My name is Eliah Peeters and after studying abroad in Finland with AFS (2010-2011) I became a volunteer with the local chapter of North Antwerp in Belgium. Now, after a few years of volunteering, my chapter decided to start our own project to welcome refugees and asylum seekers into our region. For this we reached out to Fedasil (the Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers), which has one of its reception centers in the nearby town of Kapellen.
For me, supporting refugees felt as a natural step that perfectly matched with everything the AFS volunteering experience stands for: preparing youth for their intercultural experiences on the one hand, and welcoming international students to Flanders on the other. As our society has recently encountered the influx of newcomers from the Middle East, a region I didn’t know much about before, I thought: “Let’s do this, learn something and welcome these people too!”
The goal of our project was to learn about the challenges of displaced people in Europe, and use a “buddy system” to integrate refugees in our communities. Fedasil took care of pairing volunteers with the refugees who expressed interest in learning about Flemish culture through social contacts with local buddies. I was matched to Khalil and felt so excited about our first meeting in the Fedasil center. I particularly remember his smile and enthusiasm when we first met. He was so happy to see me!
Khalil comes from Afghanistan and has been in Flanders more than two years now. He is really motivated to learn Dutch, the main language in Flanders, even though attending language lessons is sometimes a challenge. I knew I had to communicate in simple and clear terms, and I learned that I should always check with Khalil if he understood what I was saying in order to avoid misunderstandings. We would meet at home, in Antwerp city, go for a coffee or just exchange messages by phone just to know what the other one was up to.
Our favorite way to communicate is via voice messages – it’s fun and has helped Khalil start relying on me. Sometimes, we just chat and exchange messages, and sometimes I provide more support to him, like when I helped him in his search for an apartment.
The most memorable meeting was probably the Christmas dinner we prepared at my place with Brit and Jawad, two other buddies who are taking part in this project. Brit and I prepared our typical Belgian tomato soup with meat balls, but also tried to cook an Afghan dish and… Jawad and Khalil approved it! They were proud of our achievement, but also enjoyed fries with steak and mushrooms.
Every now and then Khalil and I still come together with Brit and Jawad, particularly for celebrations like birthday parties, or just to play family games and hang out. Being a buddy does not get in the way of my other activities, and I think every person with an open-mind and a bit of spare time can become a buddy!