Update from Gare du Nord

Last week I didn’t go to the Gare du Nord for what has become my weekly visit. I had a cough and wasn’t feeling myself, and as it’s so vital to bring positivity to that situation I decided to stay away. Tonight I knew for sure that was the right decision, as I felt recharged and was looking forward to going back. I had the last five sleeping bags from my fundraising effort to take down there, along with a bag of brownies, oranges and fruit that I picked up on the way to work this morning. As soon as I arrived the food was hoovered up in seconds! On Tuesdays the charity provides hot drinks but not hot food, so people were hungry. As it took some time for the drinks and donations to be handed out, I stood to one side with the sleeping bags. I got chatting to a man called Abdamune Sidiq [sic] from Sudan. He told me how last week the police took away his blankets, and since then he has got sick. This made me really angry, and even more glad that we created this petition last week to try and stop the police taking away people’s sleeping bags, even though I don’t know if it really made an impact.

Tonight, in addition to the normal donations there were 100 goodie bags for St. Nicholas (here in Belgium they celebrate Sinterklaas coming on 6 December – our office is full of chocolates!) from the students of ISB Service Learning/CAS. They were full of sweets, and it was so lovely seeing people patiently queuing up and then sharing the contents of their bags with others – I was given sweets by three people, they must have thought I needed fattening up! There was a happy atmosphere despite the cold, and some new faces too, although I didn’t see my friend Bakare, which has worried me a little. I hope he’s okay.

So all in all another positive experience, although it’s true that people are getting sick now that the temperatures have dropped, and even though we try to bring as many sleeping bags and warm clothes as we can, there is always a need for more. I’m worried for these men as winter progresses, what will they do and where will they go when it starts to snow? Surely they can’t sleep in the park then? All we can do is try to keep their spirits up, their tummies full and their bodies as warm as possible, and hope this is enough to get them through. I’m so happy that from January they will have more support from Unless, the wonderful new non-profit organisation which has raised money to rent a nearby building, where people will be able to have hot showers and get their clothes laundered. Hot food will also be available five times a week instead of the current twice a week arrangement, which is just fantastic. They are seeking donations to raise the monthly running fee of 5,000 Euros, so if anyone is feeling generous as Christmas approaches, I can personally guarantee this would be a brilliant and worthwhile cause.

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Food with Friends

On Thursday evening (aptly also Thanksgiving Day) I went down to the Gare du Nord with five more sleeping bags, five winter coats and three boxes of (homemade!!!) chocolate brownies for the community dinner. Funded by the International School of Brussels and fantastic new charity, Unless, it provided a proper sit-down dinner for around 150 people, who, for whatever reason, have found themselves in hard times without a roof over their heads. There was a delicious curry with rice and lentils, salads, fruit, cakes, brownies and tea. The students from the ISB helped the regular volunteers to serve food and spread cheer. Everyone ate together, talked together, laughed together. It was without doubt the most inspiring evenings I have ever had the privilege of being involved with.

I met some more lovely people, a new Eritrean friend called Taha with a cheeky smile, and another man from Afghanistan, who told me that he fled his home three years ago to escape the Taliban, after his brother was killed. He arrived in Brussels on Thursday after being made to leave Sweden, where he had settled, because he had originally been fingerprinted in Belgium (apparently once you’ve been fingerprinted somewhere that’s where you have to stay – can you imagine?). He showed me pictures of his friends in Sweden, told me that he had resigned himself to staying in Belgium now, even though he wanted to go back. He had tried to go to the office to sort his papers on arrival but they had told him to come back the next day. Who knows how long the process will take to be registered here, let alone to have somewhere to sleep that isn’t a park bench or a doorway?

It’s so hard to comprehend how so many people, purely by virtue of the place where they were born, end up in such difficult circumstances. But I am constantly inspired by the hopefulness and cheerfulness of the people I encounter in the face of such difficulties. It makes me realise that so many of my ‘Western’ problems are not really problems at all. I have the freedom to go where I want, when I want. I have a place to call home, documents to prove it, and a support network to help me when I struggle. And for all those things I am truly thankful.

This morning I read this article from the Irish Times about homelessness, and it brought home to me more than ever the importance of helping others wherever we can. You never know how much it means to someone if you just take the time to have a conversation, or to buy them a coffee. Though a small gesture to you, it might just be enough to help them get through the day without turning to drink, drugs, or worse. And as Christmas approaches – surely the hardest time of year for those who have fallen on hard times – it’s more important than ever not to look the other way. Because, to me, the true spirit of Thanksgiving is not just being thankful for what we have, but, in turn, offering whatever help we can to those who aren’t so fortunate.

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A snap from Thursday’s Community Dinner – volunteers and friends alike. Such a great night!

 

Helping Friends

Tonight I went down to the Gare du Nord to deliver the seven sleeping bags we managed to raise money to buy last week. At a guess I’d say there were somewhere between fifty and a hundred people, but in recent days I learned there have been more than a hundred and fifty (it seems yesterday many were arrested, for reasons unknown). Last time I went was a few months back, when Brussels had its own version of the Jungle in Calais, as displaced people arrived in waves, fleeing persecution in their countries. Now the camp in the park has been cleared, but many people remain; some no doubt the same people fleeing persecution, others who came here in search of a better life for themselves and their families, only to wind up in this purgatory.

As the nights draw in and temperatures plummet it’s heartbreaking to think of them sleeping outside, exposed to the elements. Many of those I saw tonight were young men; buoyant and proud, bright eyed and joking in spite of their awful situation. One of them was Mahmoud, from Egypt, a tall young man with a charming smile who told me that his family are in England. “If I ever get there I will never leave,” he told me. I felt so sad to think he probably never will.

Another young man I met was called Sadiq. He arrived in Brussels a week ago, having made the long journey from Sudan. He looked young but strong, and was dressed impeccably in smart trousers and a cable knit jumper. Only his shoes, with their peeling soles, let him down. As we discussed his need for shoes another volunteer, on overhearing his shoe size, ran to her car and returned with a pair in his size. He held the shoes in one hand and his plate of pasta in the other and said with a smile “Now I have all that I need.” If only that were true.

Mohamed is a slightly older man who helps the volunteers each time they come to serve food and distribute donations. He was dressed in only a thin fleece but said he was warm enough, and refused to take any of the donations. “I consider him a friend,” another volunteer told me. One story I was told involved a Syrian man who last week became ill. When the volunteer medics said he needed to go to hospital a volunteer accompanied him. Had it not been for the volunteer’s persuasion they would not have admitted him, because he lacked insurance. He has now been in the hospital for over a week.

There were many others too, like the young Egyptian guy who was constantly cracking jokes, asking me questions about the Royal Family in England and quizzing me on the name of Hitler’s father! And the shy man from Marrakesh who just wanted a blanket to keep him warm for the night.

Once the crowd had dispersed some people prepared to sleep outside the station. But the police arrived and moved them on, driving them into the park, where their new blankets would quickly become sodden and useless.

I’ll admit that I came home and cried at the hopelessness of these young men’s situations. Who knows if they will ever find a way to rejoin their relatives, or to forge a legitimate life for themselves here or somewhere else; a life that doesn’t involve being reliant on other people’s charity and always having to look over your shoulder.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. I posted a plea on Facebook for donations for more sleeping bags and in minutes was flooded with responses; so many that I have just placed an order for 20 (!) sleeping bags, and will next week personally deliver three times as many as I took down tonight thanks to the generosity of so many people I am proud to call my friends, and who, tonight, have done a lot to restore my faith in humanity, and to remind me there is good in this world, no matter how bleak and dark it sometimes seems.

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