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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Update from Brussels

Another day dawns in Brussels, and with it the news that police raids in the centre of the city last night – which saw people in the surrounding area either evacuated from, or trapped inside, hotels and restaurants – led to the arrests of sixteen terror suspects. None of these was Salah Abdeslam, suspected gunman in the Paris attacks who subsequently fled to Brussels, possibly with the suicide vest he did not, for reasons unknown, detonate in Paris. None of those arrested last night were found with weapons, which means the stash of arms with which the terrorists are planning an attack on Brussels are, like Abdeslam, still at large.

It’s been a strange couple of days here in the European Union’s capital, with most people heeding government advice to stay indoors and avoid public places. But while we understand the serious nature of the threat, how long can this lockdown really go on for? The Belgian economy surely cannot afford to take the hit of many more days without people spending money in its capital city. And with each day that passes the tourist trade will be suffering untold damage, as people cancel trips in fear of being affected by a Paris style attack. And yet, the strange thing is, despite feeling like we are in the throes of a major disaster, nothing has actually happened. It’s like having a guillotine over our heads and waiting for it to drop. Unnerving, to say the least.

Aside from anything else the culture of fear that has begun to develop feels very much like it is playing into the terrorists’ hands. As one window sign spotted on a Brussels street proclaimed, panic is what they want us to feel. And to some extent it’s working. That’s not to say most Brusselites aren’t being stoic in the face of all that’s unfolding. I for one made a point of attending my writing group meet up yesterday rather than give in to the fear. But today I’ll be working from home, and much as I hate to admit it I am now considering my options where my daily commute is concerned, out of worry about taking the metro.

We can but hope the situation will be resolved, or at least diffused (if you’ll excuse the possibly quite inappropriate pun) soon, so that we might all go back to living a normal existence. Recent events do, however, make one wonder-will we ever feel entirely safe again?

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