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A Stranger in my Father’s House

May we presume that Christmas will open wide our hearts for migrants, refugees, TNT’s (Tagalog slang for “constantly hiding”) and victims of human trade? In my experience one is often obliged to become assertive, defensive, and almost apologetic on the matter.

Introduction

May we presume that Christmas will open wide our hearts for migrants, refugees, TNT’s (Tagalog slang for “constantly hiding”) and victims of human trade?  In my experience one is often obliged to become assertive, defensive, and almost apologetic on the matter.

 

This time I could write, covered by the exceptional theme of Mt. 25:35, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me in your home,” and the worldwide prayer intention of the month: “That migrants may be received benevolently, above all by the Christian communities.” What a relief that I could share about my experiences from an “a priori” positive point of view.  I presume that the same focus will be acceptable to my co-sisters-readers of LINKS. After all, the Filipino Christian communities themselves are sending more than a million migrant workers abroad, and ICM-Philippines is sending its “daughters” to the nations!

 

Background

This may not suffice to justify my personal choice of ministry today.  It seems so very long ago that I left for “the Pearl of the Orient” as a 27 year-old religious missionary, to lose my heart to the young ones and their parents in the context of the educational apostolate.  Thirty years later, after due reflection, I turned the boat and returned home.

 

My profound experience of “being a stranger in my Father’s House” (B. Joinet), inspired my second missionary call to the marginal strangers in our thriving nation, particularly in the capital of Brussels and of the E.U.  

 

This happened 14 years ago.  As a multi-cultural and multi-religious experience, my second call to mission towers over the original one. Even if there are more than 5 million Muslims in the Philippine Archipelago, our ways never crossed.

 

Meeting

Two parish priests in Brussels showed me the way to my target group, but my apostolate is within pluralistic, secularized organisations, where faith and Church are not talked about. It was a remarkable confrontation for one who has known the time of “Flanders sending sons and daughters to the world.”  In 1968, I was one of the +8000…

 

A few years before my return in 1998, MEETING started as a place of meeting and encounter for refugees and asylum seekers nearby a big federal open centre, where 650 to 800 asylum seekers can be sheltered. Volunteer workers at Meeting were mainly missionaries. 

 

We were then flooded by refugees from Sierra Leone, Africa.  Some had been child soldiers, sometimes forced to kill their own relatives. We guided them through the asylum procedure, after due formation on the matter, and listened to their stories of escape, while serving coffee, tea and biscuits. Then it was relatively easy to become their “first Belgian friends”.  

 

In 1999 the government organised the first regularisation campaign to solve the problem of thousands of “TNT’s”, undocumented migrants, who had escaped from the regular procedures.  Suddenly we became pseudo-lawyers. We still remained a place of encounter, with time for conversations about their difficulties to find a fitting wife here, to educate their children in a totally different society, to be confronted with complex conflicts between two language communities (“How can one fall over two languages only ?!”) and with a society that ignored God.  From their stories one could distill how Europe itself has contributed to the myth of superabundance, that drove them here …

 

Illegal Persons

When the second regularisation campaign in 2009 was announced, we had already narrowed down our target group to the “undocumented” only. Nobody saw any longer a future for them here, and no organisation received financial support for them anymore.  Yet, it was our conviction that undocumented persons have basic rights also as human beings. There are no “illegal” persons.  

 

If one holds on to “illegal” persons, then one must consequently recognize that even Jesus was an “illegal” child from an “unknown” father; that Abraham, the father of our faith as we learned, was not a refugee but a rich adventurer looking for greener pastures; that Moses who led the Exodus, was foremost a criminal with murder on his conscience.  Our Christian story of faith is not “clean” at all! 

 

Throughout the First Testament, Yahweh’s words rang: “Never forget that you were strangers yourselves in Egypt. You must therefore protect and love the strangers in your midst.”  Jesus identified himself with each stranger one welcomes in one’s midst.  Truly, this one is the most challenging mission of my life.

 

In Meeting, over the years, I saw young persons arriving, full of energy and hope to build a new life, and to ultimately contribute to a society that holds high democracy, equality, justice and human rights, so totally different from the corrupted nations they fled.  Now several of them are physical and/or psychic wrecks, who cannot even count on regularisation for medical reasons.

 

Hopelessness, fear, aggression are constantly in single combat with hope against all hope, with stubborn faith in God’s will for them … 

 

New Challenges

We also try to introduce structural changes and new policies as a network of organisations, through advocacy, lobby work, campaigns.  Yet, to sit WITH THEM, like Job “in the shit,” gives courage to their enduring waiting.  In the hour of agony, Jesus asked his friends: “Are you not able to watch even one hour with me?” (Mt 26:40)

 

At times I too lose perspective and hope, and pray for our lawmakers, who must decide and act. For a number of these “drowned” persons, the recent “supported-return-home-trajectory” of the government seems the only outcome.  To guide them through it in a human way is our latest challenge.

 

PAG-ASA

A totally different story – or not? – is that of the victims of international human trade, who are accompanied and sometimes sheltered by PAG-ASA.  PAG-ASA is one of three specialized, subsidized centres in Belgium. 

 

Victims who are ready to cooperate with the government, and indirectly also with the E.U. directives and agreements to help uncover the networks of sexual and economic exploitation and of human trafficking must break with the environment and denounce the exploiters. Those who have no place to go or who are in danger can be sheltered in a place with a confidential address, yet remaining an open house. Like other victims, they receive juridical, administrative and psycho-social assistance.

 

It is 14 years now that I am a volunteer worker at the shelter as a day time presence. There is also a night shift sleeping in, who is always ready to act on emergencies or a new take-in.  The office and shelter house Pag-Asa has been growing and renovating over the years.  I started with the false assumption that one day these instances would become “superfluous.”

 

The first victims, Filipinos, were welcomed in 1995, and they contributed to the name giving and logo of the organisation. It is our aspiration to give HOPE for the future and to secure a new take-off, like the mighty Filipino eagle does!

 

International Multi-cultural Living

This international, ever changing group of individuals, who have not chosen for each other, composed of men and women of different ages (18-70), with or without children, is a story in itself.  This group is multi-cultural and multi-religious. Its members come and go.  They can stay for a minimum for 3 months, but this can be prolonged to one year or more, according to the needs of the person and the flow of the judicial procedure. Recognition as a “victim of human trade or traffic” could lead to a staying permit in Belgium.

 

Each is traumatized by a personal escape and/or exploitation situation, either in the prostitution or in the economic market of construction, renovation, textile, agriculture, hotel and catering; in sports or as house slaves of diplomats and rich families and as au pairs. There are also victims of mendicancy who are brought by policemen, prosecutors, social workers, labor inspectors, etc.

 

Right now we have three Slovakian men (71, 60 and 35 years old) on a wheelchair: the youngest with paralyzed legs, due to an accident; the elderly ones without legs, due to loss of job, shelter, proper health care during extremely cold winters. They are brought to “compassionate Western Europe” only to discover here that they are put to beg, and the profits go to a chain of Mafiosi fellow-countrymen.

 

In fact, most of the victims are exploited by compatriots, who make a (big) living here. Once in a blue moon Belgians are involved. Like in Meeting, we notice different migration waves from all continents.

 

We learn to live as an organisation and as individuals, with the many Muslims from Africa and Asia; with Orthodox, Protestant and Coptic Christians; with Sikhs, Buddhists, Confucians and victims under the cast of voodoo.

 

Living Together

One who is preoccupied with the organisation and logistics of a shelter house with 17 individual rooms, has lots of worries and headaches about the living together of all those cultures and religious.

 

Religious and devotional practices, rituals at different moments of the day and the year, can cause considerable tensions within the group and within my neatly planned schemes.  Without adequate communication in this tower of Babel, things can get out of control. Truly, the wonder of Pentecost is a daily need! 

 

For the most part the kitchen, the supply room and the shared supper are the territory of conflicts and racist explosions. Is there anything more sensitive than eating habits, religious convictions and traditions, within cultures that hardly have been touched yet by the virus of Western secularisation?

 

I too can get irritated by disturbance of the house rules, due to the Ramadan of the Muslims, or the strict veganism of the Sikhs, who will not even touch the dish water, polluted by the gravy of others – just to mention this one only.

 

The Hindus do not eat cow’s meat; the Muslims pork; the Sikhs no meat at all, nor fish and eggs. And always the same question, even for small Maggi cubes: “Is this halal (ritually slaughtered)?” To make food orders and to cook for such a diverse company, is a big “missionary” challenge.  Regularly I must call myself to order by remembering: “In the Catholic Church we held on for ages to fish on Friday, complete abstinence before H. Communion, etc.”

 Simonne

Conclusion

In these pluralistic, secular organisations, I ask for attention to the faith life of the clients. Contact with their own or a similar community of faith, as link with their home and past, is of vital importance, and usually possible within our metropolis.  To them, the religious indifference of our society is a constant source of amazement and questioning.

 

Being unmarried, childless and fully engaged at this “venerable age” – which reminds them of their own grandmothers – is another source of wonder and disbelief. At 5:30 AM I am present to replace the night shift and I leave them 12 hours later, till the next day.

 

In turn, I am generally edified by their respect and tolerance for each other’s convictions, traditions; by their obligingness toward the elderly, their sense of service to one another, their ability to build friendships, that carry them through heavy, hopeless days and that may last after they have left Pag-Asa for their own lodging; by the dignity with which some carry their pain and loneliness. No, they are not angels or saints, but they deserve our “sheltering” as a bridge to new life.

 

How I wish I could say with St. Peter to every migrant: “Silver or gold I do not have, but in the name of Jesus Christ I ask: Get up and live happily in this land”! (Acts 3:6)

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