I finally reached Arandonk…
I had very precise instructions from my friend Roeland Scholtalbers of the Insititute of Tropical Medicine (where I was spending three weeks learning how to write better on public health) on how to reach Arendonk, a picturesque town which lies at a distance of about 50 kms from the centre of Antwerp city, just 3 kms away from the border between Belgium and Holland. He had sent me a map on the day before and taken great care to ensure I would safely find my way to a truck which would take me to Arendonk from a village outside Antwerp.
I had to take a tram, a bus and walk a bit to a predetermined landmark – all in the pre-dawn darkness of a winter morning. Is it a gender thing? I missed every tram, every bus and got off at the wrong stop. It was freezing; the person who was supposed to meet me knew no English and I didn’t know what to say to him even if I called. After a long wait at the wrong stop, I knew I had to wake up a few people who could help me. I called my organisers who called the driver and then, after a long wait when I didn’t know whether I was headed to Arendonk or Timbuktoo, I spotted the truck parked on the other side of the highway. The driver had found me! I dashed across, scarcely mindful of the almost incessant movement of traffic on the dark highway and saw the driver with his hand clamped over his mouth in horror! I had apparently missed being run over! Being run over would have probably been easier than climbing into the truck – actually it was a mini-house on wheels and I had to use a portable ladder to climb in!
Finally a good 30 minutes behind schedule, we were on our way to Arendonk, where I was going to see refugees who were housed in a camp there. These were people who were fleeing their countries and had come into Belgium via Brussels, seeking asylum. Meeting them was to realise that my bus, tram, truck and walking effort had actually been a cake-walk. Some of them had travelled thousands of kms from countries as far as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and others, across hostile terrain by foot, hidden themselves in unheated vehicles in freezing temperatures, and suffered unspoken horrors just to reach safer havens. All of them had left families behind and now had only non-working phones with photographs on them to remind them how their mothers, fathers or wives, or children looked.
Arendonk Asylum – on a cold winter’s day in January 2016
It has not seen any sunshine all day. It’s mid-morning but there are still traces of frost and snow on the campus of the refugee asylum, which can house 650 people. The residents have received their allowance for the week and most of them have gathered in the cafeteria to treat themselves to something special, or just sit around and talk. The room is filled with the strong odour of unwashed bodies. Below the camaraderie, an air of sorrow, anxiety and fear permeates the atmosphere. Each person living here has a tale to narrate; each of them remembers parents, brothers and sisters left behind; and each of them relives again and again, the horrors that forced them to leave home.
Outside, on the grounds the huge truck I travelled by is parked, waiting for them to come and get their chest x-rays done (a bid to determine whether any of them has TB). There is already a queue outside as they have been told in advance that they are due to get the x-ray done. They wait their turn patiently, some of them very ill-equipped for the harsh weather conditions and wear flip-flop slippers or cotton clothing. Most of them are also very young. Many of them are reluctant to speak, but M (20), who has come from Afghanistan recalls, “I was tortured; there are scars on my leg where I was branded. Every day there was pressure on me to become a jihadi. I could not bear it anymore. My uncle told me to run away and save myself. He said he would look after my aged parents and my sisters. I undertook a 2-month journey on foot and by truck through freezing conditions and arrived in Brussels.From there, I was brought here. I get food, a warm bed and a roof over my head. I miss football and cricket.” When he stops speaking, tears spill down his cheeks, telling me that food and a warm bed might not be what he wants at this moment. He might rather want the comforting arms of his wife or mother around him.
Many of them crowd around me because I look like them, despite my dusky ‘Madrasi’ looks. They find out I can speak Hindi, and we’re soon conversing – I speak in my Madrasi accent, mixing up gender with merry abandon as I can never get the logic behind gender and Hindi (in Hindi, table is a man and chair is a woman!!), and they speak to me in their Afghani or Pakistani accents. But we find common ground and are soon bandying recipes, rumours and gossip. They want to know about the three Khans who rule Bollywood and I want to know about their wives and children.
Soon it becomes evident our conversation is not just about Bollywood or about inane details about their families. They are hungry to know why…Why did they have to leave their homes? What were they fleeing? Who could have a problem with their living in peace with their families, be it on one meal a day, or four? Why wasn’t anyone doing anything one Syrian gentleman asks. What was the UN doing?
One 16-year old Afghan boy cries that he wants to be with his mother again. He doesn’t know whether he will see her alive again, because when she forced him to flee the country, parting with all the family savings to make his journey possible, he was actually fleeing death. What were they fighting? He wants answers from me. and I know not what to say because I don’t know. I’m asking the same questions myself. I don’t know the reasons that make humanity fight wars, tear social structures apart, separate families and create havoc. I know only to draw him close and hold him as his mother would have done. That seems to help because he smiles. He smiles and shyly says he has a girlfriend in the camp. Romance blooming in ruins?
I ask the camp director how he can bear to see this day and night. He defiantly asks why he should tell me. “I’ll go home and discuss this with my wife. Why should I tell you?” And then he hollers for a cup of tea in a choked voice, revealing he’s not so tough after all!
I walk out in thought. My new friends stand in a group at the entrance to the cafeteria and wave to me. A young girl walks towards me with her baby which was born in the camp. I hold and cradle the baby, and pray that he grows up to a healthier, more peaceful world. “I hope we’ve got our act together by the time you grow up,” I want to whisper into his ears. But I don’t want to spin dreams which I don’t have the power to fulfill. Maybe ‘together we can’? Yes. We. Can. Does that sound familiar? Can we heal the world? Together? Can we? Please?