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Refugees in Belgium Desperately Dream of Reaching Britain

October 25, 2019
Aida Ghajar
9 min read
A Red Cross vehicle and aid workers are stationed at the park’s entrance, and the refugees line up to get their daily rations
A Red Cross vehicle and aid workers are stationed at the park’s entrance, and the refugees line up to get their daily rations
Refugees and migrants gather in a park near the central train station in Brussels, waiting
Refugees and migrants gather in a park near the central train station in Brussels, waiting

“Britain took all my life from me and I lost everything for Britain. To get to Britain one must fight, and I am still fighting.”

His eyes fill with tears. “I left Tunisia four years ago,” he continues while gazing into the distance. “Nobody knows this route better than I do. Whoever arrived I helped and got them to London, but I myself have been stuck here. One day, God willing, I will get to my destination, too.”

We are in Brussels, in its central square, a few steps away from the city’s northern railroad station. There’s a park nearby, where, from far away, people in the crowd of refugees catch your eye. A Red Cross vehicle and aid workers are stationed at the park’s entrance, and the refugees line up to get their daily rations. I walk among them and look into their eyes, and they look back, worried. A young man walks toward me and asks: “Tell me the truth; are you the police?” I assure him that I not from the police. 

The refugees do not believe the media tell the truth either. Here, it is not only the police that threatens them.

In the early hours of Wednesday, October 23, the British media reported that police had found the bodies of 39 people inside a truck container at an industrial estate near London. That night, after preliminary investigations, it was discovered that the migrants had originally been loaded into a trailer in the Belgian city of Zeebrugge and had been taken from there to England. The driver, named locally as Mo Robinson, 25, from Northern Ireland, has been arrested on suspicion of murder.

Prior to this, in late August, Belgian media reported that an Iraqi, approximately 40 years old, had attempted to swim from a Belgian port to the shores of Britain, but his dream of a better life was not realized, and he died at sea.


The Park of Dashed Hopes

Now I am in Belgium, looking for refugees with the hopes of telling their stories, their accounts of desperately trying to get to their intended destinations. Immediately after arriving in Brussels and before setting out for Zeebrugge, I go to a park that some time back had been cleared for a French bicycle tour. I thought I would find many refugees in this park. I called the few human traffickers I had met while working on previous stories, who are now refugees in France. They gave me the address of the park. I followed the crowd from a distance. Some people were playing basketball in the middle of the park, while others were dozing off in sleeping bags with cardboard over them in various corners of the park. Many were standing in the line for food and others had gathered in groups chatting. This is where the dream of Britain plays restlessly in the minds of people so exhausted by their long journeys.

It is hot and the sun is pouring over the park. I take off my jacket and light up a cigarette. I stand next to a tree and again look into the eyes of refugees. Most come from Africa, and a group speaks in Arabic. A young man catches my eye. I mistake him for an Afghan. I walk to him and he asks me, in English, where I am from. I tell him that I am from Iran and ask him whether he knows any Iranians or Afghans here. “Not many,” he says. “Everybody here wants to go to the UK.”

“Have you ever tried to go to Britain?”

“Dozens of times."

“In a truck or on a boat?”

"Whichever way you can imagine.”

“Do you know anybody who speaks Persian?”

His friends gather around us. “She is from Afghanistan and is looking for Afghans or Iranians,” he tells his friends. “Does anybody speak Persian?” I say in English. There is no one. I called a human trafficker in Calais, France, and he told me: “All the Iranians are in Calais. Wait and maybe I can find somebody.”

A few steps away a young man stands and looks at me. I go to him and ask him whether he knows any Iranians. He looks at me with suspicion and asks what my nationality is. We chat a little bit and he comes with me to stand next to a tree. He brings me a piece of cardboard so that I do not have to sit on the dirt. He assumes that I have come here from Greece and that I have been walking for months across Europe — Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Italy and France — until I eventually heard that I can get to Britain easier from Belgium. 

He gazes into my eyes; his are filled with tears. “I only want to get to Britain but they don’t let me,” he says. “Every time I am caught and every time they take me to the detention center. I came from Tunisia. In Tunisia, before the revolution, If you talked to a tourist on the street you would be arrested. And here the Belgian police catch me. I spent some time in Calais. Over there, too, every day the police came and pulled down our tents and took us to the detention center. Every day. Britain is my dream. I hope they will let me realize my dream. I have tried dozens of times and each time I have been arrested. But, God willing, I will get to Britain. 


“Nobody is going to help you”

He asks for a cigarette and I give him some tobacco so he can roll his own. I turn toward the crowd in the park. “Don’t trust anybody here,” he says. “Everybody says they are going to help you. But I am going to tell you the truth: nobody is going to help you. All they want is to get your money and then they will leave you hanging. Look at me! For nine months I have been in Belgium, which I do not like. But I will get there eventually.”

“Have you tried your luck from Zeebrugge?”

“I was there. I tried dozens of times but it did not happen. Every time that they caught me they kept me in the detention center for a few hours and then released me. Here they release you very fast. But every time they beat you.”

He clinches his fist as a metaphor for the beatings he’s received. “I have a family but none of them are with me. I left my country four years ago. I am the first and the only one who got directly to France from North Africa. Everybody goes to Italy. Tunisia is only a few kilometers away from the Lampedusa port [in Sicily]. I know what to do but each time I had bad luck. Europe has robbed me of my youth.”

He asks me how old he looks. I say 37. He laughs, shakes his head, puffs his cigarette and says: “I am only 21.” So this means that when he started his long journey he was under 18. “You know,” he says, “maybe my body is 21 but my mind? In these few years I have only become older and older.”

“I hope that I will not see you here ever again,” he says. “Maybe someday in Britain we can have a beer together. Eventually I’ll get there.” I look into his eyes and say: “God willing. I must go. I am going to Zeebrugge.” 

I ask him what he does to make money. “Me?” he says. “I am a vendor.”

“What do you sell?” I ask. “Green or white?”, meaning marijuana or cocaine. He laughs and says, “Neither. I sell neither hashish nor marijuana, I wouldn’t touch cocaine. I only sell pills for children who need to sleep. Here nobody sleeps comfortably.”

He dips into his pocket and pulls out a sheet of pills. “I sell each pill for one euro.” I do not recognize the pills. I make a fist and hit his fist and say, “One day we will have a beer in Britain.” He returns to what he was doing and I return to the central train station to buy a ticket for Zeebrugge. “Let me not catch you around here again,” he says and laughs. “See you in London,” I shout back. “I’ll buy you a beer.” He laughs and we go our own separate ways.

Before I get to the train station I pause in front of a grand, expensive-looking building, which is reserved for families. Three Afghan men, a woman and a child are sitting outside the building. I go to them and ask them whether they speak Persian. I ask them about the conditions in the camp. “No matter what, it is better that Iran or Greece,” they say. “They give us three meals a day and the rooms are clean. They give one room to each family. There is meat in every meal. But answer us one question. Our country is beset by war. Why did you go to so much trouble to come here?”

I smile and review in my mind the stories told by Iranian refugees. Some have escaped from prison, some have escaped domestic violence and all consider themselves political or social refugees. But it does not seem important, no matter what the reason is. The important thing is freedom, security, and escaping war, violence and coercion that has forced refugees to embark on such hard journeys, regardless of nationality.

I arrive at the central train station, buy a ticket for Zeebrugge and think about the young man that sells pills for one euro each so that, perhaps, a child can have a restful sleep during these nights of anxiety and restlessness. 


Related Coverage:

Racial Conflict Ends in Devastating Fire at Greece’s Samos Refugee Camp, October 17, 2019

Human Traffickers, Drug Smugglers and the British Channel, October 7, 2019

Refugees Fight Racism and Insults in Greece, October 1, 2019

Using Social Media to Expose Traffickers, September 16, 2019

The Life and Loves of a Human Trafficker, September 6, 2019

A Life Lost: Two Decades of Asylum-Seeking in Calais, August 30, 2019

Iranian Human Traffickers and the Journey Across the Balkans, August 19, 2019

Rape and Sexual Abuse is Common, August 8, 2019

“I left Iran so my daughter could choose her own destiny”, August 1, 2019

From Christian Refugee to Austrian Futsal Star, July 25, 2019

"The Biggest Torture Was Losing my Identity”, July 11, 2019

“I Left My Daughter With a Human Trafficker”, June 28, 2019



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