Flatsharing with a Refugee

our first encounter was awkward

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? ReLocate spoke with freelance journalist and millennial Deborah Seymus, whose monthly column on living with a young refugee is published by Knack online and 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.

Sometimes I walked, sometimes I had to run. The trip was very long and I crossed many forests and mountains.

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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