2023 was a year where there is no denying that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are still very much impacting our business. Where 2022 brought a boom – with moves delayed by the pandemic finally being completed – business this year has been significantly slower.

To a great extent, this may be down to the lack of a normal pipeline of migrations. The complete shutdown of planning during 2020 and 2021, economic impact and changes to personal and business priorities have all had a part to play in this. Companies have been focusing on getting back to work and are only now beginning to consider their international hiring processes again.

We have also seen new challenges within the practicalities of relocating employees. The Belgian housing market has been experiencing an unprecedented shortage of affordable and/or city centre accommodation. This trend, however, is not unique to Belgium: the lack of affordable properties is a global one, as highlighted during EuRA’s 2023 Global Mobility Conference in Dublin.

This means that finding a home for expats is a longer process than it was even a year ago. Then, when an apartment or house is found, prices are higher and landlords are more selective, often choosing locals over expats.

These changes are seeing expats choosing accommodation away from the usual expat-friendly cities and towns. Instead, many choose to commute to the suburbs and beyond, prioritising rental prices and a broader choice of home.

We’re also seeing a change to the way companies are bringing in international talent. Many simply leave the process of finding accommodation and settling into Belgium to the assignee, rather than employing a relocation agent. Though, as the NetExpat and EY survey recently showed, this will need to change if employers want to meet the expectations of the new generation of expats and their families. A trend we welcome in 2024.

ABRA is very much aware of the evolution in the industry and will be looking at ways in which we can support our members in the coming year. We will continue with our industry updates, thank you all for your positive response to the ones we’ve released so far. The board is considering methods to actively support member outreach and sales activities. Look out for more information on these initiatives in the coming months.

As always, we will have our quarterly meetings, currently scheduled for March, May, September and December. These will include guest speakers, so please look forward to updates on these events on LinkedIn, our website and on your email.

In 2024, we will be focusing more on the impact of ABRA as an organisation. In line with EuRA guidelines, we will begin the consultation process of implementing an  Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) programme. When complete, we will be using our experiences to create resources for members who wish to implement an ESG programme of their own. If you would like to be involved in the ABRA ESG programme, then please contact us.

Finally, I would like to thank Anita Meyer for her hard work as she stands down from the board of ABRA. Anita was a founding member of ABRA and has been a dedicated advocate for the relocation industry in Belgium. Without her, ABRA would not be the success that it is today. Her input and advice will be sorely missed by us all.

And of course, I wish you and your families an enjoyable and relaxing end of 2023. Whichever holidays, if any, you celebrate, I hope you have fun and look forward to seeing you all in 2024.

Eric Klitsch
ABRA President

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Just back from the EuRA Relocation Conference in Dublin and not too long off the slopes of – you guessed it, Ischgl – I find myself reflecting on how the pandemic has affected us all. Practically and emotionally. Being able to meet and travel freely again is still exciting to me. And I don’t think I’m alone in celebrating mask mandates and the exit of the QR code.

When Deborah Seymus* visited Val Thorens in December 2019, she interviewed those who live life by the season. What was meant to be a series of interviews we could spread out over the year, was quickly rushed through in a single issue of ReLocate, as we scrambled to make sense of various support measures, travel bans, and more, whilst learning to survive the home office.

Thursday evenings were spent clapping for the frontline workers that struggled through their days without the PPEs needed to do so safely. Many of our members stepped up to do their bit and make the best of a bad situation. Coming home with a pack of toilet roll was the kind of victory that made our day, even if it did mean splitting the skin of our hands with all those alcohol gels required to leave the house. Numerous lockdowns and restrictions later, we are once again welcome to go about our day as we please. But things can always change again, and as Elke Van Hoof, CEO of Better Minds at Work puts it: “The Covid years have been a real-time experiment in mental resilience.”

Perhaps most importantly, we’ve (re)discovered the importance of empathy. At our 2022 AGM, ABRA keynote speaker Bart de Leeuw of The Oval Office spoke about the power of empathy in business. It matters hugely in the era of disconnection – think of digital vs human, individualism vs inclusion, privacy vs transparency, etc. – as expectations have changed. No longer do we work to survive or to guarantee a standard of living. Today, the human factor takes priority as the Empathy Value Index Employer Edition 2022 proves.

Empathy is about understanding, about being able to see things from someone else’s perspective. It’s about empowerment and connecting with each other on a human level. For us at ABRA, this means we cannot wait to welcome you to our upcoming AGM and Member Meeting on Thursday 25th May at International School Ghent. If you haven’t signed up yet, please be sure to do so, as keynote speaker and migration law specialist Sylvie Micholt dives into a societal issue that has been dominating the headlines for much too long.

We hope to see you there!

*As an aside, Deborah Seymus recently published her first book Vijftig Piemels Later, a daring and open-hearted autobiography that details her journey of self-discovery. If you enjoy a cheeky, fast-paced read, then please do support her writing by buying her book.

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As a child I loved dressing up and standing in front of the camera. Whether imagining myself Cleopatra or wielding a sword like Joan of Arc, I always chose women with strong feminine roles. Then I saw my cousin in a commercial with a well-known actor. As a 7-year-old, I was blown away and instantly knew I wanted to do the same thing. I contacted my cousin and that’s how it all started for me. I was offered a few commercials, which I loved doing, and my passion for acting was well and truly set alight. Sadly my fledging career was put on hold as I had to focus on school.

Someone close to me told me I would never make it as an actress. They told me that I would be better off focussing on studying something practical like journalism. And although I successfully completed my journalism degree in Belgium, I never really let go of my dream. Deep within my soul I knew I would always have to work extremely hard, but nothing in life feels quite as meaningful as performing. My hard work paid off and I landed a part in ‘De Kroongetuigen’, one of Flanders’ most popular series.

“Although I successfully completed my degree in journalism, I never let go of my dream of becoming an actress.”

It only served to further strengthen my resolve: I was going to be a professional actress. There was an acting course I really wanted to follow which was only on offer in L.A.. Obviously applying to study in the United States involved a lot of paperwork, as well as an audition. I had to record a monologue, which meant I had to prepare a script and empathise with a character I had chosen myself. Based on that audition tape I would be accepted or rejected.

When I was told in September 2017 that I was the last of the group to be accepted into the acting school, I was still living in Belgium and I was expected to start classes on October 19 2017. Packing up my life in Belgium, finding accommodation in L.A., applying for a visa, booking a flight and saying goodbye to everyone within a month was a huge rush. Thankfully, the school helped me arrange my M-1 visa, the student visa that allows you stay in America for one year, after which it needs renewing.

“It’s difficult to trust people when everyone is so superficial.”

I adapted to life in L.A. fairly quickly because I’m quite a flexible person. The worst thing was the bad food. No chance of getting a tasty sandwich with charcuterie, like we know in Belgium. Americans are generally friendly people, which makes you feel welcome. Belgians are more distant and reserved when you first meet them. However friendly doesn’t necessarily mean kind. Americans will make a great show of greeting you, but won’t hesitate to say something behind your back.

It’s the normal course of things there: you are polite to someone’s face, but as soon as they leave the room, it’s open season. It makes it difficult to trust people, because everyone is so superficial. It does mean you adjust your attitude towards people. Fortunately our international student circle had a different mentality. With all of us being in the same boat – in L.A. without parents, and under a limited visa – I found everyone quite sincere.

America is a Western country, but faith plays an important societal role, with many different types of belief systems. Around the corner from where I stayed there is, for example, “The Mosaic”, a spiritual church. A large stage welcomes you when you come in and the loud music has people swept up in a frenzy. At the other end of my street you can get baptised in a swimming pool.

“If you don’t have a visa that allows you to work, you can probably forget it here. You even run the risk of being deported.”

The average rent here for a one-room apartment is over $2,000 a month, which is a lot more than in Belgium. And that’s without gas, water and electricity. My roommate slept on the couch in the living room while I had the bedroom. Some people have to combine three jobs just to be able to pay for their housing. Without the support of my family, I would have been in trouble for sure.

Before my second M-1 visa ran out, I had to apply for an OPT visa, which means Optional Practical Training. This would allow me temporary work as a student. And despite the massive amount of paperwork it involved, I was insanely grateful to receive it the day after my graduation. Next up was my O-1B visa, a three-year artist visa, which I had to apply for before the one-month grace period following my OPT ended. Applications can take up to six months – doubling in time during COVID – and a lot of people run into trouble during the process. If you don’t have a visa that allows you to work in the given period of time, you can probably forget it, unless you’re really lucky. You even run the risk of being deported.

People think I was living the dream over in L.A., but it was mostly a 24/7 hustle and dealing with a lot of rejection. So many times I auditioned for gigs only to be turned away. You have to deal with constant disappointment. Yes, you can build a portfolio from scratch with student jobs, but big productions won’t hire you unless you either have a visa or are the golden girl they are willing to sponsor.

“If you’re not hired for jobs, you can’t take your portfolio to that next level. But if you don’t have a portfolio, they won’t hire you.”

Yes, I was free to pursue my dream and do what I’ve always wanted to do, but I was in a foreign country far away from family and friends and had to start from the bottom again. You have to be mentally strong to deal with all the challenges. The stress of arranging your visa, getting a job and paying your rent is relentless. It’s hard to keep going when you feel deflated and I was quite depressed when I first arrived there. You can’t count on anyone but yourself to pick you up off the floor. Despite all that, I kept going and was in the running for a few jobs, which helped me regain my confidence.

And then a virus suddenly took over the world and put everything on hold. Corona not only exposed the political divisions in America, it exposed centuries of repressed feelings that had been bubbling away below the surface. Thanks to the ongoing political tension and the debate about Black Lives Matter, which was openly conducted on the street, the situation became increasingly grim. It was dangerous to go outside. Lots of people flouted the corona rules anyway, but pharmacists near me saw their business shattered, helicopters flew over our apartment 24/7, and in other states people were shot or pelted with teargas. Even children were hurt in these riots.

“Freedom of speech is supposed to be a right for everyone, but it isn’t when you’re an immigrant.”

As an immigrant, you keep quiet at that moment and stay indoors. First and foremost because of corona: if you get sick in L.A., the medical expenses are likely to bankrupt you unless you have a very expensive insurance. But less well-known here is that under Trump’s policy, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ed.) was scouring the protests to single out immigrants and deport them to their own country. With my visa application still being processed, I was afraid to go outside. It was even worse for immigrants of colour, like my Guatamalan roommate who – as a Latina – would have been singled out for deportation immediately. Freedom of speech is supposed to be a right for everyone, but it isn’t when you’re an immigrant.

“Working with a smaller pool of talent and opportunities also has its advantages.”

People in America tend to be a bit more gullible than Europeans, so they are more likely to be incited by something said or decided by government or politics. Belgium has its flaws but living in L.A. has opened my eyes to our country. We have a good education system and a strong safety net. In America I relied on ginger tea with lemon when I was sick, but I didn’t dare consult a doctor because of the excessive costs. There’s no OCMW or social security in America, as there is in Europe. In Belgium you can count on monthly financial support during the corona crisis, whereas in America I received a single stimulus check for the entire eight months I was there and unable to work due to the pandemic.

Returning to Belgium and working on my portfolio here has shown me that working with a smaller pool of talent and opportunities also has its advantages. You can break through more easily when you’re fishing in a smaller pond. Moreover, Europe is no longer America’s little sister when it comes to acting. I feel that more qualitative projects are currently being launched in Europe than in America. Ultimately that’s what it’s all about for me: working on projects that offer added value and can affect me.

“I realised soon enough that even if Biden were elected, things wouldn’t change overnight.”

Trump’s policies prevented me from having a fair chance as an actress in L.A.. I actually stayed there waiting for Biden to be elected, hoping he would change the immigration system. But I realised soon enough that even if Biden were elected, things wouldn’t change overnight. The visa policy hasn’t changed yet, so I would have been stuck there, twiddling my thumbs. Obviously, things have gotten more difficult since Trump’s policy. In the past, your application was always reviewed and if you met three of the six necessary criteria, you had a good chance of getting a visa. Now you have to meet three of the six criteria for your application to even be considered. Unless you’ve won an award or a prize, you have no chance of getting a visa that allows you to work legally.

Now I’ve had some time to distance myself from L.A., I can finally breathe again. There’s no pressure to keep getting papers updated and organised, no anxious wait to see whether or not I am allowed to work in the country where I’m staying. The visa issue has dominated my life for years. Without consciously realising it at the time, I was under constant stress. Unless I’m offered a job in Belgium to work in L.A., like Veerle Baetens, or get a green card, I don’t see myself returning anytime soon.

I still dream of an international career, but coming back to your roots every now and then and coming back to life with both feet on the ground is the best learning experience you can have.

 

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“It has hit in waves,” says Willemijn. “In March we were blindsided; suddenly this strange and scary new virus had us sheltering in place, adjusting to life in lockdown. You could feel the unrest and insecurity, but we were all in it together. Then life started picking up again. Companies started reboarding staff, making plans for how many people from which teams could come into work on what days. Everybody had their own system. We started feeling positive again. Antwerp went through a lockdown-light in August, but it was effective and we were confident.”

Impact of Restrictions on Wellbeing

Summer may have provided some temporary relief, but face masks, social bubbles and work-from-home or hybrid regimes are firmly back in place again as confirmed cases of the novel corona virus continue to rise. Nobody will deny the importance of human contact and personal interaction for our mental wellbeing, so what effect can we expect these measures to have on us?

“We offered companies a free mental resilience scan earlier this spring to see how people were faring under the lockdown. It was a small-scale study, but the results were highly disconcerting: 42% of respondents were unable to motivate themselves to work from home and 53% felt employers weren’t clearly communicating their expectations. A powerful mix of stressors piled on top of personal, economic and financial insecurities.”

“Every industry has been impacted, and people are feeling under pressure, albeit for different reasons. Temporary workers don’t know if contracts will be renewed. The hospitality and event sectors are struggling to keep their heads above water. Health care workers have barely had time to catch their breath before this second wave hit. We have nowhere near reached the end of the road and I expect more people will start suffering in silence as the months roll on.”

Singles Suffer the Most

“That being said, we have noticed that singles suffer the most,” Willemijn continues. “Families are challenged to effectively work from home whilst teaching the kids and running a household all at the same time, but at least you have someone to hold on to when things get on top of you. Singles rely on colleagues and friends for social cohesion. They really miss the workplace and descend into depression much quicker.”

Getting up every day, getting dressed and motivating yourself to stay focused isn’t always easy. You can cope with the loneliness for a while, but distractions lie at every turn. You do a quick lap with the vacuum cleaner whilst waiting for the washing machine to finish its spin cycle, but then get distracted by something else and before you know it, half the day is gone. You might as well just call it a day and settle in for some Netflix. The lack of structure leads to feelings of guilt and the negative emotional spiral can be crippling believes Willemijn. Prof. Dr. Elke Van Hoof, Expert in the Superior Health Council of Belgium, has been quoted as saying a tsunami of corona burnouts is heading our way. But is it burnout, depression or something else altogether?

Burnout or Depression?

“Great question. Only time will tell I guess, but I personally believe the balance is tilting towards depression. We are social beings and feeling a person’s touch, whether through a handshake or a hug, is a basic human need. Social bonding releases oxytocin (the happy hormone) and without it our cortisol (the stress hormone) levels skyrocket. We can manage short periods of stress (which trigger our natural fight-or-flight response), but when the balance shifts too far in one direction, the body starts sending out distress signals: headaches, a sore neck, heavy legs, tingling in the arm. All symptoms associated with a burnout. But I don’t believe that we should automatically view our body’s response to the stress of adapting to this ‘new normal’ – whatever that might be – as a burnout.”

“We are living through stressful times, and yes, of course work plays a big role. We spend eight hours a day at work, but now we’re working from home and are expected to stay close to home, if not at home, as much as possible. So where can we find the rest and relaxation we need to switch off and give our brains a break? Quite literally, today’s societal disruptions are disrupting our brains and with that, our mental wellbeing.”

A positive mindset can help a great deal of course, but what if you’re naturally prone to worry? Hourly news updates of spiking rates and overrun hospitals, opposing voices on social media and in the news; none of it helps ease the unquiet mind. Even the most resilient amongst us are susceptible to moments of panic confesses Willemijn.

“Quite literally, today’s societal disruptions are disrupting our brains and with that, our mental wellbeing.”

Daily Sources of Stress

“Just recently I was forced to miss my niece’s eighteenth birthday. I’d woken up with a bit of a cough and a light fever and convinced myself it was corona. My dad is a high-risk profile and the whole family was due to meet. From making an appointment with my GP to getting my test results back took ten days. Ten days that I spent making excuses so as to not worry my family, worrying about whom I’d seen in the two preceding weeks, worrying about their families, friends and colleagues. In the end I got the all-clear from the doctor, but those ten days of waiting were incredibly stressful and I ended up missing my niece’s birthday party, which made me feel sad too.”

“Companies are seeing similar worries coming from their employees and find themselves navigating tricky situations on a daily basis. A client’s key sales person had recently returned from honeymoon and the team demanded he got tested before returning to work. So on the one hand we have an entire team flat-out refusing to work with a colleague, and on the other we have our honeymooner, who has no way of getting tested on a Sunday evening and is forced to miss an important meeting. How do you manage this? What’s your company policy going to be? It’s just one of the infinite ways in which COVID-19 not only impacts how we work together, but how we treat each other too.”

“Because let’s be very clear: everything we do right now is a source of stress. Work from home? It brings stress into your safe haven. Reboarding? Places stress on teams and management alike. Going to the shops? Stressful stuff because who last touched that keypad? It begins the moment we get out of bed and you can quite easily drive yourself nuts worrying.”

Soothing the Unquiet Mind

What then is the solution? Do we allow ourselves a five-minute freak-out in the morning and then just get on with things? Ping an elastic band on our wrists every time we catch ourselves spiralling? How do we stop worry getting the better of us? And how can companies instil trust in both teams and process?

“Communication is key,” suggests Willemijn. “Organisations have to be clear about what they expect from their employees and how these expectations – and measures – will be managed. Are you going for a hybrid setup or is everyone WFH until further notice? How long is this likely to last, and what is guiding your decision making? How will you be reboarding people? What kind of support can team members expect?”

“We’ve created an entire series of webinars for our clients as individual employees have different needs. Everything from online yoga classes to brain training sessions to strengthen mental resilience has proven to be hugely popular. But you can’t just rely on tools. Organisations also need to make sure there is room for informal conversations, like you’d normally have while waiting for the kettle to boil. You need to nourish social cohesion, and if that means a weekly online coffee hour or creating a buddy programme where people check in with one another, then that’s what you need to introduce.”

“Bring structure to your day and alternate between the things that give you energy and those that cost energy.”

Bring Positivity Back

“Personally, I’ve stopped watching the news. There’s no point, it just makes you worry more. I receive a morning push message with the latest statistics. I look at it and then delete it. Tune out the bad news to maintain a positive mindset. Similarly, when I watch a movie or a series, I only watch nice things. Laughter helps release endorphins so watch a good comedy or call a friend and get silly together. I also love watching things that uplift and inspire me, such as TED talks or webinars, and listen to podcasts that put me in a positive mindset.”

“Take yourself out of your comfort zone. You live at home, work from home, maybe the kids are home too, as well as your partner. Even if you have more time now that the daily commute has fallen away, you shouldn’t be using that time to work more. Instead, challenge yourself to do or learn something new. I’ve started studying to become a neuropsychologist. Why not? I have time now. There are so many free apps and classes to be found online. Learn yoga, start doing pilates, lift some bags of sugar for weights… Exercise is essential to a healthy body and mind and there’s so much you can do at home.”

“Card games such as memory are a super simple but effective way of training your brain and keeping concentration and memory skills on point. Whether it’s an online game of solitary or a board game with the family, playing games stops you worrying about things you can’t control. It’s one of the few good things to have come out of all this: people are playing games again and spending more quality time together. Also be sure to stay in touch with the people you care about. Schedule weekly FaceTime or Zoom chats with loved ones near and far.”

If you’re going to be spending this much time at home, make it nice. Get a floral subscription – I used to get flowers delivered every other week, but have now upgraded it to weekly as fresh flowers really bring me joy – light some candles every evening, read a book, dig in your garden, paint the wall that’s been irritating you for so long, do the things that make you feel good about your environment.”

“Find some time to meditate every day, or even easier: find a theta wave playlist that works for you. Theta waves are hertz waves and the ‘pure’ stuff sounds awful, but some YouTube playlists are almost music-like. Where alpha waves energise, theta waves soothe the brain and relax you. Just stick on your headphones and sit back for twenty minutes or so before you go to bed. It works wonders. You can put it on your speakers while you cook or do yoga, but to get the full benefit, use headphones. Just don’t put it on in the car or you might just doze off,” laughs Willemijn.

“Finally, and perhaps most importantly, bring structure into your daily routine. It’s all good and well adding all these new things into your day, but you need to maintain balance. I’ve used Excel to make a weekly schedule for myself that alternates between the things that give me energy and those that cost energy. Mornings are for studying, then I exercise before doing an online intake or coaching session, after which I meditate. Continuously switch between relaxation and effort, and block off enough time for each in your daily planner.”

Eight Top Tips

• Stop watching the news, a daily push message is enough to keep you updated;
• Watch things that uplift, inspire and make you smile;
• Step out of your comfort zone and learn something new;
• Exercise daily and play games to refocus your mind;
• Stay in touch with your loved ones;
• Create a warm and happy home environment;
• Quiet your mind through meditation or theta waves;
• Bring structure into your day and alternate between effort and energy.

Visit www.pinkrebelrevolution.com for more information on recovering from burnout and for free webinars to help you strengthen your mental resilience.

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“As a child, I was always the odd one out. I couldn’t settle at school or at home and always felt uncomfortable. I often felt like I was missing something, or that I was doing something that didn’t suit my character. My parents lived structured lives and weren’t open to trying new things. Sometimes I was asked by friends to go snowboarding or skiing, but I was never allowed to join them. As a family we went on holiday to Greece and just lay on the beach, with nothing to do. I’d decided on a career as a gymnastics teacher after high school and enrolled for a Bachelor degree. Sadly, my father became very ill during and passed away. As a result, I stopped studying and eventually dropped out.

After my father’s death, my mom encouraged me to resume my studies. When I obtained my diploma, I started working at Sport Vlaanderen, at the time still known as BLOSO. I went to sports camps and started doing seasonal work during summer. This brought me in contact with water sports and reminded me how crazy I had always been about water. My interest in water sports continued to grow and that first winter I left for a surf camp abroad. From then on a whole new world opened up for me and I would spend my summers working for an interim agency in Belgium, so that I could go on surf and sports camps with tour operators during the winter. The interim jobs were very diverse. One year I worked as a teacher, the other year I worked in a factory. I got to know a lot of people, gained a different perspective on life, and for the first time ever I knew that what I was doing was meant for me.

I enjoy teaching children and young people but I don’t want to be part of the Belgian education system. Working day in, day out and returning home, following a lot of rules and bumping into a huge number of procedures doesn’t suit my character. I need to be outside and experience freedom. I find inner peace abroad, but not in Belgium. Africa, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, Indonesia,… you name it; I have lived and stayed everywhere and nowhere for a while.

In between and during these travels I had a few relationships, but it was only when I got to know Irina that the picture felt right for the first time. She also worked in education but was open to my lifestyle and suggested doing a winter season together. I had no clue where we would end up, but in Val Thorens I learned that I could have started working the snow seasons much sooner. I’ve never regretted starting seasonal work at such a late age, but I have wondered why it never occurred to me before. I think it’s because of my upbringing; we didn’t know this life existed. My first year on the slopes was really tough. I had horrible working hours, a difficult supervisor and little time to spend on my snowboard, while Irina had the time of her life. The following year the roles were reversed. Irina felt fed up with seasonal work and quit.

Nowadays she only comes to visit occasionally. We’ve had a lot of arguments about this and it’s not easy, because I can see myself building a life here. I dreamed of starting a company together, in the mountains or on the beach, but her future is back in Belgium. I don’t know what that means for our future as partners. Fortunately I have a girlfriend who has been on a winter season and knows what it means to me. I’m sure we’ll work it out together in the end.”

**COVID-19 UPDATE:

After being forced to leave their house and job within 48 hours I called up some saisonniers to see how they were doing. Most of them fled the village immediately, although a small core decided to sit out a quarantine of at least two weeks. These anciens in particular were not prepared to leave their winter life all of a sudden, with some not even having anywhere to go. These last days have been spent getting groceries from the last open store  and preparing for an eventual outbreak of the virus. Infected people are in a strict quarantine or taken away to a village lower down. However, since the slopes are abandoned and there is barely any police control, some tourists see this as a perfect opportunity to build their own snow jump and freeride those mountains. Even though this is strictly forbidden, the unclear communication of the village itself causes people to ignore the rules and troop together for house parties or outside on the slopes. Today’s Val Thorens looks nothing like it usually would during March, and although saisonniers tend to be flexible when it comes to leaving their jobs and homes: this abruptly ended season of 2020 will never be forgotten.

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“I’m originally from West Flanders but ended up moving to Ghent for my studies. In the end, I stayed there for ten years; quite a long time. I studied the former D-cursus to teach kids, lived together with my partner, and had a good job in education. But the picture shown to the outside world wasn’t real. I was in a toxic relationship where there was no room to fulfil my dreams. After a lot of fights, I gave up. I quit my job, left my ex in the house that I loved, registered my address back with my mom, traded in my permanent home for a backpack and left for Cambodia. With the money I had saved from working extra hours in the coffee bar, I could finally leave. Making a long journey on my own had always been a dream of mine, but I didn’t want to abandon my relationship. I also didn’t want to leave my house because I was the one who found it and absolutely loved it.

In retrospect, that house turned out to be the obstacle that prevented me from experiencing the true freedom I had always pictured in my head. I was so afraid of taking a step back from the social perspective that I put my own dreams aside. No one, not even me, knew how long I would stay in Cambodia. I had the time of my life there, but I missed my family. After ten months I returned for one of my godchildren’s birthdays. I arranged my return in secret and suddenly I was on the doorstep of my mother’s house, ringing the bell. My sister in law opened the door and when my mum heard my voice in the background she almost collapsed of a heart attack when she saw me with my suitcase. At first I found it very difficult to live with my mother again. It felt like a big step back and I was afraid that I’d have to give up much of my freedom out of respect for her. However, it finally gave me the chance to grow closer to her and now my mom knows me better than anyone.

I had already gained some experience with seasonal work in Empuria Brava, and after being back home for a month the travel bug started to itch, so I left again. This time to Mimizan with Flowtrip, a tour operator that organises surf and sports camps for young people. I was appointed as a supervisor and soon realised that I really enjoy working with young people. I met a close team that worked together as a family. That family aspect attracted me so much; I needed more of that. I wanted to learn more life lessons like I had done a couple of years before.

At 23 I left for South America with two girlfriends. At a certain moment, my bank card no longer worked. A quick money transfer from Belgium wasn’t an option, as the bank was closed due to a public holiday. Because we had a fixed itinerary and my two friends couldn’t lend me any money, I ended up alone in Pas la Pas, near Santa Cruz. There I was, a young girl, without money or a cell phone. At first I was very angry, but soon I realised that my girlfriends were only responsible for their own actions and I was for mine. I didn’t have a mobile phone and calling from an internet cafe was not an option as when it was day in Belgium it was night in South America and vice versa. So at night I secretly used the computer at the reception of the hostel I was staying in and after trying out many ATMs I finally got some money from the wall. That situation changed everything for me. I learned at a young age that when I run into a problem, I can’t expect others to solve it for me. I met those two girlfriends later during the trip and eventually forgave them. Our friendship even survived them leaving me behind, which I am very glad about. My mum and sister were extremely mad at the girls when they found out that they had left me on my own. From their perspective travelling together means coming home together too. That trip taught me a lot. It helped me overcome my fear of being alone and made me realise that you are always dependent on yourself.

When I was working in Mimizan they indicated they were looking for someone to work in the mountains and I didn’t hesitate for a moment. And here I am. In my third season as a saisonnier in Val Thorens. This year I’m working in a hotel, but it changes every time. I keep coming back because I’ve come to know everyone. When you walk outside, everyone greets each other, which isn’t the case in Belgium. That warm feeling and meeting a friend in the snow remains special. When I’m in the mountains I have little contact with friends from Flanders. I’ve never had a large group of friends and I am a character initiator. I believe that your life consists of different phases, during which you surround yourself with different people. Every phase is of a temporary nature, so often contacts are too. You can’t keep in touch with everyone and that’s okay. It may sound harsh, but if I want to be in contact with everyone on a regular basis, I’d be stuck on my mobile 24/7.

My mum sometimes asks me when I’ll ever lead a stable life, but I can’t answer that question. I don’t know how long I will continue doing this; every time I leave for the season I ask myself the same thing. Sometimes I’m tired and think about what I am doing and wonder what’s happening in Belgium, what I’m missing out on. But working as a saisonnier can last for the rest of your life, even if you want to start a family. Nothing prevents you from combining the things that make you happy with the lifestyle you want to lead. My ultimate dream is to create my own project and live for it fully while travelling constantly.

I advise everyone to work as a saisonnier once in your life. It opens your eyes and forces you to think about what you really want in life. That doesn’t mean that everyone is suited to it. You have to be able to be away from home for a long time, master several languages and be an open person who wants to learn. Travelling has taught me that not everyone you meet is of good will, it certainly sharpens your knowledge of people. The fact that someone at home, in my case my mom and family, lets you go and supports you, gives a solid foundation and the necessary sense of security. Having someone who believes in you is a must if you are alone for a long time.

Sometimes I am firmly convinced that I want children, such as recently when I held a colleague’s baby in my arms, but I realise that these moments are snapshots and I actually don’t know for sure yet. And that’s just fine. So many people never consider what they really want out of life. 60% of 18-year-olds just choose an education after their secondary education because they feel they have to do something in society. The fear that they won’t achieve anything and their children won’t do what they expect is a motivation to do the same job day after day. When I was 21 I wanted to leave on Erasmus, but I didn’t because I had a sweetheart. During my second relationship I wanted to travel together, but it never happened. It’s taught me that everyone must decide for themselves what they want to do. You can’t place the responsibility for choices made with someone else; you are the only one who has to live with them. If you don’t want certain situations to come back in your life, you must dig deep and explore your behavioural patterns so that your events also change.”

Read The Saissonniers #5

**COVID-19 UPDATE:

After being forced to leave their house and job within 48 hours I called up some saisonniers to see how they were doing. Most of them fled the village immediately, although a small core decided to sit out a quarantine of at least two weeks. These anciens in particular were not prepared to leave their winter life all of a sudden, with some not even having anywhere to go. These last days have been spent getting groceries from the last open store  and preparing for an eventual outbreak of the virus. Infected people are in a strict quarantine or taken away to a village lower down. However, since the slopes are abandoned and there is barely any police control, some tourists see this as a perfect opportunity to build their own snow jump and freeride those mountains. Even though this is strictly forbidden, the unclear communication of the village itself causes people to ignore the rules and troop together for house parties or outside on the slopes. Today’s Val Thorens looks nothing like it usually would during March, and although saisonniers tend to be flexible when it comes to leaving their jobs and homes: this abruptly ended season of 2020 will never be forgotten.

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“As a ski man in Val Thorens I rent out equipment for skiing and snowboarding, repair and fix broken or damaged skies and sell equipment. I started here last year as a ski man but am interested in boot fitting and am trying to learn all about it.

Following my studies in Normandy, where I grew up in a small village, I was offered an internship in Paris. A whole new world opened up to me. For the first time in my life I was forced to get to know new people and challenge myself in all kinds of areas. As an introverted person, it was not easy to just start a new life in a big city where I knew few people. Yet it was my first step towards change.

I come from a family where everything can be discussed, however, I don’t have a particularly sentimental relationship with them. As a child I was very attached to my mother, although that bond has become less strong following my parents’ divorce. I don’t know why our relationship has changed, nowadays we call each other once a month. My mother finds me being so far away from home difficult, while my father fully supports it and encourages me to explore the world. Occasionally I miss my friends, but it’s of a temporary nature and usually doesn’t last long. Building or maintaining a relationship with a partner is almost impossible if you don’t have that same seasonal worker rhythm; you’re better off staying single.

I stayed on in Paris following my internship. I had a job in design, often working fifty hours a week, for five and a half years. I enjoyed my job, but eventually grew bored of the long hours and big city lifestyle.  I started thinking about leaving; work, Paris… I wanted to experience the world with my own eyes. Six months later I left everything and everyone behind. I spent two years travelling the world and for the first time in my life I truly got to know myself.

I fell in love with travelling because you quickly  get to know new cultures and people. Everything is possible and nothing is promised. I really had to learn to let go in terms of plans, because that used to be my life. I was always busy with myself and thought that the plan in my head should always be executed exactly the same. When you travel, things often pan out differently than you have in mind and you learn to let the present follow its own path. When you travel, you book results every day that are immediately visible. For me, travel is the answer to everything.

I got to know Marcal while I was diving the Perhentian Islands during my trip to Malaysia. He told me about his life in the mountains and what it’s like working the winter season. Intrigued by his stories, I took my chance. This is my second season in Val Thorens. As a team we all have the same goal and mindset: providing customers with the best possible skiing experience. I wouldn’t have been as keen to come back if my colleagues hadn’t been this great.  I also have opportunities to grow within the boot-fitting segment, something that interests me immensely. I don’t think you can do this job for the rest of your life; you should invest your money in a business. This work is much too tiring to have to work for someone else for the rest of your life. You’re better off becoming your own boss here, success guaranteed!”

Read The Saisonniers #4

**COVID-19 UPDATE:

After being forced to leave their house and job within 48 hours I called up some saisonniers to see how they were doing. Most of them fled the village immediately, although a small core decided to sit out a quarantine of at least two weeks. These anciens in particular were not prepared to leave their winter life all of a sudden, with some not even having anywhere to go. These last days have been spent getting groceries from the last open store  and preparing for an eventual outbreak of the virus. Infected people are in a strict quarantine or taken away to a village lower down. However, since the slopes are abandoned and there is barely any police control, some tourists see this as a perfect opportunity to build their own snow jump and freeride those mountains. Even though this is strictly forbidden, the unclear communication of the village itself causes people to ignore the rules and troop together for house parties or outside on the slopes. Today’s Val Thorens looks nothing like it usually would during March, and although saisonniers tend to be flexible when it comes to leaving their jobs and homes: this abruptly ended season of 2020 will never be forgotten.

 

 

 

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“Ten years ago was my first time as a saissonier in La Plagne, another ski resort located 50 km from Val Thorens. I had been there a week earlier on vacation with my ex-girlfriend. On impulse, I decided to go back for the season. Life in the Alps appealed to me, and as I was used to living everywhere and nowhere, I thought it would be ideal to come and work here for a few months. I worked in La Plagne for five seasons and then left for America. Following that adventure I returned to Europe and have now  been in Val Thorens for three seasons.

As a child I bored easily. I stopped going to school full-time aged 15 as I wanted to know what work did to someone. I chose to take part-time lessons and work a lot. The first two weeks were spent working in a restaurant, but I quickly discovered it wasn’t for me. I also discovered working with horses does and kept that up for 1,5 years. When I turned 17, I realised that I had to change things if I wanted to make something of myself. And so I went back to school and got my high school diploma in electricity. Because I am technically strong and wanted to nurture my creative spirit, I decided to go for a Bachelor in film, video and television at university.

When we graduated, one of my best friends – now known as one of Belgium’s finest pop artists – asked me if I wanted to join him on a tour of the USA. He needed a second cameraman. After those three months I returned for another season in La Plagne, as previously agreed, but then my friend asked me back for a longer tour. His executive producer had cancelled on him, so it was a huge opportunity for me. That was the start of my career in America, something I always dreamed of. I thought that if you could make it in America you would have really proven yourself. Belgium is such a small country, but if you mean something in America you have succeeded in life.

I was quickly relieved of that particular illusion. I toured around the world with him until the end of 2015, when he decided to take a break from his music. In the meantime, I had fallen in love  and wanted to stay in America, but had to be able to present a valid visa. The easiest way is to go back to study, and so I did. But the hectic life in USA, the high pressure and not being able to trust a lot of people, brought about my first panic attack. Everything in America is about prestige and status. The fear that you could go from somebody to nobody in an hour caught me by the throat. On top of that my girlfriend was raped and I had to watch helplessly how our relationship, despite many sessions of therapy, went under.

I have always seen my parents struggle to make ends meet as self-employed people. They gave my sister and I everything they could afford, as well as the little free time they had. I thank that life for that. Working as a slave to society in order to survive on a tiny pension later on is inhumane. Unfortunately, that’s the system in Belgium. A capitalist state that takes away from its citizens what it can and abandons you if you can’t get it done financially, psychologically or physically.

My mom is currently suffering from cancer. Last summer I returned to Brussels to look after her and the rest of the family. My father no longer drives and my sister doesn’t have a driver’s license so if my mother has to go somewhere while I’m away, they’re dependent on others. Knowing this, leaving for the season is difficult for me. Yet I choose to work in Val Thorens because the urge for that freedom and good energy is too great. When I stay at home I am confronted with a sister who is dependent on her husband and too scared to get her driver’s license. It’s so far removed from my world, which revolves around total independence; it would make me miserable being there all the time.

All these experiences have taught me I don’t want to live that kind of life. It’s true what they say: seasonal work is fleeing from reality but I’m perfectly okay with that. When I think about leading an average life in Belgium, with a house, garden and child, I feel like I’m locked up. A golden cage is still a cage. I know myself through and through and spend a lot of time alone, so I know what I want and especially what I don’t want. I grew up in a family where there was not much talk about deep emotions and I never felt the need to, even though I can talk very openly about what I feel.

When friends of mine in Val Thorens first asked me to come and work here, it was an easy choice. You might not know anyone at the start of your first season but by the end of season two or three you have become a close-knit family. Tourists think that we’re constantly partying here, but if you want to maintain this life for seven months, your body will soon enough tell you  it’s not possible. Of course we have the occasional party, but being a saissonier is mainly about performing many hours and earning little money.

Because you live together, work together and spend free time with your colleagues, you quickly get to know each other. A collegial relationship quickly develops into friendship. It sometimes makes it difficult to find balance. Everyone here brings their own story and when things are tough you have to rely on your colleagues to talk about it. And no, not everyone can be trusted here because ultimately everyone is here for their own reasons. Some colleagues will try to use your confidence to lift themselves up. Seasonal work is wonderful because you share a unique experience with each other and you get opportunities others might not, but there is a downside.”

Read The Saisonniers #3

**COVID-19 UPDATE:

After being forced to leave their house and job within 48 hours I called up some saisonniers to see how they were doing. Most of them fled the village immediately, although a small core decided to sit out a quarantine of at least two weeks. These anciens in particular were not prepared to leave their winter life all of a sudden, with some not even having anywhere to go. These last days have been spent getting groceries from the last open store  and preparing for an eventual outbreak of the virus. Infected people are in a strict quarantine or taken away to a village lower down. However, since the slopes are abandoned and there is barely any police control, some tourists see this as a perfect opportunity to build their own snow jump and freeride those mountains. Even though this is strictly forbidden, the unclear communication of the village itself causes people to ignore the rules and troop together for house parties or outside on the slopes. Today’s Val Thorens looks nothing like it usually would during March, and although saisonniers tend to be flexible when it comes to leaving their jobs and homes: this abruptly ended season of 2020 will never be forgotten.

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A day after arriving to the village in the middle of the night I meet Nina, a 18-year old girl who spent last year’s winter season in Val Thorens as a ski woman. A ski woman ensures that your skis get to you in perfect condition and takes care of the sale and maintenance of all kinds of equipment during the winter season.

“I first came to Val Thorens as a toddler. My mom and dad both worked here as saisonniers. They took their kids everywhere with them; I think my parents were seen as pretty open minded back then. They met when she was 14 and he was 24. The age difference didn’t bother them at all. My mom was a free-spirited woman and when she turned 17 she wanted to study abroad. When my mom decided she would relocate to study photography, my father gave up the shop he owned in Hossegor, where he sold skate & snowboard gear and followed my mom, who is originally from Biarritz, to Courchevel. He was scared that if he let her go, he would never see her again.”

“They both worked in Courchevel for three seasons, in between renovating a  house in Biarritz. They continued this lifestyle even following the birth of my sister and I. Winters in Courchevel flew by and while my sister started doing competitions, I was born. After a while my sister’s competitions started taking her beyond Courchevel. That’s how our family ended up coming to Val Thorens for the first time. We liked it a lot so we kept on coming back and my parents knew everyone who lived here.”

“Sadly enough the relationship between my parents didn’t last. My mum secretly met other guys, something the whole town gossiped about it. They fought a lot and haven’t seen each other since the day they broke up. I still don’t know how my sister really feels about it all, we’ve never spoken about it. I left school at 16 because I didn’t see the point in studying for a diploma. I believed, and still believe, you can become anything you want in life, providing you work hard for it. Two years ago I left for New Zealand and, inspired by my dad, I got my certificate as a lifeguard.”

“After coming back, I had no idea what to do with my life and so I applied for a job in Val Thorens during winter season. Since one of the shop owners’ is my dad’s best friend that wasn’t so hard. I stayed the whole season and loved every bit of it. The people of Val Thorens feel like family now and that’s why I came back this year just for a holiday, to spend time with the family I’ve built here. In 20 days I will leave to New Zealand and see what the future brings. Maybe I’ll return, maybe I won’t, but that non-settled life is the freedom I seek.”

Read The Saisonniers #2

**COVID-19 UPDATE:

After being forced by President Macron’s non-negotiable decision to to leave their house and job within 48 hours I called up some saisonniers to see how they were doing. Most of them fled the village immediately, although a small core decided to sit out a quarantine of at least two weeks. These anciens in particular were not prepared to leave their winter life all of a sudden, with some not even having anywhere to go. These last days have been spent getting groceries from the last open store  and preparing for an eventual outbreak of the virus. Infected people are in a strict quarantine or taken away to a village lower down. However, since the slopes are abandoned and there is barely any police control, some tourists see this as a perfect opportunity to build their own snow jump and freeride those mountains. Even though this is strictly forbidden, the unclear communication of the village itself causes people to ignore the rules and troop together for house parties or outside on the slopes. Today’s Val Thorens looks nothing like it usually would during March, and although saisonniers tend to be flexible when it comes to leaving their jobs and homes: this abruptly ended season of 2020 will never be forgotten.

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As professionals in the global mobility sector we know all about managing culture shock, helping our assignees adapt to new environments, and spend a lot of time considering matters such as cost of living allowances and hardship locations. But what about those who move halfway across the globe with no help whatsoever? The people who leave their homes behind for entirely different reasons than a (temporary) foreign assignment? Freelance journalist and millennial Deborah Seymus has a monthly column on living with a young refugee with Knack online and is republished here with their permission. We look forward to bringing you her column over the coming issues as we explore a brand new view on life in Belgium.

Just over twelve months ago I met Izat*. Izat fled Afghanistan at the age of 19. He and his family lived in the village of Tagab in the northeast of Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban control since 1995. War has been raging in the region since 2001, and with Tagab trapped between the Taliban militia on the one side and government soldiers on the other, his village is under constant fire. Going to school is not an option as schools ceased to exist some time ago and career opportunities for young men are limited to being recruited by either the Taliban or the army. Realising this, his parents concluded there was no future for him in Tagab. They saved up 10,000 dollars and with a heavy heart helped their son flee to Belgium.

“Call me naive, but I hadn’t considered the impact religion might have on our cohousing experience. We talked about basic things at first.”

When I was first introduced to Izat, I was expecting to be faced with different cultural customs and habits. I had however not expected to live with someone for whom religion is such an important part of life. Call me naive, but I simply hadn’t considered it. Izat is an avid follower of Islam, but it took me a while to figure that out. Because we only talked about basic things such as housekeeping, school and work, I had no idea how important being faithful to his God was to him and how much that would end up influencing our living together.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Afghanistan had around four million inhabitants; that number has now been multiplied by at least eight. Almost all (more than 99.7%) residents are Muslim. The large majority (80 to 85%) is Sunni, a minority (15 to 19%, more than two million and mainly Hazara) is Shiite. 1% adheres to a different religion. This is because when the communist regime in Afghanistan came to an end in 1992, the Republic of Afghanistan ended too. At the end of the Afghan Civil War in 1996, the Taliban took control over Afghanistan and renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

“I never expected that I would have to explain that praying is an extra, not something that precedes attending classes or going to a job interview.”

I left for my annual holiday shortly after moving in together with Izat in July 2018. Coming back from my Italian travels, I arrived at an apartment where prayers rang through the speakers. Things had changed since I left. There was, for example, a carpet in his room and Izat was dressed in a long white robe. He went to pray in his room a number of times a day, closing the door behind him. I wondered how that would work when he’d start school in September. He wouldn’t have the space and time to isolate himself four times a day. I wanted to point this out to him, but was afraid to. It was too early and our contact was still very superficial.
From September 2018, Izat started attending school and took additional courses through Curant. He also enrolled in a course to help him find a suitable job organised by JES. JES is a city lab for children and young people in Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels. As a partner of Curant, they strengthen the self-reliance of the refugees in our project. They organise excursions so that the group can get to know each other better and work around specific themes such as finding work.

After the course ended, the registered boys and girls were given the opportunity to show their buddies what they had learned. Just before Izat had to give his presentation he said to me: “Deborah, I have to leave now. It is time to pray.” I tried to explain this wasn’t the right time, but he had already disappeared. I spoke to one of the OCMW employees who was there too and asked for her opinion. Together we went in search of Izat to explain this wasn’t the time for prayer. He struggled with the idea that he could not pray where and when he considered it necessary.

“As an atheist, I just don’t get it. I don’t understand how dogma can make you put everything else aside to pray.”

I could not, and still do not, understand how a religion can expect you to put everything else aside so that you can pray. You also have to follow certain rituals, such as cleaning your body with water, before you can turn to Allah. Repeating the ritual and praying six times a day takes quite a bit of time. It also required a lot of empathy from me. Sometimes I came home from work late at night and then we’d sit and chat outside, until Izat’s alarm would go off: time to pray.

But as time went by, I heard his phone ring less and less often. Izat spent less time in his room praying and spent more time outside or with friends. School was going well and his Dutch progressed quickly. During Ramadan, I noticed Izat had stopped coming home in the evening and stopped sleeping in the apartment. For a month I lived there alone and when I asked him about it I received a vague answer. He said it was not my fault and that he would come home occasionally. In the meantime, I asked acquaintances, and they explained it’s not acceptable for a Muslim to live with a woman they are not married or related to.
“The only answer that became truly clear to me was that I had to look things up on Google.”

After a long conversation on Messenger, because live communication remained quite hard, I was finally able to explain to him why I found the situation so difficult. He seemed to understand that. He did, however, stick to what he had said. With the last months of our cohabitation coming up we both did our best to make living together as pleasant as possible. Summer had returned to Belgium, which meant that we often sat outside until late on the terrace, talking about politics in Belgium and Afghanistan, and also about faith. What particularly struck me during those conversations was that his answers were always based on what the Quran said or what someone had told him. Never on his own research or from personal experience. For example, I repeatedly asked him why a woman should wear a scarf or hijab, and added that it would seem that women had to do certain things that men needn’t do. The only clear answer to the question “why” was that I had to look things up on Google.

“To me ‘Because the Quran says so’ is not a satisfactory answer. I need to you formulate your own thoughts.”

Sometimes my relentless questioning of dogma would get him thinking however, and he’d try to find answers that he could explain within himself. To me “because the Koran says so” is not a satisfactory answer. Despite my best efforts, he kept repeating that one day I would see the light and if I spoke to a certain person (a guru who lives abroad), I would be convinced of the Islam. After a while I understood that Izat would always hope that I would repent, so that he wasn’t doing wrong by faith. Coming home and chatting with me caused him conflicting feelings. The moment I realised that, I understood I had to make a decision. It’s a shame Curant never considered how much value he attached to his faith. If they had, they would not matched a deeply faithful Islamic man and an atheist Flemish woman for a cohousing project.
Yet I don’t want to blame Curant. Izat and many of the other boys struggle to look inside or talk about their innermost musings. Their culture is one where men do not share their thoughts or feelings. This makes it difficult to paint a correct picture of the situation. Also, over 50% of the buddies in the project are female, and more than 70% of newcomers are male. Which makes it difficult for the project organisers and sometimes they have to take a gamble.

I did learn from our conversations that religion is not for me. I respect someone’s faith and their adherence to a religion, but I don’t want to be converted. And that’s exactly where the crux lies: the faithful find it incredibly difficult to understand how you cannot believe in God, Allah or YHWH. To them it feels as if you don’t believe them, which implies that where they have put their trust in, is not reliable. Some experience that as a personal rejection of their faith, and therefore also of their personality, and that is the problem for me. Because when exactly did personality become inextricably linked to religion or belief?

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As professionals in the global mobility sector we know all about managing culture shock, helping our assignees adapt to new environments, and spend a lot of time considering matters such as cost of living allowances and hardship locations. But what about those who move halfway across the globe with no help whatsoever? The people who leave their homes behind for entirely different reasons than a (temporary) foreign assignment? Freelance journalist and millennial Deborah Seymus has a monthly column on living with a young refugee with Knack online and is republished here with their permission. We look forward to bringing you her column over the coming issues as we explore a brand new view on life in Belgium.

Just over six months ago I met Izat*. Izat fled Afghanistan at the age of 19. He and his family lived in the village of Tagab in the northeast of Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban control since 1995. War has been raging in the region since 2001, and with Tagab trapped between the Taliban militia on the one side and government soldiers on the other, his village is under constant fire. Going to school is not an option as schools ceased to exist some time ago and career opportunities for young men are limited to being recruited by either the Taliban or the army. Realising this, his parents concluded there was no future for him in Tagab. They saved up 10,000 dollars and with a heavy heart helped their son flee to Belgium.

“Our differing views are the cause of a fair amount of frustration.”

I have never asked myself so many questions about the subject of relationships, as since I’ve been living with Izat. Never before have I had so many problems expressing myself and explaining things to someone else when talk turns to the Belgian view on love and friendship. And to be honest, it’s the cause of a fair amount of frustration because our views on these themes are so vastly different.

Let me begin by answering why our views are so different. In Afghanistan almost all (99%) of inhabitants are Muslim, of which 80-85% are Sunnite. The Sunnites follow, besides the Quran, the Hadith, which is a vast collection of established Islamic legends about the life of the prophet Mohammed. The Hadith is essentially an extension and interpretation of the Quran, with often strict rules to be followed. Additionally, Sunnism is subdivided into different ‘madhahib’ – also known as hadis – which are different schools of religious thought. The most important of these are Hanafism, Malikism, Shafism and Hanbalism. Each was named after an ‘imam’, or pastor in prayer. Izat and his parents follow Hanafism, which means Izat was raised according to certain religious rules which influence his interpretation of the differences in sex, love and relationships.

“You need to be respectful of women, turning round to look at a pretty girl is not acceptable.”

One of these rules is that Muslim women should cover their entire body and wear a headscarf, or ‘hijab’ in Afghanistan. They do this so that men in the street would not look at uncovered parts of their bodies. Here in Belgium we’d be up on the barricades if we were not allowed to dress in public the way we want to, and see this as repression of women. When I speak with Izat about this, he explains: “You need to be respectful of women and turning round to look at a pretty girl is not acceptable. It’s very disrespectful for the woman, she could be married. She must be able to stay pure for Allah and her marriage.”

“My feminist beliefs tell me it sounds like a lame excuse to keep women subservient.”

I struggle with this last part. My feminist beliefs make me think it sounds like a lame excuse to keep women under some sort of control and keep them subservient. Even so, I can’t deny the fact that I’ve been stared at hundreds of times and don’t particularly enjoy it. When I confront Izat with the fact that I’ve been stared at by Muslim men too, he explains that not all Muslims know how to behave as they don’t know or understand enough about our Belgian customs.

“Many of the young men who come here for the first time are simply shocked by what they see. This can cause strange behaviour or expressions that we struggle to understand in Belgium. Good guidance and follow-up are essential so that newcomers learn how to deal with differences and not to misinterpret Western behaviour, or dress sense,” Anneloes Van Osselaer, project leader at Curant explains. “A few lessons during an integration programme simply aren’t enough as these programmes usually only cover some theoretical knowledge. In the best case we can discuss these topics in a group with other young refugees. Themes like these require more in-depth and sustainable guidance and follow-up; by OKAN schools, teachers, imams, role models from their own culture, social assistants and youth workers.”

“No matter how hard he tries to explain the premise of our cohousing project, his friends don’t understand.”

I can imagine that it’s not easy to understand Belgian freedom when you come from a completely different culture. And if you have to make do with the limited information given during your integration course, you end up with more questions than answers. Izat honestly shares with me that he’s looked at a woman here before. His friends tell him off immediately; he’s not supposed to be looking at women when he has one at home (me). No matter how hard he tries to explain the premise of our cohousing project, the boys don’t – or won’t – understand. As far as their concerned, when you live with a woman, even in Belgium, you are a couple.

Within the Afghan culture, women stay at home to take care of the children. They run the household and the man has very little input on this. Most adult Afghan women have never been to school, but considering the country has been plagued by war for 30 years, this is hardly surprising. Even so, things are slowly beginning to change within the educational system. Girls in Kabul have been going to school for a while now and a school has just been built in Tagab* where young girls can follow classes.

“Who else would take care of the children and the family?”

When I ask Izat whether men and women are equal in his culture, he emphasises they are equally worthy and women are considered enormously important. Families in Afghanistan are almost always large, with everyone living together under the same roof. “Without women, who would take care of the children and the family?” It’s not because women don’t work, raising large families instead, that they are treated as lesser.

Afghan women’s lives are traditionally controlled by their male relatives. Women symbolise the honour of the family and community and they are expected to be pure and modest. Over the last two decades however, armed groups have used these cultural norms as a weapon. The arrival of the Taliban in 1994 caused an extreme increase in violence against Afghan women. Using rape and sexual assault, they are able to dishonour entire communities. So what does this daily reality do to your views on sexuality and relationships as a young man?

“You need to be respectful of women and turning to look at a pretty woman is not acceptable.”

When Izat and I had been living together for about a month, I met someone. Just like many Belgian couples, we regularly met up and started spending the night together. I always let Izat know whether we would be staying at our apartment or at his place. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything, because I soon realised that Izat would disappear anytime we were in my room. When I asked him about this, he pretended nothing was wrong and he had no idea what I was talking about. His curt reply was clear: “no, no problem”.

Only after many conversations with him did I begin to understand how incredibly uncomfortable this made him feel in his own home. He was already living with an open minded young woman he often struggled to know how to be around. But her sleeping with a partner who was not her husband, was simply too difficult to understand. Staying over at a friend’s house seemed to be the right solution; this way I wouldn’t feel guilty. I’ve now come to accept this, after all, it seems a little absurd to change my love life to meet his religious standards.

The truth? Living together will always be a quest to find the perfect middle ground, but I consider the freedom women enjoy here a vested right. A hard earned right I wouldn’t like to see changed.

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As professionals in the global mobility sector we know all about managing culture shock, helping our assignees adapt to new environments, and spend a lot of time considering matters such as cost of living allowances and hardship locations. But what about those who move halfway across the globe with no help whatsoever? The people who leave their homes behind for entirely different reasons than a (temporary) foreign assignment? Freelance journalist and millennial Deborah Seymus has a monthly column on living with a young refugee with Knack online and is republished here with their permission. We look forward to bringing you her column over the coming issues as we explore a brand new view on life in Belgium.

Just over six months ago I met Izat*. Izat fled Afghanistan at the age of 19. He and his family lived in the village of Tagab in the northeast of Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban control since 1995. War has been raging in the region since 2001, and with Tagab trapped between the Taliban militia on the one side and government soldiers on the other, his village is under constant fire. Going to school is not an option as schools ceased to exist some time ago and career opportunities for young men are limited to being recruited by either the Taliban or the army. Realising this, his parents concluded there was no future for him in Tagab. They saved up 10,000 dollars and with a heavy heart helped their son flee to Belgium.

“If it doesn’t happen today, it’ll happen tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, then surely another time.”

Time is precious. For most of us probably so much so that it takes up a large amount of our lives. Making and planning our time for all sorts of things such as work, appointments, social occasions, ourselves and our partners, can be quite frankly, exhausting. Like no other people, the Flemish are masters at explaining why we really can’t meet for at least another three weeks because, well, our diaries simply won’t allow it.

When Izat* arrived here he had no idea about the busy lives we lead. Our lives are controlled by time and finding yourself suddenly thrown into such a hectic rollercoaster is anything but self-evident. His biggest obstacle, to this day, is the concept of dividing and scheduling time. In Afghanistan there is no such thing as an agenda. You live from day to day, especially in the region where he’s from. What doesn’t happen today is for tomorrow, and if it’s not tomorrow then it will certainly happen another time. This also means he experiences time differently than we do. When Izat first arrived, he only knew the terms ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’. Imagine trying to adapt to our ridiculously hectic lives, full of tight schedules and double bookings.

“Our lives are controlled by managing time and making our schedules work.”

I came home one evening and told him that I was sleeping badly as my mattress needed replacing. He suggested buying a mattress tomorrow to which I replied that driving to IKEA next week suited me better. I might as well have said next month, because he didn’t understand. “What does next week mean, Deborah?” I tried explaining that next week is the week following after this one, but that the day itself needn’t be set yet. “So next week can be in four days, but also nine days?” He looked even more confused. I nodded and told him we Flemish people are a little weird with time. Unsurprisingly, he struggled with interpreting a ‘next week’ appointment for a long time.

In the early days I sent him two messages per appointment. One to confirm that he had an appointment and a second message as a reminder an hour or two before the appointment. I also made a weekly schedule and hung this on the fridge. This way he gradually started learning about the concept of having appointments and meeting them. And although Izat still isn’t quite ready yet for the kind of carefully planned lives we Belgians lead, he has come a long way these last six months. He understands what it means when I tell him that I am away next weekend, but even so, the social worker and I still send him a message the day before one of his appointments to be safe.

“Family responsibilities.”

Since two months Izat has a job. On weekends he works as a dishwasher in a local restaurant. Never has he been late, and he isn’t happy when they ring to cancel his shift. His motives are different than mine. Every hour he works is an hour he earns money. Part of the money he earns goes to his family in Afghanistan. Now that the Taliban have shot his father in the leg, he is no longer able to work. Izat feels responsible for his family and sends money each month. To put this into perspective: a newcomer can earn up to €240 per month on top of his integration income. Any more than that and his living wage is docked. Considering that this is just €910,52, there is little room left to save, and time is running out.

“The programme deals with what is right in front of us, but spends very little time on what will happen after it ends.”

Izat and I will live together for a year and a half. We’re now six months in. In October 2019 the project ends and he will be expected to have learned enough to live completely independently. It frightens me. He is progressing in leaps and bounds and was recently crowned top of his class, but even with the money he can(not) save right now, things are going to be very difficult.

The project focuses on the situation now and current issues (such as Izat’s unstable health), however very little time is spent on preparing the boys for what will happen once the programme ends. Key of course is helping them integrate into society as quickly as possible, but that’s a long process. Social workers have a very limited amount of time per client. Each social worker has to make priorities, and oftentimes this is a choice between head and heart. They are exceptionally aware of how difficult it is for newcomers to create a sustainable future.

When Izat first arrived in Brussels he was sent from pillar to post. For forty days he was dependent on a crisis centre where, if he was lucky and on time, he could eat and spend the night. Sometimes he couldn’t. Then he’d sleep in the Maximilliaan Park. “That was very cold, often I do not eat or sleep,” he tells me.

While we sit here talking on our settee, I look outside. I’ve just come back indoors after managing not even five minutes on our terrace. I try and imagine lying on a park bench in these temperatures, surrounded by people who only wish for the night and time to pass by faster. What must it be like to not know anyone? To be surrounded by strangers speaking a strange language? I brush away a tear. Sometimes I struggle to grasp what he has gone through just to get here.

“A pretty impressive workload if you ask me.”

From Monday to Friday Izat attends school fulltime. On top of this he follows a course on ‘social interaction’ on Tuesday evenings that aims to teach him how we communicate in Flanders. Topics such as how to cope with stress, how to manage time, habits and customs between men and women, and more are discussed here. And then he works on weekends. Depending on the restaurant’s need, one or two days. Which I consider a pretty impressive workload.

His parents have no idea what his life here is like, how much time he spends practicing the au-sound or the word ‘voraw’ (vrouw) or even that he is living together and spending time with a female who is not his wife. During those early months Izat spent a lot of time in his room, alone. Slowly he has started to get to know me and open up to me. Not an easy task for someone who has been through so much and has had his trust abused so regularly through the constant transfers and leaving behind of friends. The trust he places in me, the openness with which he speaks now and the moments he wants to spend together mean the world to me.

“Never ever have I experienced such respect and generosity.”

I’ve a fair amount of experience of living together with people. But I have never enjoyed the respect and generosity that I am given by this young man, in any kind of relationship. Recently he came home after a long weekend’s work with some money in his pocket. “For you,” he said “because I see you replace lamps and they expensive.” I was left speechless. Of course I couldn’t accept the money, but his offer said so much more. We’re a family now and we share expenses so I want to contribute was what he was really saying. Is there anything more heart warming to start the year with?

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So why place data and technology at the top of our trends list? Relocation is a people business and few (if any) of our members are likely to be looking into AI or data mining to grow their businesses anytime soon. But we think it’s important you understand the most influential disruptor of the decade that impacts absolutely everything, right down to our weekly food shop. So here goes.

DATA & TECHNOLOGY

1. Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and GDPR

Artificial intelligence is essentially the kind of task that, if humans performed it, we’d say they had to apply intelligence to execute the task. AI is not simply chatbots on a customer service helpdesk. It’s about machine learning and data analysis. Every query you make and every decision you take helps the system give a better, more personalised response as it learns to anticipate your requirements. And Waze telling you the best route in view of the current traffic situation or Facebook’s algorithm deciding which posts show up in your newsfeed, is just the start of it. No matter what you might principally believe about AI, chances are you are already relying on it.

Similarly, as a company, you possess data. There is personally identifiable data, or PPI (home address, dates of birth, work visas and more), and non-personally identifiable information (such as gender, age range or nationality). GDPR has changed the way we look at data from a business and personal perspective, and it’s a good thing. However, it’s the massive amounts of non-PPI data, also known as Big Data, that are currently driving marketing efforts around the globe as ROI becomes ever more measurable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the counterweight to all this machine driven activity is a powerful need for a more human connection, more on which later.

2. Smart Speakers and Long Tail Keywords

The never-ending quest to rank well in search engines continues as before but has now gained an additional facet with the rise of Alexa, Google Assistant and other AI powered devices (hello, machine learning). The very nature of online searches is changing drastically, with ComScore estimating that half of all search queries will be voice-based by 2020. Deloitte recently predicted the smart speaker will really breakthrough in 2019.  So what might this mean for your business?

Imagine you are considering moving halfway around the world on a foreign assignment. You’ve told your boss you’ll have to talk to your partner before coming back with a firm decision, and so whilst cooking dinner you ask Siri about international schools in the Brussels area or residential neighbourhoods in Waterloo. Siri will only give you a handful of answers, maybe even just one, instead of the 79.2 million that a Google web search will. To cater to this new technology you need to start including long tail keywords to bolster your online presence; highly specific multi-word phrases that answer the very specific questions someone might ask their smart speaker.

“I predict that storytelling will be one of the major differentiators between brands that get noticed and those that don’t. The market will continue to get noisier and brands that create human connections through the art of story will rise. This means that now more than ever, becoming a prolific writer and communicator is a key characteristic of effective marketers.” – Holly Tate, Vanderbloemen Search Group

STORYTELLING AND THE HUMAN TOUCH

3. Social Purpose, Authenticity and Brand Storytelling

We’ve spoken about the importance of purpose in previous issues of ReLocate and this continues to be the case in 2019. In fact, it is going to drive more decisions than ever before. No longer can we simply sell a service or a product, we have to lead with our business purpose to convince customers of our proposition.

“Social purpose is rising up the corporate agenda as consumers look for companies demonstrating (not just talking about) shared values. Watch out for brands taking Iceland’s orangutan lead and placing accountable leadership at the heart of their organisational strategies – and social media – to drive company value over the long-term,” says Sarah Hall of Sarah Hall Consulting.  Supermarket chain Delhaize lost a lot of credit in the public eye just a few weeks ago for plastic wrapping the plastic wrapping on a plastic toy giveaway a week after their pledge to minimise use of plastics.

Authenticity is key and as such your brand story should be the solid ground on which all your communications are built. The Stackla Report tells us that 86% of consumers feel authenticity is an important factor when deciding what brands to support.  This number is even higher among millennials. No matter how big or small your organisation, customers and employees alike are increasingly expecting your mission, vision and values to be more than just words. Driving your strategy, it is what you do and how you do it.

“Consumers used to accept that their favorite brands were neutral. “Don’t pick sides, and avoid topics and statements that alienate any audiences” were the common PR marching orders,” says Deirdre Breakenridge of Pure Performance Communications. “Today, there is a different set of consumer expectations. Businesses are required to have a voice and to take a stance for their customers on important topics. Maybe it is climate change, politics or other social issues? Social media and the citizen journalist have ignited brand purpose and social activism. There are businesses not only ready to join the conversation and be the voice, but that are also helping to create the change their customer wants to see.”

4. Influencer Marketing and Content Marketing

Advertisement fatigue is real and with 30% of all internet users expected to be using ad blockers by the end of the year, marketers are having to come up with creative new ways to reach target audiences. Sponsored articles (also known as native advertising) and user generated content are great ways of doing this. Their main strengths are that they entertain and inform audiences and – when done right – feel natural and authentic. GoPro for example almost solely relies on user generated content as a quick trip to their website will show you. Asking users to send in their best clips, they offer cash awards and promotions for the footage they use.

“In 2019, brands are going to find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain their audience’s attention on social media. The brands that develop creative content strategies that tap into themes that are culturally relevant (and topical) to their audiences, will win. People don’t go on social to see content about your brand, they don’t care about you or your brand. They want to be educated, entertained and inspired. The sooner you realise that and start creating content that fulfils those needs, the better.” states Dan Knowlton of KPS Digital Marketing

Similarly, influencer marketing is enjoying a meteoric rise. “For years we’ve been reviewing and rating products and services, which has paved the way for the rise of influencer marketing. Offering companies and brands a new way to survive, it looks like this trend is here to stay,” says Carol Lamarque of Duval Innovative Marketing. “People will always be receptive to recommendations by others. Think back to the last conversation you had with a friend about a new restaurant. If they enjoyed it, you’re highly likely to book there too. Social media have only strengthened this process as they offer committed influencers a great platform. You can’t underestimate the impact of a micro-influencer with a few hundred followers. Because they’re so small people see them as an individual, not a medium. It’s how they instil confidence.”

“Stories have redefined the way brands communicate on Instagram, and creative marketers are now learning to use this format to address each stage of the customer journey, from awareness to direct purchase. We’ll see even more investments in this channel in 2019.” – Todd Grossman, Talkwalker

5. Social Stories, Takeovers and Video Marketing

With 3.196 billion global social media users, equating to 42% market penetration (We are Social), social media’s significance to society cannot be ignored. Offering companies with limited resources access to powerful marketing tools, platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are adjusting their advertisement models to make marketing more effective for companies.
In this, video and social stories are leading the way. Done well, video marketing produces amazing results. According to HubSpot, simply adding a video to an email boosts click-through rate by a staggering 200-300 percent, and putting one on a landing page increases conversion rate by 80 percent. Forbes research supports this, reporting that 65% of executives visit the marketer’s website and 39% will call a vendor after viewing a video.

Thankfully, including video in your communication strategy doesn’t require a multimillion euro budget. Think about allowing team members to ‘take over’ your social media pages for a fresh new view. From interviews, demos and ‘behind the scenes’ glimpses of events, life in the office and more, thanks to smart phone technology, video is easily integrated. Use photographs and short video clips to create ‘stories’ on your newsfeed, and as they will only stay up for a limited amount of time, they serve to create a sense of excitement with followers. The more savvy marketers make use of the interactive options provided in stories such as ‘vote yes or no’, ‘click here to discover more’ and so on.

6. Personalised Content

If you want to stand out in 2019, you need to personalise your marketing – and that means personalised content, products, emails, and more. With the availability of data-like purchase history, consumer behaviour and links clicked, custom content has never been easier. In fact, Evergage reports that 96% of marketers believe that personalisation advances customer relationships. And it’s not just marketing that is driving this trend. Infosys found that 74% of customers feel frustrated when website content is not personalised. According to Forrester, 77% of consumers have chosen, recommended, or paid more for a brand that provides a personalised service or experience. And Digital Trends tells us that seventy-three percent of consumers prefer to do business with brands that use personal information to make their experiences more relevant. Time to start looking at your customer data then.

When done correctly, using personalised marketing in digital and print business-critical documents can help you effectively reach your customers and yield a high ROI. In addition to revenue opportunities, personalised document marketing can help create a better customer experience by delivering content unique to an individual’s specific needs. Businesses like Netflix and Amazon are already leveraging the power of personalisation. Logging on to your Netflix account, for example, immediately shows you the evidence of this: the banner, carousels, order, artwork, text and search are all personalised for you. As Kevin George, Head of Marketing at EmailMonks, puts it: “The future of e-mail is real-time, behaviour-based personalisation. A study by Marketo shows that personalised, triggered e-mails based on behaviour are 3x better than batch-and-blast e-mails.”

INTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS

7. Employee Engagement and Positive Experiences

From communicating with your target audience to communicating with your team, employee engagement is where all of the above comes together. Your corporate story is built on your strategy, which in turn is what brings your mission, vision and values to life. Your company culture needs to inspire and engage, as the business benefits of getting this right are impressive. Harvard Business Review reports that organisations that boast a clear and inspiring company culture can expect to achieve 20-30% better business results than their competitors. Michael Hartland wrote about the importance of delivering a positive employee experience in HR News last year, and we couldn’t agree more.

“An increased focus on building positive employee experience will be a core goal of internal communications plans. The benefits in improved customer experience and retention of top staff performers are undeniable. But while the value may be understood now, practical implementation has lagged behind. Nearly 80% of executives rate employee experience as important, but only 22% believe that their companies are building a genuinely different employee experience. In fact, employee engagement generally has been flat in recent years. One cause for this lies in our increasingly complex workplaces. Virtual teams, dispersed staff, technology, and multi-generations and cultures have all added to this complexity.”

8. One Tool to Rule Them All

This, in turn, segways into our final point quite nicely. We live and work in an increasingly mobile world. Over half of all internet usage is done on mobile, compared to just 31% three years ago. And although businesses have recognised the importance of a ‘mobile first’ mentality, the implications – and opportunities – for internal communications are both technical and physical. Witness the growing popularity of programmes such as OneNote, Google Docs and other cloud-based applications that facilitate team input and creativity.

Technological innovations have also opened the door for company apps as a new way to strengthen employee communication, engagement and loyalty. Allowing you to manage projects, assign tasks and keep other team members updated, free apps such as Slack, Trello and Asana offer a modern and convenient way of working within a team environment, irrespective of physical location. Holding the middle ground between a digital to-do list, a Whatsapp group and email, they go a long way towards keeping your mailbox free of clutter and help you pool information and resources within the team.

sources:
www.forbes.com
www.talkwalker.com
www.lanvera.com
www.towardsdatascience.com
www.thefastmode.com
www.hrnews.co.uk
www.thevisualcommunicationguy.com
www.singlegrain.com
www.gartner.com
www.forbes.com
www.gartner.com

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ReLocate spoke with professor Greg Clark, urbanist and Senior Fellow at the Urban Land Institute Europe, to find out more. He is a widely published author on city development and investment issues and advises a wide array of international organisations. In May 2016 he presented a new report analysing the competitiveness of Brussels and Antwerp. Where most analyses of a city’s competitiveness rely on economic performance, The Urban Land Institute report looks at a much wider range of issues. Ranging from liveability to geopolitical risk and sustainability, these are the things that influence a city’s attractiveness to residents and companies alike.

Brussels and Antwerp are very different in nature: how did you approach the comparison?
“We put together two benchmarking groups, ran workshops, visited the cities and conducted a ton of interviews before running this comparative analysis in which we measured Brussels and Antwerp against groups of peer cities to arrive at an assessment of their competitiveness,” explains Greg Clark. “We didn’t just look at economic performance, but at other issues that impact a city’s attractiveness to residents too. Matters such as liveability, governance, geopolitical risk and sustainability are just as important in urban life. Brussels was tested against well established capitals such as London and Paris, cities that provide tough competition. Antwerp on the other hand was held up against peer cities that are reinventing themselves – some of them port cities – like Hamburg and Amsterdam, and other (former) industry greats such as Manchester and Liverpool.”

Antwerp has a huge opportunity to build a central role for itself as part of a regional system of cities.

What are their main selling points?
“Both cities have very good fundamentals, and their own, unique attractions. Antwerp is compelling for its extraordinary DNA. It has always been one of the world’s greatest trading cities and has invented many ideas about the connection between trade, innovation and discovery. Antwerp knows how to build a city around a port. Located within a north-western European economy of roughly 100 million people with a huge GDP, it’s well connected with Belgian, Dutch, Northern French and German cities on all sides. Antwerp has a huge opportunity to build a central role for itself as part of a regional system of cities.”

“The Antwerp port is embracing innovation in terms of how goods are managed, how energy is used and what technology is applied. They’re building an innovative port and energy complex, with a big focus on the circular economy, which is important and fascinating. Of course, the city of Antwerp is synonymous with the craft and design of high-quality goods. From the diamond industry to its fashion sector, Antwerpians know how to make items of high value work in the market place. This mercantilist attitude means it is truly open for business.”

left: Antwerp right: Brussels

“Boasting a young and vibrant population that is committed to taking the city forward, Antwerp is further boosted by a government with big ambitions. From building a canopy over the ring road to creating more public spaces and developing the left bank, the city is redesigning its urban fabric to make a future-proof city. Smart citizen initiatives activate people to act as the eyes and ears of the city, giving feedback on the quality of bicycle lanes or roads and public facilities that might need maintenance. These distinctive edges of Antwerp amount to things that are quite exciting considering its small size. Thinking about the business opportunities that arise from disruption runs deep within the Antwerp DNA.”

Brussels’ youthful population and great cosmopolitan mixity give rise to a highly scientific, entrepreneurial labour force that is willing to work in all sorts of industries.

“Brussels on the other hand is distinctive in a completely different way,” Greg continues. “It is a major capital city, and as home to the various European institutions and NATO it has an influential presence on the global stage, although it is yet to leverage it to its full potential. It’s interesting when you compare Brussels with cities like Washington DC or Singapore, which play an influential role by hosting global institutions, international summits and other gatherings that really work for the city.”

“It has a youthful population and great cosmopolitan mixity giving rise to a highly scientific, entrepreneurial labour force that is willing to work in all sorts of industries. The high calibre of educational institutes in Brussels is somewhat obscured by the presence of international institutions such as the EU and NATO, but the educational cluster has enormous potential thanks to leadership in fields such as IT, life sciences, or medicine. Most obviously it has enormous potential to be a global school of government, public policy and management.”

“When you look at productivity progress in Brussels a lot of it is to do with the dynamism of the labour market and its liquidity. People want to spend time in Brussels, partly because of its influence, but then find they want to stay and do other things too. It’s important to remember that government institutions feed and support a huge cluster of other kinds of decision making and communication activities. There are very big, positive spill-overs and multipliers that you can leverage into other industries. If you thought a government town can only ever be a government town, you’d be wrong.”

All attractive qualities indeed, surely there must be some drawbacks?
“They also both suffer from a number of challenges,” agrees Greg. “Part of this is that they are located in Belgium, and, great as Belgium may be, it is not a country that enjoys a clear institutional framework. Both Brussels and Antwerp struggle to build their identity and present themselves in a way that cities in less confusing countries do not. Brussels has far greater assets than say Vienna or Zurich, yet these cities have fewer difficulties presenting and promoting themselves on an international stage. Similarly, whilst Antwerp has greater or equivalent assets to Liverpool, Lyon, Genoa, and Turin, it has difficulty articulating what it is, where it is, and why.”

“They’re also rather late to the urbanisation agenda compared to other European cities. Citizens in Brussels and Antwerp are highly dependent on their cars and prefer the suburbs to the city centre. The Belgians tend to sub optimise the use of land and real estate, which translates into low levels of densification and very few mixed-use development projects. It also means there has been very little focus on transport and connectivity as a way of embracing and spurring on urbanism. The third thing that seems to be true for both of them – although each city has a slightly different version of this – is that they have had some difficulty creating the right geographical and institutional space through which to apply leadership to the city.”

“Brussels Capital Region struggles due to the way it is defined; geographically it’s too small for the – much larger – Brussels metropolitan area and then of course there is the fragmentation of having 19 separate municipalities, which rather effectively prevents an integrated governance model. You need a leadership platform for the whole area, otherwise you end up with different policies being pursued in different parts of the region, which is not particularly helpful. For Antwerp it was more of a question of leadership appetite in the past, although I think this is now being addressed. The current leadership has the appetite to succeed and a vision for moving the city forward. It’s just been slow getting there.”

“The public sector almost has a monopoly on leadership control in Belgium. Other sectors, such as business, cultural and higher education, have not played active civic leadership roles like they do in other cities of comparable sizes. There’s been too much waiting around for city government to put things right, rather than civic leadership working hand in hand with city governments to create forward momentum. I suppose you could say both cities have become somewhat institutionalised. This is now being addressed in Antwerp where civil and trade movements are working together with the city towards creating a more sustainable future for the city.”

Both cities need to build a strong brand and identity. Getting together with organisations that will back the city and help create a new global story will help put them on the map.

How can Brussels and Antwerp improve on their competitiveness?
“We focused on three main areas for our recommendations on addressing these weaknesses,” Greg tells us. “First, Brussels and Antwerp need to start embracing urbanisation. This means being proactive in extending and developing public transport as a way of reducing car dependence. By strengthening the urban mix, you create excitement and vibrancy. Creating exciting city centres and sub centres, together with a more active transport mix, helps attract and retain corporate investment and the dynamic workforce needed by these companies.”

“Secondly, the institutional frameworks have to be right. This creates room for city leadership that is continuously thinking about their city as somewhere people will want to live and work, rather than getting stuck in Belgian politics. Thinking about public and private partnerships on a city level is a big part of this, just look at how Antwerp is involving its citizens in the maintenance of its city.”

“This in turn leads into our third point: the promotion of Brussels and Antwerp. Both cities need to build a strong brand and identity. Getting together an alliance of organisations that will back the city and help create a new global story will help put them on the map. This is certainly happening in Antwerp, and I believe efforts are underfoot in Brussels now too.”

“Finally, both cities have really creative industries which are part of the impact of the cosmopolitan diversity of the city. You should be able to really use that cosmopolitan diversity as a driver of creative endeavour. The idea isthat diversity creates competitive advantage through interaction. To realise that, you’ve got to address the challenges of social exclusion and segregation. Brussels has two cosmopolitan populations: one is the elite that services the global institutions, the other is the population of migrants who have come from a poorer set of countries in search of a better life. Somehow, you’ve got to make those two kinds of populations work together.”

To read the full report, visit the Urban Land Institute website:

Brussels and Antwerp: Pathways to a Competitive Future

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Deborah Seymus lives together with the 22 year old refugee Izat*, through the cohousing project CURANT which brings together young Belgians and refugees under a ‘buddy’ system. CURANT stands for Cohousing and case management for Unaccompanied young adult Refugees in ANTwerp.

Just under two months ago I met Izat*. Izat fled Afghanistan at the age of 19. He and his family lived in the village of Tagab in the northeast of Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban control since 1995. Izat speaks Pashto, one of the two official languages in Afghanistan. War has been raging in the region since 2001, and with Tagab trapped between the Taliban militia on the one side and government soldiers on the other, his village is under constant fire. Going to school is not an option as schools ceased to exist some time ago and career opportunities for young men are limited to being recruited by either the Taliban or the army. Realising this, his parents concluded there was no future for him in Tagab. They saved up 10,000 dollars and with a heavy heart helped their son flee to Belgium.

His route started in Afghanistan, going by way of Pakistan to continue through Iran to Turkey. A journey of about 5,000 km and a solid 1,000 hours walk. Because yes, he went on foot. “Sometimes I walked, sometimes I had to run,” he told me. “The trip was very long and I crossed many forests and mountains.”

From Turkey Izat took a rubber dinghy to Greece. You know the type; it’s used as a lifeboat by rescuers, although they wouldn’t dream of ferrying 36 people across the Aegean on one. He doesn’t tell me much about the boat journey. From here he continued his journey on foot, until he arrived at Fedasil in Brussels. Following a bone scan to prove his age, fingerprinting and the granting of subsidiary protection, Izat was granted asylum, only to be moved from one asylum centre to another as they tried to find a more permanent place for him to stay. He spent three and a half months in Brussels, four months in Dendermonde, two years in Kapellen and five months in Boechout.

After three years in Belgium his Dutch still isn’t quite what it should be, being limited to what he has picked up in the various asylum centres, but in September Izat was finally able to start Dutch lessons through adult education. He’s excited about going to school, and I am about being able to help with his homework.

A Purpose in Life

Looking back upon our first encounter, it was rather awkward. Arriving at our newly assigned apartment, we were received by someone from the Public Centre for Social Welfare, or OCMW, and someone from CURANT. Smiling broadly, they handed us a large sheet of paper with a lot of blank text balloons and instructions on what we needed to write in them.

I hadn’t even known Izat for five minutes and he was expected to share his dreams and favourite breakfast with me. It was all very surreal. I had to explain to him what the word breakfast meant and what on earth a purpose in life was. I quickly gathered he was feeling incredibly lost and put an end to the mandatory getting-to-know-you round.

The four of us went for a walk around our new neighbourhood and our two well-meaning civil servants enthusiastically explained how the two of us could “take walks around the sports field together”. Very touching for a social Flemish girl like me, but for Izat it was highly discomfiting.

A Roof over your Head

Following our walk the ladies took their leave and Izat climbed on his bike to visit his friends in Boechout. Was I concerned Izat had doubts about living with me? Of course, but CURANT had impressed upon me the importance of being patient and having a little faith, especially in the beginning.

A few days later we found ourselves sitting at our kitchen table, where Lydia* of the OCMW handed us our tenancy contract. After writing our signatures in the appropriate boxes, Izat stood up and carefully walked around the apartment. I heard water running in the bathroom and went to have a look. He was trying out all the taps. He then walked around the living room and started tapping on the walls. His conclusion? We had a solid apartment. That’s when I realized how big of a shock it must be for him to be here.

Houses of stone and cement with double glazing, running water, a full and working fridge, a separate shower and bath, and a woman with an abundance of clothes who orders her furniture online. He’s never even heard of the latter. Izat assumes that you go to the shop and buy things there, online delivery simply does not exist for him.

Following his inspection, he looked around the apartment with satisfaction. Sitting back down at the table he smiled so sweetly that it almost brought tears to my eyes. I saw a little boy in the body of a growing man. Lydia made it clear that he should count himself lucky to be living with me. Izat gave a small smile, submissive in his response. I know Lydia meant well, but I found it painful. Why should he be grateful to be living with me? Isn’t it true that he lets himself live with a woman, going against everything his faith tells him? According to the Quran, a man and woman can only live together when they are married or blood relatives. Regardless of what you and I believe, that is his conviction and he is putting it aside just to have a roof over his head.

Running Water

Izat receives 892,70 euro per month. Of that amount, 330 euro goes to rent and utilities in the apartment, 50 euro to the payment of the deposit and 50 euro to the repayment of the fire insurance, which the OCMW paid for us. The rest is meant to pay for health insurance, food, telephone bills and other expenses. Instead Izat sends money to his family in Afghanistan. Izat’s father was shot in his leg last month and can no longer work. The only breadwinner in the family has fallen by the wayside.

31.82 million people currently live in Afghanistan and 68 percent of them do not have access to clean or running water. The most basic of utilities for us, a privilege for the people of Afghanistan. When I first started living with Izat, I thought he would consider my Macbook or iPhone luxuries. The truth is that he hasn’t once taken a look at them. It’s the things we take for granted that he considers to be the most important.

A little later Lydia leaves and I find Izat moping around the kitchen looking shy. Suddenly he whips out his phone to show me a photograph. Seven smiling boys of around seventeen look back at me. “Some dead, some still live,” he says. I’m not sure how to respond and stare ahead for a moment. “How?” I ask him softly. “Taliban and police shot. That’s why my friends dead.”

I try to imagine this and try taking a mental picture of a situation where I am laughing with my friends. Carefree. Those seventeen year old boys were hardly carefree but they were able to laugh together. I shake my head and say, “Sorry, I no understand.”

Izat* and Lydia* are not their real names.

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