Yacine came here through a friend who is already active in Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen. “Last night we had a very nice moment. We were playing music, everyone playing something from their own country. And of course this goes with dancing. I think these people are more open, more daring. At the Scouts, when I invited people to do something like dancing, nobody ever joined in. The children here always want to dance or sing.

“I had thought the language barrier would be bigger, but that was fine,” she says. “Most of them speak quite good Dutch. What I also noticed is that young people are basically the same, even though they come from very different countries.”

For Jasmine, the experience was different to an ordinary Chiro camp. “You have different conversations with these people: about differences and similarities, but also about their personal stories. It’s very interesting to hear what they think of our culture and customs. But I think they found our way of dancing a bit boring.”

After the break, the group need some fresh air. The rolling hills of Baelen, a village near Eupen in German-speaking Belgium, are perfect for a good walk. The youngsters are all laughing about silly things, teasing each other, and taking photos of themselves with farm animals in the background. Indeed, just what teenagers do, whatever country they come from.