Vivre Ensemble: Social action Brussels style

I have just been to my first political meeting since moving to Belgium from the UK. It was an open event, organised by the Parti Socialiste, the French-speaking socialist party (there is a separate Flemish socialist party), with invited speakers sharing their perspectives on working with the socially disadvantaged and those from immigrant communities in Brussels. The majority of the audience were members of the Bruxelles Ville branch of PS.

As well as the official umbrella service (CPAS) which works to support low income families in a range of areas including housing, education and youth engagement, we heard from the manager of the local “Resto du Cœur”, the director of the newly opened Centre d’Acceuil for “primo-arrivants” (newly arrived migrants), a Parti Socialiste politician and the manager of one of the Maisons de Quartier (local hubs which bring council services and social action closer to local communities).

Resto du Cœur, currently celebrating its 30th year, is an interesting model. It is a national federation with branches in a number of Belgian cities. Rather than handing out entirely free meals, the restaurant provides a meeting point and social hub where customers pay what they can afford for their meal and build friendships with their neighbours. These customers include socially-isolated older people who are only just managing (dubbed “les bons petits soldats” by our speaker) as well as those on welfare benefits. The manager was at pains to point out that his resto, which prepares 200 meals a day, is very different from the charitable model used in France and that enhancing the dignity and emancipation of his clients was at the heart of his mission. The highlight for him is when he meets a former client in the street after a long absence and they tell him “I am no longer in need.”

We heard that there are an estimated 163 distinct immigrant communities in Brussels. In the 1990s, their neighbourhoods were often overlooked as residents did not vote. Work to engage communities and improve the quality of the physical environment in these neighbourhoods has been under way for 20 years. Those in financial difficulties can access support from CPAS but the current migration crisis in Europe has highlighted the need for new forms of support to be put into place.

BAPA is the Bureau d’Acceuil (welcome centre) for newly arrived foreigners in Bruxelles Ville, the largest and most central commune in the city, which includes the European quarter (home to the EU institutions). There is a second centre which services the neighbouring communes of Schaerbeek and Molenbeek. The service is open to citizens of European countries as well as to refugees and migrants from outside Europe, although they are only able to work with those with current legal status in Belgium — Individuals who do not qualify are signposted to other services, such as immigration advice. New arrivals meet with one of the multi-lingual advisors who assess their current level of French and their individual needs, such as housing, access to education and the labour market and provision of citizenship classes, which promote knowledge of the Belgian system as well as providing certificates of participation which can support future applications for Belgian citizenship. Services are free and participation is non-compulsory.

All 19 of the Brussels communes (similar to London boroughs, though smaller) were invited to participate in the scheme but the majority refused; worried that hosting a welcome centre would perversely encourage more migrants to come, a position that ignores, according to frontline staff, the realities of existing immigrant communities. Funding was eventually secured from the French language community with the somewhat perverse result that assistance is directed to improving French language skills only, although signposting to Dutch courses is provides where requested by clients. This unequal support is likely to be politically motivated — The Flemish (Dutch-speaking) parties appear to have a harder “sell” among their supporters when it comes to acceptance of non-European migration. The private sector was also approached. It is telling that the first premises identified to house the Bruxelles Ville scheme were withdrawn by the (private) landlords once they found out it was to be used by migrants. Luckily, a good alternative was secured from a more sympathetic landlord.

A key goal for both the Resto du Cœur and the Maisons de Quartier is to break down social isolation. The latter achieves this by bringing services physically closer to citizens in their own neighbourhoods and also by jointly organising events with neighbouring areas. There are specific schemes to check on and assist elderly people in their own homes, particularly in times of cold weather and “canicules” (heat waves). More recently, a new objective for improved social cohesion has been added to the mission. The centres host and support individual, group and collective activities. Bigger projects, eg cultural activities, include communities from across the city.

This being Belgium, our evening ended with a “verre d’amitié” (glass of wine) and some salty snacks. I think I’m starting to find my feet in Brussels but, as a foreigner, it is much easier to stay inside the Euro bubble than to meet actual Belgians. Events like this help me to learn more about my new home and, hopefully, to make some Belgian friends. I am also looking into opportunities to volunteer.

Brussels, December 2016