This Monday at Petit-Chateau was grey, rainy, dark, and dismal. The previous Friday evening, I had visited the center for the volunteer appreciation dinner and joined staff and volunteers on a tour of the arrival portion of the center. We walked from one station to the next, learning about the process whereby those seeking asylum lined up to apply for sanctuary in Belgium.
A staff person and the president of the organization explained that people were divided into groups, prioritizing those with the greatest immediate need: families, pregnant women, elderly, and those with a handicap were attended to before single men.
We were told that the center could accommodate up to 290 people per day and that on any given day they might have between 150-350 people lined up, waiting. Once they reached the threshold, those still waiting were asked to return the following day.
As Sarah and I stood beneath the covered corridor by our poetry wall, we talked about the very dismal state of the weather, trying to imagine what it must be like to arrive in Brussels in the cold and rain of December.
I spoke about my own arrival in Belgium. I had spent two months with my mother-in-law before flying to Brussels. No sooner had I arrived but I was summoned back to the United States to collect my visa from the Belgian embassy in Los Angeles. An expensive inconvenience, to be sure, but nothing in comparison to the many stories I would hear from refugees seeking asylum. I arrived to my husband, waiting for me at the airport arrivals area. I was brought back to an apartment, where I could take a hot shower and have a warm meal.
The woman I met from Cameroon when I first arrived at the center this Monday afternoon told me she had left her entire family behind; her mother, who was ill; her sister, who had cancer; her children. She hoped she would be able to bring them to Belgium, but the future was uncertain. I invited to her sit beside me and take an egg shaker while I sang one of our songs for her.
The song: I could be you, you could be
I sang the chorus and then explained the meaning of this phrase in French. She smiled. Other residents appeared as the sounds of our music breathed some kind of magic force for positivity into the air. Some recorded us with their phones. Other stood and watched, smiling.
Sarah arrived, took an egg, and joined in, singing and smiling. For a moment, the grey seemed a little less heavy and overbearing.
This is why we come to the center. We often feel like there is so little we can do to help, but at least we can listen and raise our voices in song together. The woman from Cameroon thanked us and said she would return later. We didn’t see her again, and I sent silent blessings to her and her family.
During our afternoon, we met a Kurdish man who had traveled to Belgium, mostly on foot, with his four-year-old daughter. They passed through so many countries that I do not think I can recount them all here. His story began for us when he was sentenced to three years in prison. At the time of his sentencing, his wife was pregnant. He had told her he did not expect her to wait for him, but she said she would. When he was released from prison, she had married another man. Her new husband did not accept her daughter, so she asked her former husband to take custody of her. It was then that he decided to leave the country with his young daughter. They were strangers to one another. They went through many countries. In Turkey, the police checked their passports, took the man’s phone, and smashed it to pieces beneath a boot because of his Kurdish identity. He told us that he considered himself lucky that all he lost was a phone. They were stopped in Armenia by police as well. Then they passed through Estonia, Croatia, Serbia, and on to Italy. They traveled in a vehicle to Belgium, spending some time in what he referred to as the “jungle,” where it was very cold and his daughter became ill with the flu. I imagined sleeping in a cold, wet forest on a December night.
He told us that here in Belgium they have both seen a psychologist. He thanked us for listening to his story. Then, he bid us farewell and we were left with a piece of paper with the words he had shared with Sarah:
I am here with my daughter and I
begin a new life in this country
I dream of a new future for me
and my daughter
While he was talking with Sarah, a woman from Syria came and wrote a stanza on the page.
I need the peace and
continue my studying and finish
my university and stay with my son
for the death and finish my life
After the Kurdish man left, I wrote as many of the words I could recall from the dialogue I had heard between him and Sarah when I joined them at the poetry wall.
Thank you for listening to my story
For being here
For giving me hope
I don’t want your money
I just want to feel like a person
Maybe someday we will meet again
And my daughter will speak French
And we can remember our story
And that life is long
Life can and should be long for every person. I wish that I could make these desires true for each person we meet and for their loved ones, often so far away, as well.