Rixensart, Belgium. Who had ever heard of Rixensart, Belgium, let alone Fédasil centers? I certainly hadn’t before discovering that I could spend my first Winter Term—January 2008—at one of these centers, one of many peppered across Belgium to aid those seeking political asylum in the country that houses the capital city of the European Union.
Excited by the prospect of using my French-language skills to help, I applied and was accepted along with five other students into the project. Emma Dorst ’10, who had spent a year working at the same center before coming to Oberlin, led the group. I quickly became very close to the other students despite my initial hesitations, and was able to hear the stories of people from all over the world. Some were shocking, others were horrifying; each resident at the center had a unique experience, and many were looking for someone to share it with.
The center housed 130 residents and was at full capacity while we were there for the month of January. There were many large families but also people who had come to Belgium alone; many of the people came from Eastern Europe, Africa, or the Middle East. Some had spent years or months living in the center, but all were hopeful to be living in Belgium soon. At the center I met people from all over the world, many who had suffered greatly to get there, and yet were still optimistic and, in the case of the families, happy to hold on to each other.
Not all of it was pleasant, however. There were moments when we felt very uncomfortable; living together in one room was often trying and there were times when we felt as if we were not doing as much as we could. Some of these discomforts came from differences in culture, but regardless, the experience resonated strongly with all of us. As cultural and linguistic barriers melted away, each one of us was able to make valuable friendships with the staff and residents of this center that had opened its arms to us and welcomed any new insights we may have had to offer.
In January 2009, I led a new group of Oberlin students to the center to work with children and help out in any way possible. The new group had a different dynamic and dealt with new challenges, but we still gained so much from the experience. We were all so grateful for the chance to bring a smile, even a very brief one, to these people who had often endured terrible experiences to make it to Belgium, and would happily go back in a heartbeat.