Belgian Refugee Camp Fed Us With Butter as Meals Were Insufficient

Syrian refugee scientists holding hands after attending an integration course in their refugee camp

Architect Sara* and software engineer Saïd* married before fleeing Syria for Europe. They have been granted asylum and are living in a small but cozy Belgian apartment. He is enrolled in a Masters in Computer Science, she in an intensive Dutch course. They were so kind to invite us into their home, where they enlightened us about the living conditions in Belgian refugee camps.

Belgian reception Camp

Food

Sara shrugs her shoulders. “We were often hungry. If we ever had some money left, we bought chocolate. I would have rather eaten pasta, but we didn’t have cooking facilities in the camp.”

“The camp management knew that the canteen meals weren’t enough to fill our stomachs, so they gave us an ice cream sized scoop of butter with every meal, three times a day”

Her husband jumps in: “The food they served us was barely eatable, and it was hardly enough for a woman, let alone a man. The camp management knew that the canteen meals weren’t enough to fill our stomachs, so they gave us an ice cream sized scoop of butter with every meal, three times a day. It was disgusting. Sara got sick and needed to consult a doctor. He prescribed to change her diet, but the organization wouldn’t let her.”

"Sara got sick and needed to consult a doctor. He prescribed to change her diet, but the organization wouldn’t let her"

Culture clash

Sara expands on the living conditions in the refugee camp, where they stayed for one year in total, "The culture clash was enormous. The camp was completely overfilled. I don't mind people from other countries, but too much heterogeneity causes problems. That's just asking for trouble. At first, I was even separated from my husband! I was assigned to a women's dormitory, he to a men's. Once I got really scared. In the middle of the night, my roommates started painting their bodies with oil. I had no clue what was going on, thus pretended to be asleep! They never gave me an explanation". Sara looks at her husband, uncomfortably, who laughs apologetically.

"In the middle of the night, my roommates started painting their bodies with oil. I had no clue what was going on, thus pretended to be asleep!"

After a while she continues, "After a month, a double room got free and Saïd and I were allowed to move in together. There were two mini-beds and a closet, nothing more. We didn’t even have a fridge, but we had each other. We weren’t at peace, though. I could give you numerous examples.” After a pause to think, Sara continues. “Our neighbour listened in the middle of the night to … some kind of music. We complained about this, but the camp authorities were incapable of enforcing the rules. Sometimes there were fights. Certain groups wanted to prove they were stronger than others. We didn’t want anything to do with this, so we mostly stayed in our room.”

Saïd nods in agreement: "Some people wanted to impose their lifestyle on others. That's not good. There should be a rule of law.” He sights. “The organizers should be aware that privacy is important and that people of different cultures do not continually want to sit on top of each other. I mean, we were in a safe place but that’s all. We are grateful, yet cannot forget basic humanity. The reception camp was a hell of its own. Half of the dormitories were tents. One cannot expect a person sleeping with six people in a tent to behave calmly.”

"We are grateful, yet cannot forget basic humanity. The reception camp was a hell of its own"

“In a nutshell, the procedures must be shorter. Scenes like in the camp are sustainable for a short period but not for a year," Sara concludes. “Well meant solutions, like harbouring different nationalities in one apartment, makes things usually worse.”

Jobcentre

"There is also need for more transparency,” Sara adds. “Nobody could tell us when our application for asylum would be decided upon. When we were finally invited to an interview, we travelled full of hope to Brussels. Once there, we were told that our appointment had been postponed. They did this three times. How hard can it be to let us know in advance, before we take the journey to Brussels?"

"I came to Belgium to be an active contributing citizen but the only thing I am allowed to do is wait"

After a year in a disheartening refugee camp, they were granted asylum but having a job still seems in the distant future. Little by little, their fighting spirit is crumbling. "I came to Belgium to be an active contributing citizen but the only thing I am allowed to do is wait. First, I will try to get my diploma recognized in Belgium. I don't dare to think further," Sara says with a shrug.

Finally, the couple wanted to tell us that they had problems with the job centre. They have the feeling that the centre delivers excellent service for less educated people but doesn't know how to support highly educated refugees. For example, Sara asks herself whether long distance learning is possible. If she could finish the credits she lacks for her Syrian Bachelor to be recognised in English rather than Dutch, she would gain a lot of time. "Because that's what it's ultimately all about," she says resolutely, "to be employed in a meaningful job as soon as possible."

* The couple prefers to be anonymous. Their identity is known by RefuTales


Recommendations from Saïd and Sara:

  • Shorten procedures, with more transparency
  • Initially, provide at least the basic needs (like food) – a developed country can't feed refugees with butter.
  • Provide some privacy in the camps, with appropriate law enforcement.
  • When allocating housing, take cultural sensitivities into account. Don't just mix everyone.
  • Provide adequate job advice to the highly-skilled.   
  • Facilitate long distance learning in English.

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