By Frederik Bordon and Benjamin Mason, Brussels
A stone’s throw from the European Parliament in Brussels, what was once an anonymous office building is now a vibrant community centre run by refugees. Inside, around a table in an improvised office, refugees are discussing a range of policy initiatives including access to housing with counterparts from the Brussels Region and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
“We wanted to involve and bring the lived voices of refugees into policymaking, in the solution finding and also to allow refugees to help each other. Without having refugees involved, we would neglect a bigger part of the solution,” says Ahmad Wali Ahmad Yar, a former refugee from Afghanistan and PhD researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB).
This partnership between the local government and refugee communities did not happen overnight. Rather, it’s the outcome of a pioneering and ever evolving project on refugee governance which began in 2019 as part of UNHCR’s work to put refugee voices at the heart of any government decision-making that would impact them. The result was the creation of the first ever refugee committee in Belgium, led by LGBTQI+ refugees.
Today, there are 10 refugee-run committees in Brussels, also representing Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Burundi, Eritrea, Somalia and Ukraine, as well as the Rainbow Refugee and Women’s Refugee Committees. Ahmad Wali has been part of the project since the very beginning and is now also President of the Umbrella Refugee Committee, which brings together all the committees and represents them in discussions with the local authorities.
Throughout the years, the committees have been engaging directly with local authorities on the integration of refugees. Refugees have been actively involved in discussions and decisions on access to education, health services, work and housing. As such, the Brussels Region has been able to better identify their needs and work with the communities to find and put in place solutions to any challenges they may face in their new homes.
“At the start of COVID-19, we as the Refugee Committees came in and conducted surveys, allowing us to identify the problems and priorities for the different communities. And it was very interesting to see that for every refugee community, the problems and the priorities were really different,” explains Ahmad Wali.
In 2022, as refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine arrived in Brussels and building on the work of the other committees, the Ukrainian Voices Refugee Committee was created. Arriving in Brussels with her mother and daughter soon after the war broke out, the now President of the Ukrainian Voices Refugee Committee, Alina Kokhanko, spearheaded the work to support fellow refugees:
“For me it was important to see how people become happy when they begin to understand and see a way to integrate and build a normal and new life, which they start here in Brussels,” explains Alina.
Kelly T. Clements, UNHCR’s Deputy High Commissioner, and Elizabeth Tan, Director of UNHCR’s Division of International Protection, exchange with refugees from Ukraine and other regions at the community centre. © UNHCR/Frederik Bordon
Ahmad Wali Ahmad Yar, President of the Umbrella Refugee Committee and Alina Kokhanko, President of the Ukrainian Voices Refugee Committee discussing the work of the refugee committees in Brussels. ©UNHCR/Nina Daelemans
Ahmad Wali Ahmad Yar, a former refugee from Afghanistan, PhD researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and President of the Umbrella Refugee Committee in front of the European Parliament in Brussels. ©UNHCR/Nina Daelemans
Alina Kokhanko, refugee from Ukraine and President of the Ukrainian Voices Refugee Committee, and her daughter in front of the European Commission in Brussels. ©UNHCR/Frederik Bordon
With the arrival of refugees from Ukraine, the Brussels Region appointed Pierre Verbeeren as Coordinator for the Ukraine Crisis who was put in charge of developing a strategy to receive and integrate refugees from Ukraine in Brussels. As part of the strategy, he formalized the relationship between the committee and the Brussels Region, to include refugees in finding solutions.
“Very quickly I concluded that there was a way to use the resources of the Ukrainian community to make integration more effective. So, the strategy I proposed to the regional government in Brussels was quite simple – nothing about Ukrainians without Ukrainians, Ukrainians at all levels of decision-making, but also inclusion of Ukrainians at the operational level,” Pierre explains.
From the outset, the close collaboration between the local authorities, the Ukrainian Voices Refugee Committee and UNHCR brought concrete results, benefiting both refugees from Ukraine and the many other parts of the world from where people flee.
“From an operational perspective, when it comes to refugee integration, the transformative aspects are huge,” says Alphonse Munyaneza, UNHCR’s Senior Community-Based Protection Officer. “Seven refugees from Ukraine have been contracted as government officials working directly with regional ministers and senior civil servants responsible for integration. This means they have a direct say in policies impacting refugees”.
« From an operational perspective, when it comes to refugee integration, the transformative aspects are huge. »
Following on from this, refugees are now managing five hotels with around 300 residents and running a community centre, which supported around 6000 refugees in 2022. The community centre is a space where refugees can get together, learn languages, work, play sports, access information and services from the state or private sector, and where children can be children again.
“It’s very tough sometimes for our kids. So here, they have more support, they have space where they can talk with each other, get some classes and be free to play and spend time together,” says Alina.
The work of the refugee committees complements national, regional and local policies and practices. The committees help facilitate a variety of processes that are spread across various administrations. The work of the Brussels Region is a great example of how refugees, with the support of local authorities and UNHCR, can play an active role in shaping policies that directly affect them, and find solutions.
This inclusive approach is a win-win situation for both the refugees and the communities hosting them. Refugees have the chance to take integration into their own hands and make their voices heard so governments can better tailor solutions to the needs of refugees.
“Hopefully in the future, we could expand this into other European countries and in different regions in the world because this is how we could solve the problems fundamentally.” – Ahmad Wali.