The sun shone over Brussels yesterday afternoon, and I experienced the rare occurrence of being too warm for my jacket, scarf, and hat at the tail end of December. I set them on the bench by our open “office” space at a corner of the covered corridor at the refugee asylum center known as Petit-Château or Little Castle in English.
Sarah and I began by singing a song we wrote this past summer called “Let me be free”. Music seems to draw people in. Sarah posted the paper with the lyrics of the song, and we began to sing. People came to join us, and soon we were passing out rhythm instruments for them to play.
Sarah posted a new page and suggested we write the word Welcome in different languages. At the top of the page, she wrote the phrase “You are welcome,” and so it began. A Kurdish man from Iran we had met a couple weeks earlier came by with his four-year-old daughter. She asked for a xmas present. Sarah offered her one of the fortune cookies she had brought, but the little girl was more interested in the decorative cardboard box they came in. She ran after the pigeons that were eating bits of macaroon, which I had tossed in the hopes of catching one with string and hair binding its too legs together.
I handed her and her father each an egg shaker, and she promptly took her father’s as well. When I began to sing the opening chorus of “The Pigeon Song,” her frowning face lit up into a bright smile. We shared a musical moment, and then she busied herself drawing pictures on the welcome page.
Our Kurdish friend called over another resident, who he told us was an artist. The resident drew beautiful lettering for the Arabic and Farsi (Persian) words for welcome. Beneath his writing, the little girl was hard at work on her drawings. The artist said she was the first young child he had seen who already drew like a true artist.
One of the residents who had played an instrument for our first song returned. We stood side by side, and he told me his story of coming to Belgium from Gambia.
From Africa, he told me, it’s a long story.
He had left Gambia in 2014 and gone through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. At every checkpoint, he paid people to let him pass. He said it cost more than two thousand euros to get to Europe from Africa. He had traveled five thousand kilometers across the Sahara desert in a vehicle, which he had helped to push at times when the road was rough and unfamiliar to the driver. Through the desert, he entered Libya “the back way” in order to avoid the police checkpoints and demand to know his passport country. He then boarded a boat with 85 other people to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. He showed me a photo of one of the boats, which looked more like a raft than a proper ship for crossing a notoriously dangerous ocean.
Miraculously, all 85 people survived the journey to Italy. But in Italy he experienced hardship. People would not speak with him because he was black. He was told that if he stayed in a camp for two years, he would receive his papers, so he waited for two years. He was not granted papers and decided to rent a small apartment. He found a lawyer and spent a year trying to be granted asylum. He was only able to get working papers for six months at a time. All of the money he earned he would send to Gambia, and in this way it would never be possible to save up enough to visit his family. Plus, without European papers, if he left to travel to Africa he would not be able to return. After five years, he decided to leave and try his luck in Belgium.
Life in Africa is very hard, he told me. It isn’t like here. After living here, I cannot go back there to live.
To get to Belgium, he traveled by train. At the border crossing between Italy and France, the police boarded the train to check everyone’s papers. Everyone without papers hid in the toilets, he said. The police checked the toilets, but they did not check the one he was hiding in. He did the same on the crossing from France into Belgium.
When you cross the border, you are free, he said.
I wished he was right and that this could be the happy ending to his story, but experience has taught me that this is just one piece and that it could be very difficult to be granted asylum.
In Italy, it is very difficult. They do not give you food; they do not help you. In Belgium, it is better.
I did my best to set his words to memory so that I could spend the next day trying to write his song. It seems a small thing to do, and he may never hear the song. Sarah and I often talk of feeling helpless to do very much for the many people we meet. They all deserve freedom and to be reunited with their families in a place safe, and we wish we could wave a magic wand and make it so.
We do what little we can. Perhaps, though it seems like a small gesture, it is enough to invite a person to share their story and to sit and listen. We also write the words into poetry and sending them into the ethos as melodies.
I mentioned earlier that Sarah had brought a festive box of fortune cookies, which we passed around. I think the word spread because at one point two boys holding hands who seemed to be an older and young brother came to ask for cookies. I wished I had brought something as well to give to them. Something sweet to end the New Year on a happier note than the weather generally offers at this time of year in Belgium.
Looking at our fortunes, we laughed at the aptness of the messages.
Start the day with a smile and see what it brings.
What you find interesting in others can you help you understand something about yourself.
The secret of success? Stop wishing and do something.
I don’t think that is entirely true for you, Sarah said. You are doing something. Maybe, it means to think different about what it means to be successful.
In this regard, Sarah touched on the point exactly. Maybe, rather than questioning my success in terms of dollar signs or perfection of technique, I should consider that it might be enough to create this safe space for people to share their stories, if only for one afternoon each week.