The journey from being a refugee to becoming a volunteer in Brussels
Natalie Kontoulis is the Advocacy officer of End Female Genital Mutilation, a European Network based in Brussels. Female Genital Mutilation is a practice that can affect certain asylum seekers communities in Europe, so they were organising a conference aimed at the refugee population. A friend of Natalie told her about the Tandem Project, an initiative that matches NGOs with refugees, who want to volunteer for a two-week period. Tandem matched Natalie with Hadi, who had registered a few days before. The legal background and refugee experience of Hadi proved very helpful in the organisation of the conference. For Hadi, even if the two weeks felt “too short”, it was a valuable experience; as he puts it “I had the opportunity to take a look into how a European office works and how they organise meetings”.
Hadi is now 26 years old and lives in the Belgium capital with his father. He has refugee status and a residence permit for five years in Belgium. “When you escape from war you will take any hand that is given to you; they destroyed everything at my home” he remembers. Hadi is following French courses and plans to end his Law studies in Belgium, “I hope to graduate, became a lawyer and start a new live” he states confidently.
Helping refugees and asylum seekers start a new live in Brussels is the aim of the Tandem initiative, launched in June 2016, on the World Refugee day. Since then, 36 host organisations have registered and 34 refugees have volunteered in this initiative organised by staff of European NGO’s.
Host organisations provide a daily allowance of 25 euros per day and insurance. Tandem collaborates with the Flemish Agency for Volunteering in Brussels to ensure all legal issues are clarified and that the volunteering cannot be done for commercial businesses or private individuals.
Usually the interview to achieve the status of refugee lasts four hours. For Wali Ahmad Yar 15 minutes were enough. The 23 years old Afghan journalist had published a report exposing corruption in the Afghan government. “I had never thought of fleeing Afghanistan, but once I published the report, things were controversial with the government and the Taliban and I had to flee”. He got a visa and left his city, Ghaznī, for Brussels, where he arrived in 2015.
Two years later, now age 25, he is finishing a Master course in Political Science at the University Libre de Bruxelles and doing the two-weeks volunteer experience through Tandem in the Centre for European Policy Studies. The Research Fellow of CEPS, Nadzeya Laurentsyeva, decided to take part in Tandem because they were making an evaluation of an NGO in Munich that helps to match asylum seekers with possible employers. The role of Wali has been very “helpful interviewing people from Afghanistan and Pakistan in their native language by phone to fill in the survey”.
The young Afghan is regularly in contact with other refugees, not only in Belgium but also in other EU countries, “we are always talking about our problems, so this could be really helpful for my work here” declares Wali. For him, Tandem has been key in helping him “find a way into international institutions”, because he had no contacts and all his application for internships had been rejected.
Nadzeya outlines that “the goal of Tandem is to let people meet and that it is not so difficult to employ a refugee”. In fact, the insights have proved so valuable, that she is confident that “there might be an opportunity for Wali to stay longer as an intern, it seems possible”.