Abdeslam El Ghamri has Moroccan roots and lived in Belgium since 1995. He describes himself as ‘happily married and dad of 4 children’, and places a great deal of importance on his work as teacher for societal integration. He works at the Belgian Government Agency for Immigrant Integration, helping newcomers find their way in Belgian society.
Abdeslam is an excellent teacher. Not only is he charismatic and very committed to improving society, he is a migrant himself, so knows his students’ obstacles and opportunities well.
Let’s discuss all taboos in integration courses
Despite the bad weather, Belgium remains, for me, one of the most attractive countries in Europe. Not because life here is better than anywhere else, but for the sake of democracy, freedom and equality among all citizens. Everyone here is of equal worth: regardless of their race, color, religion, gender, etc. There is solidarity between the strong and the weak, with respect for every human being and animal.
Integration begins with learning the local language and accepting society's norms and values
When I moved to Belgium from Morocco, I quickly realised how important it is to integrate myself into Belgian society. In the first place, I wanted to do so for myself, but I also felt that certain things were expected of me. If you want to be accepted in full, you must make an effort yourself. I realised that mastering 'the language' and 'accepting' the values and standards of society are the first steps to integrate into a new country. But this immediately led me to a number of questions: What is key to the Belgian way of life? What differences are there between Belgian values and my own? And how do you do that: respect a concept that might be completely alien to you? There’s no clear answers to these questions, so communication is key.
By discussing taboos you are nurturing a core value: freedom of speech
All taboos have to be thrown on the table, even difficult subjects such as euthanasia, homosexuality and religious freedom. While newcomers certainly must have respect for our values, it mustn't be a one-way street: they must be allowed to say what they think themselves, and you can explain your perspective afterwards. By doing so, you're nurturing another core value: freedom of speech. Although there is not always consensus in Belgium, you can discuss everything. That's one of the reasons why I've fallen in love with this country.
You must use a language
Communication is key, so language is very important. How can you understand one another if you don't speak the same language? When I arrived here, I enrolled in a Dutch language course. In the beginning, I got by with the French I had learned in school, but after three years I was finally fluent in Dutch. This allowed me to get a job in Flanders.
I want to contribute to a society that has given me so much
After the birth of my first child in 2002, I moved to Boom. As a citizen, I wanted to be of use for a society that had already give me so much. At first, I went to my Town Hall. The diversity officer suggested that I take part in meetings of the local Diversity Council. This Council is a municipal advisory body with three objectives: inform, network and advise. I worked there many years on all sorts of projects. Doing so, I perfected my Dutch. You can only really learn a language by using it. I also used my work to build myself a large network. The Diversity Council also gave me the opportunity to understand the political structure of the municipality better. It was a great learning experience.
In 2008, I founded a charity called "ABC Rupelstreek" together with a couple of other Bomenaars (people who live in the Belgian city of Boom, ed.) with Moroccan roots, which aims to build a bridge between Moroccan and Flemish culture. It is a non-profit organisation, consisting only of volunteers, which assists pupils between 6 and 12 years with their school tasks - in cooperation with their parents and schools. Everyone is welcome: those with and without immigration background. Most children are, however, of Moroccan origin, as they require more support, because their parents do not always speak Dutch well.
Communication and dialogue are extraordinarily important for a successful multicultural society
In addition to the day-to-day management of my charity, I am a volunteer at Taterkaai in Boom, which is a program where non-native speakers meet native Dutch-speakers. There, people practice Dutch in an informal way, amazing! I also take part in other projects, such as meetings around interfaith dialogue. Communication and dialogue are extremely important for a successful multicultural society. Understanding and respect are invaluable.
Teacher for integration
All this volunteering work has helped me get my current job. Since May 2016, I've been employed as an integration teacher at the Flemish Integration Agency. The situation of newcomers nowadays is the same situation as mine was, 20 years ago. I base my classes on my own personal experience, to help them orient themselves and chase their dreams here in Belgium. Good knowledge of Dutch is the key to communicating well and, very importantly, to be able to understand your rights and obligations.
Dutch is the key to understand your rights and obligations
I teach about issues like democracy and the separation of Church and State, so that they understand the standards and values of this society. No topics are avoided or shunned. We talk about gender equality, sexual harassment, euthanasia, the death penalty, child abuse, freedom of speech, respect for other cultures, religious freedoms... you name it! The students are encouraged to give their opinion on this in their native language. That's very exciting!
There's no point in just giving them a lecture – a constructive discussion is important. The core values are also not very different between Belgian and their countries of origin. I don't want to give them the feeling that we think that.