Lode Draelants, director of the International Committee from Belgium
EDNO In the section about you on the web-site of your organization says: “We want to empower immigrants organizations by stimulating their independence.” Can you tell me how do you achieve this? Can you please give examples? Do you help them to find a job, for instance?
Well, imagine you were born in a farmers family in Sudan. At the age of thirty you flee your country with your wife and children, because of the continuing civil war and the violence of the government in Khartoum on it’s own population. After a traumatic journey you arrive in Belgium, straight into hectic postmodern society. You don’t know your way around, you don’t speak the language, you don’t know anybody, even the alphabet is different. In the first years in Belgium you meet other Sudanese fugitives. After a while you try to meet on a regular basis. It is so much easier to learn from each other and it feels good being able to talk to people who really understand what you are talking about. The group grows to around fifty people and this poses practical difficulties as “where to meet?” or “What can this group mean for the community?” or “How can we help our kids do better at school”. As a leader of community you are being confronted with these and other questions. A lot is expected from you but you don’t really know how to deal with all this. You want to do something for your community, but you don’t know how…
International committee supports similar “self organizations” of ethnic minorities in Flanders and Brussels, Belgium. As a social -cultural organization, we support about 250 member organizations, which are all very different from one another. These communities have a different nationality, ethnicity, culture and language. Some of them cope well in their new life, others are struggling. Some have had good schooling, others are illiterate, etc. The support that we offer is often “custom -made” to the needs and questions of those member organizations, as those needs are different too. We try to work with and empower the leaders of community. We build long term relationships with individual leaders and communities, who often lack basic tools to be successful in society. While some of them just need a little help to find a place to meet or to organize a gathering, others need help in more fundamental things as education, finding a (good) job, healthcare, etc. But our most important goal is to make these volunteers and communities more self -dependent! They need to be able to help themselves in the end.
Part of our work is also to help bridge and bond with mainstream society, but also between communities of immigrants. We are strongly convinced that a solid bond with society provides better chances than living in different “islands”. Networking is something we learned to be very good at.
EDNO How does the Belgian society accept immigrants?
From the fifties to the seventies most Western -European countries actively encouraged people to move to our part of the world, as there was a huge demand for workers in the booming industry. The first immigrants came from southern Europe, like Italians, Portuguese, Greeks and Spanish. Later on the Belgian government invited large groups of people from countries as Turkey and Morocco. At first these people were well received as “guest -workers”. In the eighties public opinion started to turn, as unemployment rates soared after several economical crises. People started to look at immigrants in a more negative way as it became clear that they were here to stay. Extreme right wing political parties added to these negative thoughts. Today public opinion is divided, but we notice a general movement towards less openness and more intolerance. Discrimination towards immigrants, even towards refugees, is becoming almost normal, especially Muslim communities are being seen as unable or unwilling to integrate into society and as in many places in the world after the airplane attacks on 9/11 even associated with a clash of cultures/religions.
The system of education in Flanders is being considered to one of the best in the world, but we also are record -holder of the biggest gap in education between immigrants and native Flemish. This translates into “changelessness” on the labor market, a high risk of structural poverty, bigger health issues, etc.
EDNO The International Committee is one of 14 nationwide federations of immigrants organizations. Where are the other organizations based?
Well, this might sound strange but all of these organizations (federations) are located in the north part of the country, in Flanders. This has to do with the support we get from the Flemish government (the French part of the country does not have this tradition). We work together, often in the same cities and regions, as we have different target groups. International Committee (IC) is the biggest “federation” in Flanders, but is also different in other ways. As most of the other federations originally were founded around one ethnicity, nationality or even religion, IC has always been multi -ethnic. We’ve always been open to all cultures, languages and religions. Also IC is embedded in the “Christian Workers Union”, one of the biggest and powerful civil -society organizations of Belgium, which makes our voice much more heard.
In this job 1+1 becomes 3
EDNO Why do you work what you work?
I was originally schooled as a social assistant. I’ve always been fascinated by group dynamics. In a group of people, 1 + 1 becomes 3. The trick in this job is to use these dynamics and turn it into a positive force where people help others to do better in society, step by step. Most of the staff and volunteers are very dedicated to the work we do. It is great to work in such an atmosphere.
I also am convinced that the way we are able to cope with immigration will determine our future as a society. If we are not able to structurally embed the “new Belgians” in our society (in good education, work, policy making …), this will become an unsustainable burden on our social system. On the other hand, immigrants can also become the rescue of that same social system, in a country where the population is rapidly aging. Just to give you an idea: government agencies predict that in the next ten years, about 500.000 jobs will become vacant in Belgium, just because of retirement. One problem: most of these jobs require highly educated and skilled workers…
EDNO What is the biggest obstacle you are experiencing during your work, if there is one?
We face several challenges on operational level. IC is in its current form a relatively “young” organization as we grew very rapidly in the last five years, from 70 member groups in 2006 to 250 today. We tripled our staff to eighteen and extended our work to the other provinces in the country. All this is of course a good thing, but it also gave us “growing pains” that we still try to cope with (f.i. in communication, administration …).
Besides this, we often struggle with prejudice towards immigrants and other cultures in general.
EDNO Can you tell me more statistics about your organizations work – the number of immigrants you work with on annual base, for how long the organization exist, from which countries the immigrants come from etc. Do you cooperate with the Belgian authorities and how?
IC was founded by volunteers in 1984 in the mining -towns in the east of Flanders. Today we have about 250 member organizations, each with in between 10 and 200 members! In total we work with an estimated 1.000 local volunteers and about 10.000 immigrants! And we are still growing steadily.
The Flemish government subsidizes non-partisan, civil organizations like IC. The work we do is being considered by policy makers as important for the build -up of a democratic society, where citizens and civil organizations play an active role. When these “midfield” organizations are strong enough, they can be a counterweight that balances out the inequalities in society. We often work together with local or regional governments to empower people.