Can you describe what you do?
I am the coordinator of the Asylum and Migration Support Center in Mechelen, a small team of workers assisted by a number of volunteers. We provide advice and information to asylum seekers, refugees and irregular migrants, and advise or inform them on their rights, but in each case we also remain realistic and upfront about their limitations.
For over 25 years, our offices were located at a beautiful spot in the heart of Mechelen. Sadly, we have to move at the end of 2018, so finding a new place where we can open our offices is now one of my main priorities for this year.
How do you perceive Mechelen? In your view, what kind of city is it? Its people, its cultural landscape, its vibe? How does it compare to other, similarly-sized cities?
What I like about Mechelen (apart from its proximity to both Antwerp and Brussels) is the diversity of its population. This is reflected in the people we meet at our support centre. 30 years ago, there was an influx of Assyrian people and a lot of African migrants from Congo, Rwanda and several other countries. Throughout the years we have also seen a significant number of Armenian people arriving. These are the most prominent diaspora Mechelen is hosting, in general there are many refugees that have come from areas in conflict.
The first refugee crisis we experienced at the centre was in 2000 during the Balkan war. Now, there are people from Uzbekistan, Tibet, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Iran, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, India… who come here looking for a better future, and they all pass through our office looking for durable solutions.
What would you say is Mechelen’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?
The city considers diversity as an added value, with the idea that everybody here can contribute to the well-being of the city. Mechelen has been a pioneer in several multicultural policies (like language courses for children), but I feel we should still encourage an honest discussion about some of the problematic situations. The city offers opportunities for everyone, and they are all treated as equals with respect for their personal background and culture. Integration is a key concept, and thanks to our inclusive policy, this becomes a shared responsibility between the locals and the newcomers.
How has Mechelen contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?
We started out 30 years ago as a non-profit organisation, because we noticed that there was a need for information and support on a local level for people who were forced to leave their own countries. Later on, we started receiving structural support from the city, and we have gained a lot of experience by encountering all different kind of profiles and groups of migrants.
These people are paying a high price to reach Europe, sometimes they spend many years away from home, and in some cases they have nothing left in their country of origin. When they come here, they have big hopes to rebuild their lives, but their uncertainty about the future makes them insecure and anxious. It is our mission to create conditions in which they can regain confidence and in Mechelen, the city and the mayor really understand the importance of this, which is invaluable to our cause.
On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?
I would like to see more people who are able to build a good future after they have lost everything. I see young people who arrived here over 10 years ago and can no longer return, sometimes with children who grew up in this city, and these people really do deserve a chance to put their lives back together again. Of course, we are aware that this is not something to be solved on a local level alone. It is the federal government who has the final say…
If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what/where would it be?
I would recommend the African restaurant ‘Ten zuiden’, they have delicious food. The Kazerne Dossin is a another unique place that you simply have to see.vluchtelingendienst.be