The two-way street
The project is two weeks in and I hadn’t had a meaningful conversation with Binyam. Should I ask him to do something together, maybe? I want make sure he feels comfortable enough around me to ask for help. Saturday, I spend the afternoon in our living room. Kind of on purpose, hoping for a chance to casually hang out with my other cohousers. Binyam wakes up in the afternoon, prepares some Eritrean food and without even asking, I’m invited at the table for a late lunch.
Apart from the fact that it’s the perfect setting for our first meaningful conversation, I’m also having my first Curant-epiphany: integration is a two-way street. When joining the project, my most important motivation was to ‘welcome the refugees in our Belgian society’. I was going to show them that not all Belgians are racists, that they are welcome, and help them integrate in society. Instead, the opposite happened. I moved into a house where Binyam and Qadir were already comfortably living for more than a year. Habits and rules were already established, and I was the new girl in town. And by simply offering me half of his meal, Binyam welcomed me in his home. Our home.
The extra one
After a birthday dinner party with friends, I’m calling it an early night. I have to work tomorrow. I’m slightly tipsy, so I hope I don’t walk into Qadir and his friends in the living room. They are muslims and even though they never judge me for drinking alcohol, I find myself being very aware of how silly it is to get drunk on the slightest celebration when I’m around them.
They’re in the living room, drinking tea. I tell them about the great birthday I had, show them the presents I got, let them taste my Leonidas pralines (I warn them just in time that some of them might have alcohol in them. Seriously, that rubbish is everywhere!). They wish me a happy birthday and I drink some tea. Especially on birthdays, quality time with cohousers is more important than having a fresh mind for work. Oh, and by the way: I’m perfectly capable of hiding the tipsiness, yes!
One week later, there’s a huge cake in the fridge. ‘Last week we didn’t know it was your birthday, but now we do.’ A week after my actual birthday, I’m having an extra one. Sher and Kahraman come over and we have cake, play cards. It’s one of the many moments during this cohousing where the unexpected moments are the best ones. I’m having a great time. And again, I feel so welcome.
The party pooper
‘I don’t have the energy for this.’
After an exhausting week of working and social obligations, I was really looking forward to my night rest, before I had my family coming over to Antwerp to visit me the next day. Yet in the hallway, it’s obvious there’s an Eritrean party-something going on in our living room. (Two months in the project, I’ve become a pro in recognizing the differences in ways of talking and background music between the Eritrean and Afghan friends, so I’m pretty sure it’s Binyam and his friends.) I oblige myself to go say ‘Hi.’ for just a second.
I don’t know any of the people in my living room, but they all seem very happy to see me. I sit down, have a beer – and while I’m at it also some Indzjerra food – and talk for a while. Even though everyone is very sweet to me, I can’t help but think about the mess this party is going to leave behind. I feel like a party pooper when I mention my family coming over the next day. ‘Not a problem’, Binyam says.
Turns out, there was never a problem indeed. Binyam’s friends start cleaning the kitchen and the living room the next morning. With water and everything! Cohousing is a learning process. Maybe to save ourselves some stress, next time I will announce my family visits a bit sooner. And Binyam his parties. Communication is key.
Holidays are great: visiting new places, meeting new people and meeting old friends to catch up on each other’s lives. And in between all that, there’s our home. Six months in the project, and our house has become a real safe haven for me. Somewhere along the road, it began to feel like home. The people you come home to, are the ones you don’t have to ‘catch up with’. They are always there, there’s nothing to catch up to. And you do the exact stuff with them you do by yourself when you’re completely comfortable.
So now after another great, yet tiring holiday, I come home to Qadir. He makes me some tea, we sit on the Afghan carpet, and watch some YouTube videos together.
I’m Paulien, a 24-year-old journalist/teacher/Digital Storyteller, working in Brussels and living with Qadir (Afghanistan), Binyam (Eritrea) and Hannelore (Belgium) in a four-bedroom house in the South of Antwerp, just outside the centre. Qadir and Binyam had already lived there for more than a year with other Belgian buddies, and Hannelore and I moved in December of 2018. The four of us pay equal rent (335 euros per month all inclusive: internet, water, electricity…) and we share a kitchen, bathroom, living room… We basically share everything, except for our own bedroom.
Curant exists for more or less four years by now. I joined the project in December 2018, out of a feeling of ‘now or never’, because it stops in October 2019. The way we are handling the refugee crisis is a shame, most of the time. So whatever small things we can do as an individual, we should. Curant makes it so easy to do something useful in this context, that joining the project was an obvious choice. Without minimizing the commitment it takes to live in a diverse living situation like ours, I’m very happy with the decision I made to join. Of course it’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. I’m learning, growing and – most importantly – I’m having a great time.
By Paulien Caeyers
The CURANT project; “Co-housing and case management for Unaccompanied young adult Refugees in ANTwerp” brings together young refugees and Flemish young adults. When unaccompanied minor refugees, those who are underage and fled on their own, turn 18 and legally become adults, much of the help and care they received earlier falls away. The goal of CURANT is to make their transition into adulthood go smoother by housing such refugees together with buddies and by providing intensive care and training. Since the project started in November 2016, approximately 80 refugees and 80 buddies have been sharing apartments. CURANT is a project of the City of Antwerp with the University of Antwerp and local welfare organisations as partners, cofunded by the European Union’s Urban Innovative Actions Fund. CURANT will end this coming November.
Project information can be found through uia-initiative.eu; uantwerpen.be; and www.antwerpen.be (this last site in Dutch).