by Gionna Pembroke ’20
The journey toward the realization of a life goal of mine began with irritation, sleep deprivation, and lots of stress-sweating.
I was at Philadelphia International Airport, trying to board my connecting flight to Madrid, Spain, from which point I’d take my final flight to Brussels, Belgium. Once there, I was going to study at Howest University in Bruges — without another American, let alone accompanied by another student from Chestnut Hill College. I was going so I could study the English-taught semester on “Migration and Refugees,” with a focus on social work, during a time when my country was (and is) divided on who deserves to live as a legal U.S. resident and what it means to be an American. I’d taken only one flight before and that was to go to Disney World when I was a kid. I’d never been outside the country before, though. I hadn’t lived on my own, either. That I didn’t mind so much. I was excited to be completely immersed in Belgian culture, with only my phone to tether me to the U.S., and I was eager for adventure and to become a better version of myself, unfettered by internal pressures to remain the same.
After I finally landed at Brussels Airport, I lugged my baggage to the exit and was greeted by my Belgian buddy, Axelle, who was holding a sign with my name on it, like in the movies. Axelle had been assigned as my student contact by the university. She had not, however, been obligated by any means to pick me up at the airport; I was just incredibly lucky to have been assigned such a sweet and compassionate person who would do that for a total stranger on her own volition. She helped me with my bags and joined me for the hour-and-a-half train ride from Brussels to Bruges, and afterward she not only took me all the way home, she even drove me to the store to buy food, toiletries, and bedding.
Soon after my arrival in Flanders, I started saying Flemish words and phrases, such as “ja” (“yes”); “nee” (“no”); “excuseer” (“excuse me”); and “een beetje” (“a little”). And I said words like “pardon” and “sorry” in the Flemish accent on a regular basis. I even picked up the British manner of speaking that other international students used, such as calling the restroom the “toilet,” my roommates “flatmates,” or pants “trousers.” I soak up lingos like a sponge.
In Brussels, I visited both the VII International Congress on Migration and Mental Health and the European Parliament. In Oostende, my class and I spoke intimately with the chief of police about the relationship between law enforcement and migrants and refugees and the former’s policies toward the latter. In Antwerp, we visited the Red Star Line Museum, which illustrates European migration, primarily to the U.S. but also elsewhere in the world, via the Red Star Line ocean passenger line. In Kortrijk, we visited what’s called an “open school,” which teaches adult migrants Dutch. Then, in Zeebrugge, we met a priest that harbors, feeds, and clothes undocumented migrants even though he is constantly confronted by police and threatened with police raids.
Many guest lecturers from various professions came to our classroom in Bruges to tell us about their careers, all of which related to migration and refugees. The director of the situational awareness and monitoring division from Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, explained how Frontex guards the European border and manages undocumented migrants who attempt to enter Europe illegally. A psychologist from the organization Solentra, who worked in the psychiatric ward of the children’s section of a Brussels hospital, spoke to us about migration and trauma as they relate to unaccompanied minors. A man who practiced music therapy for migrant children taught us how he used music to temporarily free the children from the stress, anguish, and confusion they might feel because of their status as migrants and refugees. A representative from the Agency for Educational Services in Flanders described migrant children’s right to education, which is the same right for all youth in Flanders.
Outside the classroom, but still in Bruges, we participated in “De Langste Tafel,” which is Dutch for “The Longest Table,” a massive annual potluck held in Stationsplein that is cooked and prepared by the participants themselves, who then sit down at a very long table and break bread with strangers. I made risengrød, which is Scandinavian rice porridge. I was told the event was created to combat loneliness in Bruges, as two unrelated elderly persons had passed away within days of each other without anyone knowing about their deaths until their corpses started to emit a foul stench. De Langste Tafel encourages inhabitants of Flanders to recognize that we all can relate to one another as people, regardless of age, background, nationality, or language.
As part of the program, I also had to complete a volunteer internship at OCMW Brugge, a social services agency that provides food, shelter, and refugee status applications to asylum seekers. The observational portion included shadowing a social assistant as she helped clients with issues such as transportation, bedding, filling out asylum applications, and scheduling appointments with the Immigration Department (DVZ). Interestingly, they spoke mostly in English to one another; it was an indescribable feeling to observe my mother tongue, which I often take for granted, being used as the lingua franca. I also participated in and facilitated a refugee walk, which simulated the journey of refugees from OCMW Brugge to local reception initiatives, or from temporary housing to the DVZ, where I was fingerprinted and asked questions about my birthplace, my age, and my marital status in Arabic by the refugees themselves, who played the stern immigration agents.
I spent time with refugees and talked to them about their home countries, such as Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They told me how they felt about the American presence and activity in their respective countries. I inquired about how they would have wanted the U.S. to be involved in their countries, or if the U.S. should be involved at all. Of course, we are individuals before we are any label, and most of the time we spent together involved laughing, joking, and teasing one another rather than talking about how we felt about current and past events.
OCMW Brugge opened a pop-up Syrian restaurant, which was designed to bring people together over delicious meals and bridge the divide between the Flemish inhabitants and the asylum seekers. There, I was taught how to make Middle Eastern dishes, such as kibbeh, fataya, falafel, shawarma, and tabbouleh, by the lovely Dia from Syria. Mostly Arabic and Dutch were spoken in the kitchen; Dia did speak a little English, but she knew Dutch much better, so I relied on the little Dutch I knew and mimicked her hand motions as she chopped, rolled, pressed, and stuffed to figure out what she wanted me to do.
It was a good experience for me to be taught how to prepare foods and learn recipes in a language I could barely understand. I have the privilege of living and working in a country in which my first language is spoken by the majority. I felt humbled by the disconcerting and belittling feeling of not being able to communicate or express myself in my own language. I developed newfound respect and admiration for migrants who come to the U.S. with little to no English skills, yet somehow manage to survive.
All the Howest international students took the “Introduction to Belgium” course, and we often hung out together around the city. I got a lot of joking remarks such as “America First” when I passed a classmate on my bike, or “Miss America” when my flatmate was trying to get my attention or greet me. One of the funniest moments was when the teacher asked in class one day, “How can you tell if someone is happy?” My British classmate Alejandro responded, “How many times someone laughs.” The teacher seemed confused, and Alejandro repeated his answer. Still, the teacher didn’t seem to understand, so I said, “He’s saying ‘laugh.’” The teacher exclaimed, “Oh, ‘laugh!’” Alejandro was indignant: “What, do I have to say it in an American accent?” That memory comes to the forefront of my mind when I think of instances of Americanization overseas: The teacher understood my American accent, but not the English accent of a guy from England speaking English.
In Belgium, I realized what I really want out of life. I want to be the friend that invites you to come over and share a meal. I want to be the friend that sits down with you late at night while we drink tea and discuss the Bible; and when we talk about God and evil and goodness, and I question you on some inconsistencies I notice, I want to respect your sincerity, vulnerability, and honesty in your faith and in your responses. I want to stay out late at night and drink hot chocolate at a bar with my friends while we talk about our lives and what we want from life. I want to have international Thanksgivings where we go around the table proclaiming what we are thankful for and how grateful we are to have met one another, all while eating turkey, stuffing, curry, and speculoos. I want to be a person that is easy to approach, easy to talk to, quick to pick up certain words from different languages, and open to the unique ways of living that the people I encounter demonstrate. I want to be the person that can spontaneously decide, and afford, to visit other parts of my city, my state, my country, and the world.
I had the time of my life in Belgium. I had never felt more fulfilled or certain of myself than when I was there, and I had so many experiences that I never had the chance to have at home. I miss the person I was in Belgium, too. I miss my flatmates and my friends, and I miss speaking Flemish, biking to and from the grocery store, and listening to my peers speak in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Netherlands Dutch, Flemish Dutch, and Mandarin. I miss trying to figure out what they were saying based on context clues, body language, and words that sounded like a word I knew in Spanish, Russian, or English. The truth is that I feel most at home in a multicultural space because it fulfills insatiable yearnings: my endless curiosity about the world and the people who live inside it, and my desire to find a better way of living.