May 28th, 2014 report* from the Afghan refugees camp in the Saint John the Baptist church at the Béguinage in Brussels (Belgium) – click 1st image to start slideshow
In March 2014 I traveled to Brussels, Belgium to meet a group of Afghans living inside an old Catholic church. At the time, nearly one hundred Afghan refugees had set up camp within the walls of the seventeenth century compound. There were camping tents and make-shift walls within the Baroque interior. Respectfully abiding by the teachings of Islam, the main religious practice of the Afghans living in the Catholic church, there was one side for woman and children and one side for males.
Their shoes were piled up outside of the doors of their tents and warm pots of chai were passed around during mealtime. On a sunny afternoon dozens joined in on a game of cricket, cautious to not start a scene or cause too much noise. All they could do at this point was wait for a potential interview date and hope to receive legal status in a country that they could only half-heartedly call home.
A majority of the males I spoke with were well-educated; most speaking French, Dutch, and English in addition to their native Afghan language of Dari or Pashto. Their skills and experiences as translators, guards, and service men in Afghanistan had threatened their livelihood and ultimately forced them to flee their homeland. The priest of the church, Daniel Alliet, opened the space to the Afghan refugees because he disagreed with Belgium’s asylum policy.
One Afghan gentleman, who asked to remain anonymous, told me about his journey to Brussels: “When you are working with America or other organizations in Afghanistan the Taliban is a big problem. I was with the forces in Kandahar Province for one year. This was a big, big company in Kandahar. After one year the Taliban send some letters to my family saying, ‘Your son is working for the enemy.’ And they said, ‘He will come and he will work with us.’ Then I went to my home. And after the Taliban found out about me, I came to Iran, then I went to Europe, and this country.”
At present, the situation continues to evolve: the church is now used as an Afghan community center instead of a shelter, some have been granted alternative housing accommodations throughout the country, and many refugees were granted the right to stay in the country legally. In Brussels, and around the world, Afghans are facing the harsh realities of displacement while others are struggling to resettle without official resident status, nevertheless, their strength is what binds them and they tirelessly continue to fight for justice.
Text: Kristen Cattell / Photography : Michel van der Burg
Special thanks to Isabelle Marchal and the many friends that welcomed us , and also others whose works were on display at the church and are shown in these pictures.
* Update Sept 6th 2015 – Our full report first appeared May 28th, 2014 (via the now no longer existing web site “Rising Afghans”) and is now fully included here.
Republishing of the short second photo report that appeared also then , will follow soon (the Inside Out project by JR – with original portraits by Chiara Ravano – at Salon Mommen, Brussels.)
Update Nov 15, 2015 – Added video “Béguinage shadows”
Update Nov 19, 2015 – Added info (below) on the silent solidarity march for Afghan refugees in Brussels Nov 20th 2013 – “Belgians and Afghans demand justice”
Belgians and Afghans demand justice
Belgians and Afghans demand justice – Video report by Michel van der Burg. Belgians and Afghan refugees demand Belgium changes its asylum policy.
Speeches by Amir Mohammad Jafari (12 y, student and Afghan refugee in Belgium) & Simon Gronowski (Belgian lawyer) 20 nov 2013 on the arrival of the silent solidarity march for Afghan refugees in Brussels. « link to full post »