A boy stands in a busy pool emitting bursts of giggles. His laughter soars above the water, above the heads of the thirty or so children around him, so pure that it is almost painful. What I find more painful, however, are the scars from chemical burns that decorate his tiny chest and arms. Around him, children from different countries speak a multitude of languages to one another; French, Arabic and Dutch. For these children, language is no barrier to friendship. They call me, “Madame, Madame”, a title that I was especially amused by, and shriek with laughter when they splash me with water and are splashed back, amazed at their own daring.
What unites these children is where they live now – a refugee centre known as Le Petit Château in the heart of Brussels.
Swimming, I am told, whilst a normal childhood pastime for most, is of utmost importance for the mental health of this group. For most, water is a reminder of the treacherous journey they undertook with their families across the Mediterranean. So, when they are taken on their outings to the swimming pool and the beach, these dark memories of water and death are slowly replaced by positive ones. Inverting such memories takes a long time. Many of them will not forget being huddled in a rickety boat with their parents, nor the screams of those who did not survive the journey. The trauma they have experienced in their short lifespans is more than what most of us could imagine.
For now, they call Le Petit Château, Belgium’s largest refugee centre, home. And while its direct translation is ‘The Small Castle’, it more closely resembles a prison. Imposing and uninviting, it was constructed in the 19th century as barracks, and later used as a wartime prison. It currently houses around 850 refugees. The inhabitants are allowed to come and go as they please and despite its size I found a real sense of community, particularly amongst the children. It is an entire world inside the walls, a world full of waiting, shared frustrations and fears.
There is a bitter sense of irony in the deep friendships many form in centres like Le Petit Château. In fact, it is a well-documented fact that even though children are acutely aware of the fact that their lives are in transition and they are awaiting a positive response to their applications, when they leave the centres they find it incredibly difficult to adjust.
When I arrive, as a volunteer with an organisation called ‘Serve the City’, the men are immediately willing to introduce themselves and talk but the women are much warier. It is only through connecting with their children that by Wednesday I receive watery smiles, and only on the Friday am I spoken to. In a particularly emotional moment, one woman, whose oldest daughter I had become particularly close with, opened my arms and handed me her tiny, two-month-old baby to hold.
Sadly, the week I was there was also the week the centre’s inhabitants were told of the Belgian Government’s plans to close Le Petit Château. The government cited reasons of the current accommodation being unsuitable and that, because it is an ‘open centre,’ the surrounding neighbourhood has become infamous for finding illegal cheap labour. They proposed instead to open a new centre north of the city in 2019. There is a real sentiment amongst volunteers and the inhabitants that this is indicative of a Europe which does not want the refugee ‘problem’ to be visible in the cities. To me, it seems like the real face of the refugee crisis should be the children. Mothers and fathers only put their children on dangerous boats in the hope that a better life awaits them on the other side. It seems that being shunted from one centre to another, out of sight of the general population, is not the life any parent would wish upon their child and not the life anyone deserves.