While we often interview other expats who are doing interesting things in Belgium, today we speak with one of the locals who is doing interesting things for expats in Belgium.
Marijke Verboven works for Vzw de Rand, helping expats to integrate into the Flemish community surrounding Brussels. She talks to us about her organisation, expat integration issues and where expats can find help and services.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
Two years ago I started working for Vzw ‘de Rand’, a cultural organization in the Flemish periphery around Brussels, with the specific task of reaching out to the expat community. I’ve worked for a longtime as press relations manager for different employers; organizing big media events, trying to get the attention and interest of journalists for specific projects or campaigns … I thought there was surely no more difficult public to connect with than journalists. Well, that was a misconception!
But I love the challenge. And although I am from Flanders, I sometimes feel like an expat in the Flemish periphery around Brussels. I moved here from my home town, in the east part of Belgium, not knowing anyone, commuting to Brussels every day and having no network at all near my home in Beersel. The language was no obstacle, as it is for many expats, but it is the same for every newcomer: it is not easy to blend in and make local friends. Language is a necessary tool, but the right attitude is the key.
Tell us about the organization you work for and how it can help expats.
Vzw ‘de Rand’ operates seven community centres in the Flemish periphery. They are like cultural centres, with music, theatre, dance, arts … but with an extra dimension: they specifically try to bring people from the local community together – ‘community building,’ if you like.
We also encourage newcomers to learn the local language, which is Dutch; not only because everyone needs it at the commune hall, but because we honestly believe language is the gateway to a real human connection with the locals and their culture.
Every expat quickly learns about the language issues in Belgium, which are mainly felt in Brussels and the periphery. Because of this whole history, locals in the Flemish periphery tend to feel threatened or insulted by newcomers who refuse to speak Dutch. For many, it feels like a lack of respect. But every effort to speak Dutch, how minor it may be, is very much appreciated and will open doors and hearts. I invite you to try it… even if it is a simple ‘goedendag’ of ‘dankjewel’.
What services are available to help expats that they may not be aware of?
To be honest, in my opinion the welcoming services for expats need to be reorganized. On the one hand, there are many official services, with a lot of enthusiasm, but too little coordination. On the other hand, I see very expensive commercial businesses, organizing ‘cultural awareness training,’ social gatherings for expats, private language courses, conversation groups etcetera… all trying to get money out of this interesting target group. All this, while the Government of Flanders has very good welcoming initiatives (‘Inburgering’), high quality language courses and conversation groups that the expat community can use for free. I therefore urged for a work force, with all players in the integration administration, tourism, foreign affairs administration to see how we can reach the expat community, with what already exists, and how we can improve the services, by getting to know this group better.
What is the concept behind the Speaker’s Corner event you organize?
Speakers’ Corner exists for more than ten years now. The concept is simple: we invite an interesting Flemish speaker for a conference in Dutch and organize simultaneous translation for non-natives (French, German and English). The idea is bringing locals and internationals together for an interesting evening with a nice reception. We always have about 300 people registering (and coming). The next edition has Frank Deboosere, the most famous Flemish weatherman, as the guest speaker. The event is in community centre de Bosuil in Jezus-Eik (Overijse).
Why is it important for expats to integrate into the local communities in Belgium?
Integration of foreigners is frequently interpreted as something important for the locals, for the receiving society. In that perspective, I understand the hesitation of newcomers to take the step to official integration services. ‘What do they want from me?’ But I look towards integration as something that is for the benefit of the newcomer ‘what is there for me’?
If you don’t know what services the society offers, you really miss out on a lot of things. Flanders’ community is very well organized and open to newcomers. Language can be an obstacle, but let’s be honest: if you want to learn the language, there are opportunities on every corner of the street. There is also a central organization that knows all language courses and helps you find the perfect one for you, de ‘Huizen van het Nederlands.’
Flanders’ society is also unique, because of the high amount of local clubs ‘verenigingen’. The English word club sounds to ‘exclusive’ for me. ‘Verenigingen’ in Flanders are very open and welcoming. But it is almost impossible for expats to find those ‘verenigingen’. This is – for me – a very important challenge for integration policy: creating the link between newcomers and the Flemish social society.
How do you think Belgians can help the expat integration process?
I believe in the most natural process of integration: a neighbour, knocking on the door of his new expat neighbours and offering his help; inviting them to join in with the local cycling club. The biggest challenge lies in those areas where there aren’t many locals left. If a society wants to be warm and welcoming, somebody needs to act as a host. Vzw ‘de Rand’ tries to be a welcoming host with its community centers in seven communes in the ‘Vlaamse Rand.’ We focus on events where locals and newcomers can meet.
How do you think expats benefit Belgium?
With the large expat community in Belgium, not only Brussels, but also in Antwerp, Ghent, the Vlaamse Rand, you can say that the whole world is in Flanders. You don’t need to go abroad to discover new cultures. You can have interesting international business contacts without travelling. You can practice exotic languages without paying international calls. I find it really enriching to meet expats. They are highly educated and often have interesting experiences abroad. But they are still normal people, having the same needs for their family as I.
Why should someone interested in an international relocation consider Belgium?
There are, of course, the obvious reasons: Brussels, the European Institutions, NATO… I’d like to add the hospitable people, the local craftsmanship, and the love for making beautiful or tasty things.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I hope to see you all at our Speakers’ Corner, a free conference for international inhabitants, the 20th of March 2012 at 8 p.m. I’m very proud to announce the most famous weatherman of Flanders, Frank Deboosere. He will reveal the secrets of Belgium’s weather and his predictions for the near future. So you‘ll know when to plan you holidays abroad! Simultaneous translation to French, German and English and a cosy reception afterwards. Registrations at firstname.lastname@example.org
Looking for more resources for living in Belgium? Check out our Expat Resources page.