A taste of Belgian Christmas warms hearts of asylum seekers

When a Belgian newspaper in the province of Limburg launched an initiative asking its readers to invite an asylum seeker to Christmas dinner, over 100 families responded. For the Belgian hosts and their guests it turned out to be a memorable experience full of human warmth, and the start of some unexpected friendships.

Belgian and asylum seekers' families spend Christmas together in Limburg province thanks to an initiative by a regional newspaper.   © Concentra media

BRUSSELS, 29 December (UNHCR) - There's no more room at the inn, it says in the Gospel according to Luke. But not in the Belgian province of Limburg where a local newspaper launched a remarkable initiative among its readers: Why not invite an asylum seeker for Christmas dinner?

"Our goal was to find a host family for dinner on Christmas Day in each of the 44 communes of Limburg province," says Gert Reynders of the daily paper Het Belang van Limburg. "Many were skeptical about the whole idea, but in barely two weeks' time we found a hundred families who wanted to invite an asylum seeker to their table."

With the help of local reception centres and social services, numerous asylum seekers were invited for what was to be an unforgettable Belgian Christmas experience. Host families picked up their guests by car from where they were living. One family had a non-Dutch speaking Chechen family as guests, so they immediately invited another Chechen to act as an interpreter.

Everything was done to make the guests feel at home, even avoiding serving meals that may have run contrary to their religious customs or taste.

"Our guest from Sudan may find our usual Belgian cooking too bland for his taste, so we've prepared a spicy chicken curry," said Paul Machiels.

Many families even bought presents for their visitors. But hospitality and human warmth was the most important gift the Belgian hosts could offer their guests.

"It's wonderful to be treated as normal people for once. This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," Irina from Kazakhstan told reporters from Het Belang van Limburg, which issued a special supplement on the asylum seekers' Christmas experiences.

Kadiatou's first Belgian Christmas was filled with happy moments, but also with some sad ones. She had arrived from Guinea in West Africa with her two-year-old son Balde just days earlier, leaving behind three of her children. But her little boy immediately felt at home with the Boiten family, which hosted them.

"Balde has stolen our heart, my husband Danny has been playing with him all afternoon," says Lizzy Boiten. "We've agreed to meet again soon for a walk and an ice cream, and Kadiatou has promised to put African braids in my hair!"

"Nowadays Christmas is a lot about words and wishes, but people rarely really do something about it," says Valère Snoek, who along with his wife immediately agreed to invite two asylum seekers to their Christmas dinner. Asylum seekers Awad, a journalist from Sudan, and Yvette, who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo after her husband disappeared while in detention in 2004, were the Snoek's guests.

"I was very glad to be invited by a Belgian family for Christmas," says Yvette. "Otherwise I would have stayed alone all evening in my little room in the reception centre worrying about my family."

Despite differences in culture and experiences hosts and guests found much to talk about.

"When I opened the door for our guests, it was as if we had already known each other for years," says Ricardo Colombo, who invited Neyriman from Iran and his wife and children to dinner. Even though they live within walking distance of each other in the city of Genk and the two families had never met, they got along immediately. The whole evening they talked about their lives and backgrounds, but also about football. Neyriman's son is an avid supporter of local club Racing Genk.

"It was a great evening," says Ricardo. "We are convinced that such encounters will bridge gaps between people and help to combat prejudices."

That was what Het Belang van Limburg set out to achieve. "Our goal was to redress the negative image of asylum seekers, and to counter the generalized negative feelings of dissatisfaction among the public at large that feed such prejudices," says Reynders. "Also, it's in line with the newspaper's duty to offer its readers a broader view on what's happening in the world, and it's true to the motto of our daily: citizen of Limburg, citizen of the world."

For the editorial staff of the newspaper, it was an unexpected success, and a rewarding experience worth repeating in 2006. One family in Genk mailed the editors saying "We've had a fantastic evening with wonderful people, true to the spirit of Christmas. And we've made some great new friends!"

By Diederik Kramers and Elke De Jagher
UNHCR Brussels