Flemish Refugee Action rewards outstanding initiatives


The Hospitable Community project recognises standout actions being taken across Flanders to help refugees adjust to a new life

The real ‘face of Flanders’

Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen, or Flemish Refugee Action, has announced the winners of their fourth annual Gastvrije Gemeente (Hospitable Community) contest. The umbrella organisation for refugee support in Flanders launched the competition to give visibility to the region’s countless solidarity initiatives.

“In contrast to what one might think, given the seemingly harsh climate when it comes to refugees, Flanders shows an incredible solidarity towards newcomers,” says Eef Heylighen of Flemish Refugee Action. “We co-operate with a large network of grassroots organisations and individual volunteers, and we wanted to somehow make this solidarity more visible, to tell a counter-story.”

Gastvrije Gemeente covers seven categories, ranging from initiatives in the arts and education to businesses and municipalities. There is also a public choice award.

Record-breaking edition

Winners include Refu Interim, a project spearheaded by Ghent social-cultural organisation cirQ, which gets refugees involved in volunteering and taking part in cultural activities – from running the bar to acting on stage. The youth work award, meanwhile, went to Tumult in Mechelen, which brought Flemish and refugee youth together in summer camps.

This year, Violet, a youth orchestra from Flemish Brabant went home with the public trophy, based on the results of nearly 26,500 votes. Violet set up a series of concerts with refugee musicians in collaboration with the Syrian violist and composer Shalan Alhamwy, who fled his country for Belgium in 2015. He composed a new piece of music for the series, combining Flemish and Syrian influences.

More and more, individuals are setting up something to help refugees, to assist them in rebuilding their lives here

- Eef Heylighen of Flemish Refugee Action

Proceeds from the concerts and an accompanying CD went to Life Skills, a project started by Alhamwy’s sisters to provide psychological support to refugee children in Belgium.

This year’s Gastvrije Gemeente broke records in more ways than one. Aside from more votes for the public prize than ever before, it also received more nominations for the other prizes – nearly 460.

This comes to no surprise to Heylighen. “We witnessed a significant increase in solidarity projects since 2015, when the refugee influx was at its peak. Normally, most of the initiatives are initiated by schools, local municipalities or existing organisations. But more and more, individuals are setting up something to help refugees, to assist them in rebuilding their lives here. This growing solidarity is the face of Flanders that we want to be seen.”

Photo: Kortrijk OCMW