Four migrant stories from Brussels











Alla, Olivier, Pant Liladhar, Orlando – the stories of four migrants in Brussels
 

Massimo Bortolini | Pictures: Claire Allard
 

Alla, Olivier, Pant Liladhar, and Orlando came from the Ukraine, Chad, Nepal, and Cuba respectively, and, on a larger scale, from Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central America. All of them, with the exception of Orlando, came as the asylum seekers; however, they were unsuccessful in their applications and so tried to find a path for staying in Belgium legally. All four have lived through hardship; in this new country, they had to find a new life with a home and work. Today, they all have permanent residency; however, they still vividly remember what it is like to start alone and from nothing in a foreign country. After more than 10 years, they have decided to stay and live in Belgium. Their personal accounts capture the difficult life of a migrant.


 

 

Why them?
 

Alla, Olivier, Pant Liladhar, Orlando – the stories of four migrants in Brussels 


The population of Brussels is more diverse and colourful than the population of most other European cities and has been so for several generations already. As such, for the population with an immigrant background, it was often the parents or grandparents who came as migrants. Having already integrated in the previous generations, the migrant background of the second and third generation is not discernable from official statistics and they enjoy the same social and political rights as any other Belgian citizen. Even so, though they do face some specific problems in the labour market.


Whereas the diverse face of Brussels is dominated by the members of older migration waves, the city also continues to attract new migrants, who often start their life in the city without legal status. We chose to tell the stories of four individuals with this more recent immigration status. Alla, Olivier, Pant Liladhar, and Orlando have been in Belgium for quite a time. Today, all of them have legal residency status. Having gone through the experience of being new-comers, who gradually built up their new existence in a new country, we followed these four people to capture the essence of living the life of a migrant. They tell us how migration has changed them, what migration enabled them to do, and what it has destroyed.


We chose people with similar careers from different backgrounds. Three men and one woman. They come from Chad, Nepal, the Ukraine, Cuba respectively, or on a larger scale: Africa, Asia, Europe and Central America. They came alone or with family. Some chose the country, some did not. Some knew they were coming, some did not.

What all four have in common is that they had to organize a totally new life; find a home, a job. Furthermore, after more than ten years, they all have chosen to stay and live in Belgium. They hope to continue to do well, despite hard working conditions and the sometimes chaotic conditions of life.  


Alla


My name is Alla. I was born in the Ukraine. Our whole family, my husband and me and our two boys, left. We first went to Armenia for five years and then to Belgium. My husband, who is Kurdish-Armenian, made the decision to leave. The children supported the decision and I followed. However, I did not want to leave; I do not like big changes. I was a little afraid, likely due to my family’s history. My grandfather was deported by the Soviet regime, as an enemy of the people; it is part of the accursed history of our family.


In the Ukraine, people do not like foreigners. Because of his appearance, they were racist towards my husband; treating him, in their words, as a “dirty black”. We left because of the general atmosphere of corruption, especially among the police. First, we lived in Armenia. It was not easy for me because I was different from everyone else. They laughed at me for my appearance and for my culture. My children suffered as well. We lived in Armenia for 5 years. We arrived in Belgium, in Brussels, in 1999 on August, 19th.

We went and asked for political asylum. I do not want to talk about that.


We knew about the existence of Belgium from school. But the decision was to go to Europe, not specifically to Belgium. We arrived here with the help of my husband's Kurdish friends. His friend told us: “You will see that we can live freely in Europe, in Belgium”. We travelled by train, bus and car. We knew of Belgium, but knew nothing about it. But my husband had friends there.

We arrived just before the regularization of 1999. We missed our chance, trusting the lawyer who handled our application for asylum, who claimed that we had no chance to qualify. When we realised that we could have benefited, it was already too late. It was a shock for all of us.


We arrived with the help of a friend of a family member of my husband, who told us to go to the Foreign Office as a family. We told them our story. We received a document with the dates for our next appointments and received temporary residency, the orange card, for three months. The Centre of Public Welfare (CPAS) provided for us and we found a home quickly, paying the rent with money from the CPAS. A new life was beginning.


The most important thing at that time was to find a school for our children. Being Ukrainians, Kurds, and Armenians, my children have experienced difficult times in the Ukraine and Armenia. However, in Brussels, our two sons quickly realized that something was different; they were treated like other children and as equals. They were told: You are students, nothing more, nothing less. They were suspicious at first, but they saw that their teachers were sincere. They have fond memories of that period.


Their welcome was excellent, but the level of the teaching was very low. I never saw my kids do any homework. It was completely different than in the Ukraine; there were no textbooks and everything was on photocopied sheets. In the Ukraine, all schools are on an equal level; therefore, we expected that in Brussels it would be the same. Only later did I realize that schools in Brussels can have very different levels. My older son went to the same school for two years, my younger son, for three. It was when we were in contact with an organization for tutoring that we learned it was possible to change schools, which in the Ukraine is not.


At this point we no longer had legal status. A year and a half after our arrival, after our request for asylum, after refusal, an appeal, and a final refusal, we received the order to leave the territory. We had no resources then. We started looking for work because we had no more social support. My French was good as well as my children’s; however, my husband, who took courses in Dutch, could not speak French.

I've always been active. I worked as an accountant. After two weeks of staying in Belgium, I enrolled in French classes in two different schools in order to fill my days. My husband was helping some friends in exchange for some food.


Contacts


We had very little contact with people from the Ukraine. I was scared. For example, I used other people’s addresses to receive letters. My husband sometimes called people in Armenia, but at this time there were limited technological possibilities. It was not the way it is today.

I kept the document ordering us to leave the country for three days on me without telling my family. I pretended all was well. But they noticed that I did not look normal. I had to tell them so that the children would not worry. I knew they could go to school until they turned 18, even if they continued to be illegal in the country; that’s unthinkable in the Ukraine.


I started looking for little jobs in household assistance to families. In the beginning, these were Kurdish and Turkish families, but I passed the message on to other students and friends. It was hard; for example, once I had to wash a carpet with only slightly diluted bleach after which my hands bled. All that for only €5. Then I started working for Belgian families. The first was a family of doctors. I took care of the household and sometimes the children. During an argument between the couple, I offered my opinion. I was insulted and fired immediately without getting paid for the last days I worked.


My husband worked here and there. Sometimes he was paid. And sometimes, he received an old computer or a radio, which often did not work or not for long... Simple as that. Sometimes the salary negotiated for a certain number of hours did not match the amount of work because the employer would extend the working time without compensation. It was like working for €2 or €3 per hour. But we had no choice if we wanted to eat.


My kids were volunteering and helping distribute meals to the homeless. For them, their situation was not so bad because, in comparison, these people were much worse off than they ere. They also got small paint jobs, they helped their father to carry cement bags, etc. They were 15 and 16 years old.


Changing schools was not easy. I remember a manager who asked me in a disdainful manner what strange documents I had. Despite the fact that the opportunity for education was open to everyone, including illegal immigrant children, some schools refuse to enrol our children. In the end, they were enrolled in a technical school. After a year, they changed again. One went to a school specializing in computers. The other one went to a more general school. There he was called a son of an alcoholic, lazy... He was often tired in class, as after school he was worked with his father, but to the teachers it was clearly because of alcohol. They thought that he was just like many people in the East... He wanted to leave; fortunately, we found another school with the help of teachers from the first school.


Control


We have never had problems with the police. The only time I had a problem was when I helped a friend. I had accompanied him to the city hall to serve as an interpreter. The counter lady asked me who I was and to provide my papers. She was very insistent but I managed to talk myself out of the situation.  My children were checked in the subway. Without papers, they were taken to the police station. We argued that we had applied for legalization, although the argument could not have stopped them from expelling us.

During the revolution in the Ukraine, I thought that we could return. I thought that with the difficulties we were experiencing in Brussels it could be better. But I also thought about the freedom we have in Belgium; going out, even later, without risking anything. It's very significant.


Uncertainty


How do we live with the uncertainty? We thought that the asylum request would take between 1 to 3 years. We thought that we would manage, that we would end up having papers. But the years passed, the difficulties increased, the obstacles multiplied because of the lack of documentation. I continued to volunteer as an interpreter. I saw this as a way to accumulate experience and knowledge. Our children were sometimes discouraged by this uncertainty and the potential difficulties. They were afraid of being expelled. To cope with this uncertainty it was important to have things to do during the days.


Interpreting


After a year, I understood French well enough. I was talking with my neighbours. When I was sick, I went to see a doctor. She was very empathetic. She told me that I spoke well. This gave me confidence. We stayed in touch. One day she asked me to help patients from Russia and the Ukraine. Then, a person I knew from the French courses asked me to help her in contacting a social service. The social worker advised me to do social work as an interpreter. He advised me to go to “Bruxelles Accueil”. I worked as a volunteer interpreter and translator. They gave me a lot of medical documents to translate. I continued to improve my French. I continued to do cleaning work and attending French classes. Through contacts with Medecins du Monde, I was asked to volunteer.

It was via “Bruxelles Accueil” that I got in contact with CIRÉ (Initiative and Coordination for and with Refugees and Immigrants). They were getting too many requests and so I started to work for CIRÉ. I wanted to study: maybe to be a caregiver, a social auxiliary, or something similar. But it was not possible without any documentation. It was also not possible for our children, as it is virtually impossible for an undocumented person to graduate after turning 18. I was really discouraged.

A psychologist I worked with advised me to do training in intercultural mediation. I registered, although I had no papers. I did various training courses, including one at Petit-Château, a centre for asylum seekers. The following year, I did one at CIRÉ. What a great opportunity! After the training, I asked if there were any job opportunities, but ones that did not require papers... New discouragement followed. That was in 2008... The various contacts I had made it possible to obtain letters of support to add to our dossier of legalization. It had been a very long time. My husband continued working in construction, my eldest son in both construction and catering; however, both were working in the black market. I longed for my previous status of accountant and team leader, the status of volunteer did not satisfy me.


And at the end...


On February 2, 2010, we received the announcement of our regularization. The wait had lasted 6 years. It was hard. The next step will be to obtain Belgian citizenship. I do not know if we will return to the Ukraine one day. The children have bad memories of it; they do not see themselves returning there.


I am happy to work officially. Now we have the opportunity to travel, but we need the time off work... My husband is looking for work. He is registered as unemployed, but he is 53 years old... I do not know if he will find something... official.


With the papers, our situation is stable. Our work as well. Most importantly, when we get up in the morning we don’t worry about how to get food onto the table that night. But now we feel tired; tired of all obstacles and past difficulties. It was like an unbridled horse racing and jumping over and away from obstacles. And then one day with the papers, the barriers were gone and no one knew how to react... it will take time to get used to it...



Olivier


My name is Olivier Ndilmbaye Ndilede. Ndilmbaye means in the shadow of the King. Ndilede means their shadows. I’m the son of Madeleine and Paul Wala. My name means the place where people go to hide. I was born in Mondou, south of Chad.


I arrived in Belgium July 22, 2000. Back home, I was a militant for human rights with various associations. We intervened in the country's political life. As a result, some friends and I were the target of secret services. During a protest march, we lost a friend, Brahim Selguey. My life changed. I continued to be politically active, but I spent my time between my home and those of my friends. I felt threatened. A friend, who lived in Belgium, requested for a certificate of accommodation in Belgium on my behalf. I left my country. I flew to France and immediately came to Belgium. I did not know Belgium. I arrived thanks to my friend.


I always wanted to be open and honest. At the Immigration Office, I submitted all the documents proving my activities, the difficulties I encountered and how I had arrived in Belgium. I was assigned to a reception centre at Saint-Trond (Flanders). After seven months and after a second interview, they told me that I had not come to Belgium on the terms of the Geneva Convention and that the certificate of accommodation and the brief passage via France made my application invalid. If I had lied, as others do, I would have had a positive response... But I wanted to be honest... I appealed but after three months I received an order to leave the country. So I had to find another way to stay. Fortunately, I met people who helped and hosted me at the beginning.


After two weeks, I came to Brussels. Initially, I stayed at the South Station. Afterwards, I contacted people that some residents at the centre of Saint-Trond had suggested to me. And then my life as illegal resident began. You spend a night in one place, then in another, and in yet another. You look for work. You find work here and there; one day yes, one day no, or for a few hours. You take it. You work for wages of sometimes €20 for a day but you take it, to contribute to the expenses of those who host you. First, I washed dishes, after that I worked in garbage removal... You take what is offered, you are always available.


That lasted two years. I was tired of the instability. I had another plan. A man gave me his papers and I worked at Opel Antwerp using his identity. He had had the same situation as me before and so he helped me. I worked cleaning the floors from 11PM to 8AM. I left half of my wages to the man who gave me his papers. I also rented an apartment in Antwerp with his papers. Suddenly, I was a normal man like all those who worked at Opel and who had papers... I had an employment contract, but it was not in my name, it was not me... I stayed one year. I was scared, like many undocumented people; afraid of being arrested and deported and I asked myself, is this really worth it? But fortunately, I was never controlled by the police. Every weekend, I went to Brussels, where I had my social network. Antwerp was only a place to work. Eventually, the man whose identity I was using demanded more money, knowing that I could not protest, so I went back to Brussels.


In Brussels, I reconnected with the people who had hosted me on my arrival. I wanted to go back to school, but without papers it was not possible. In the subway, I saw an advertisement for training in the social sector. I introduced myself and I was admitted, despite my situation. I was training two evenings a week. The rest of the time, I continued to work when I was offered a job, such as the distribution of daily newspapers in the mailboxes. I did everything imaginable to earn money, but honestly.


At this point, I wanted to go home. I thought that it would be better to suffer at home. But my father did not agree. He told me even if you suffer, at least you're alive. So I stayed. He told me one day everything would be alright for me, it gave me courage.


I contacted the advisors of the mayor, many of my friends, teachers, trainers, etc. asking to support my demand. They all helped me. Despite this support, it was always difficult. I thought there must be other ways. The wait was getting really long. Why should I suffer unnecessarily?


In 2006, I got married. I obtained a residency permit. There were the usual controls when there are mixed marriages of this type, but they saw that we remained together, that friends were visiting us. At one point the controls stopped. At that time, I was married, I was training and I worked when I was offered a job.


In 2006, I applied to a competition organized by the African Union. I was selected and offered a five-year contract in Geneva. So I left. I had a salary and diplomatic status so things were better. But I continued my politic activism. My contract was discontinued after that. Chad funds the African Union so it was difficult to accept that someone working there would criticize them. I was back in Belgium in October 2007. Who knows if I’ll go back one day?


Despite these setbacks, I continued my political activities. I contributed to my website, Chad Hope, on human rights in Chad. There were a few of us who contributed. We were often the target of viruses that ruined our work. I received warnings. I have never been directly threatened, but I know inquiries were made about me. In 2006, my father died. I returned to Chad incognito via Nigeria. I stayed locked up for a week. I went out only for the burial. I knew it was not safe to be there. But I had to go; if I had not, I would have been angry at myself my whole life.


Since then, things have changed in Chad. The beginnings of democracy are at work. The president has realized that many things have to be done. It made me change my point of view. I buried the hatchet. The government finally contacted me, via the Secretary General of the party. We set up a party office of which I am the representative in Belgium. The elections will be held in December. With the help of others, I'm contacting Belgian compatriots to raise awareness of the elections. Today, I could go to Chad without any problems, I think.


Back in Belgium, I could live on the savings made during my time in Geneva. In 2008, I got divorced. I worked at Flight Care, cleaning airplanes between flights. I did not like the work. I was going to work upset. I was seriously considering that I would not stay in Belgium. After the year spent working in Geneva and coming back to this situation again... Belgium does not give opportunities for people to channel their talents. It's a shame. Besides, we are also subject to discrimination. I say this with a heavy heart, but I experienced it several times. There is always a way to be discrete or polite about the rejection, but the result is the same; you are black and you cannot have the contract. So I decided to train in Human Resources Management thinking that it would easier to find a job. I hope it will be enough.


So I decided to stay. I tell myself that I was not able to make myself understood or that I was simply not understood. There are rules and if you do not follow these rules, case closed. I told myself that I had to go into the same straitjacket that everyone else had to. I always wanted to study Law, but at my age it is too late... However, I did take the Master's program in Law for three years, in the evenings. I have a new companion. So, I have found some stability, but I'm still looking for work. If anyone who reads this is interested, they can contact me.

I would like to conclude by speaking about Belgium. Belgium thinks that its policy towards immigrants is flexible. I say that in its approach it lacks humanity towards foreigners, particularly asylum seekers. I feel that Belgium accepts people who lie, who say what Belgium wants to hear. I came here to tell the truth. Nobody listens to me. I was rejected. They let me suffer. They have ruined my life. When I arrived, my dream was to go to university and study. Belgium disabled me. She abused me psychologically. But hey, I do not cry over my fate. I'm not one who gives up.



Pant Liladhar


I arrived in Belgium in 2001. In Nepal, there was a conflict between the government and the people. The King of Nepal reigned as a despot. Due to my political activities in opposition to this regime, I had trouble with the authorities. That's why I left Nepal.


I was teacher of mathematics while also being actively involved in politics. I had no plans or preparations should something go wrong. When I was made aware of my dangerous situation, I decided to go quickly. I travelled to India. Very simply, there are no real border controls between the two countries. I stayed two months in India. I knew some people there who helped me.


After two months I left India for Europe. I arrived via a smuggler, who advised me where to go. I was not familiar with Belgium ahead of time. Belgium was a chance for me to get away. Only upon arrival, I was I told I was in Belgium. I did not speak French, just a little bit of English.

 


Débrouille


When you have a problem, you seek a solution. The first night in Brussels, I did not sleep. I arrived at night and waited near the Immigration Office. In the morning when I entered, there were many people like me, coming to seek asylum. I felt good because I told myself that if there were so many people, it meant there was a greater possibility of being helped.


I was interviewed that day with an interpreter present. They told me to go to the centre for asylum seekers at Boiseigneur Isaac. They gave me enough to buy a train ticket, but it was very difficult to communicate. I immediately realized I should learn to speak the language, otherwise things would not be easy, I would get nothing done, and I would not be able to say anything. At the centre, there were French classes twice a week. I decided to teach myself independently as well; I was very motivated. I spent the money I received from the Centre of Public Welfare (CPAS), about 2,000 BF (€50), to buy dictionaries, which helped me to learn French.


I stayed seven months at the centre. I received a positive response on the admissibility of my request and received a residency permit for three months, the so- called orange card, which gave access to a C permit (work). Once I received these documents, I came to Brussels. I knew some Nepalese people living in Brussels, so I came to visit them and find housing. I found a home in Anderlecht. With the money provided by CPAS I could pay the rent.


I started working part-time in a restaurant that served French cuisine. My temporary license was extended. Then, after 14 months, I received a negative response concerning my request for asylum. They wanted me to provide evidence of what I claimed... but I had lived in the countryside, there was no electricity there, so there is no information on the internet (they find evidence only through the internet). In addition, there is a department of the Office des Etrangers (Alien Office), which surveys the countries of origin of applicants, but they met only with officials of these countries, who, of course, do not give negative information. In 2004, Amnesty International denounced the report on Nepal and issued another, which reported a more accurate picture of the situation.


Despite receiving a negative response to my request, my boss wanted me to continue my job, with or without papers; he claimed to not be concerned because I was the right person for the job. So I continued to work; my status was officially declared, but I did not have papers. Work helped improve my French and I kept getting better. I attended courses at Convivial, an association, where I started volunteering because I found that the association was doing good work. I handled the inventory of office supplies. I did not know any names of the supplies (pencils, pens, paper, etc.), but I learned through this work.


In 2004, the State Council warned me that my request had been denied. The CPAS thus ceased helping me. I discussed my situation with the Office for Public Welfare. They continued to give me financial aid because I had a social volunteer activity. Besides that, I continued to work in the restaurant.


Social implication


It continued like that until 2007. That's when I started to be much more active in the movement helping undocumented migrants. Actually, I had been active since 2004 but from 2007, I can really talk about fighting for our cause. I coordinated the community of undocumented Nepalese people in this movement.

  

I started the fight following the discovery of the history of immigration in Belgium and the struggles for similar causes in other communities to get more rights, including the hunger strike. Our efforts have led to legislative changes. This is the starting point of my commitment because I saw that one could achieve something by mobilizing and bringing the issue to public awareness.


I went several times to the Office of the Minister of Interior to address the situation in Nepal and inform them about the situation of Nepalese people in Belgium. Belgium sells weapons to the Nepalese government... We lobbied against this. Our association of Nepalese in Belgium brings together many of the Nepalese in Belgium. Furthermore, our cause had the support and help of many Belgian people as well. 


Family


It has been a long time since I have had any contact with my family. I’m alone for nine years now, without family, without seeing them. This experience has marked my life. Of course, we sometimes talked on the phone, but initially it was complicated; there were not the facilities there are nowadays. My wife and my two children were alone for 9 years. It's unimaginable. Here, after a week away from home, people tell each other: "Come back !!". But for us, for asylum seekers, this is life... We must wait. I cannot go back after 4, 5 years here alone. My family is still waiting. If there were no problems in Nepal and I returned, I would start a new life from scratch, I lost everything... But it is not possible. That's why I want to stay here. We are victims. We did not choose to leave, we had to. When you are lost and have found a path, it's hard to go back. So, I thought about it and decided that my life is here. It's also the reason for my struggle. Now I am regularized.


Involvement II


Last year there was a hunger strike in Ixelles, which lasted 87 days. I was the intermediary between the hunger strikers and the government during the negotiations. After 87 days, we got the orange card, a temporary permit, on the condition that we would find work. This was the result of the negotiation. I found a full time job in a shop and got a B license, with a residency permit for one year. Based on the circumstances of 2009, I have been regularized for 1 month now (August 2010). This is another important step in my life.


Daily life


I felt welcomed in Belgium; ok, not by everybody, but overall yes. There are many different backgrounds and cultures, it is not always simple. I think some foreigners want to remain as they are. Not me. I think the Belgians have a big heart. I felt respected. I do respect them. The greatest difficulties I have had was with the administration. The administrative procedures are complicated, not simple to tease out and understand.


Nepal is very important to me. I want people to know about it. It is a mosaic of cultures and languages. In Belgium, it is important to gather all these components and show the Belgians how it works in Nepal. And we want to learn the culture of Belgium. There are 40 associations of Nepal in Belgium. The association where I am active tries to coordinate these different associations. Nepal's problems are political; they are not related to ethnic differences.


Future


I would love to continue my work for social integration. I will never forget the issues faced by undocumented people, but I think my next cause should be integration, especially with the Association of Nepalese in Belgium. And besides that, I continue to work for a living.

For a month now, my situation has been quite different. Last year, thanks to my residency permit of one year, I went to see my family. I will return in October 2010. After 10 years, I have been forgotten and am unknown to the authorities. And the situation has changed too, I probably do not risk as much. I introduced a request for family reunification. My son, age 23, is in Australia at university. My daughter, age 25, is in India and has completed her university studies. My wife is left alone... What has she gone through in order to survive? I do not want to think about that...


One day I will write my story... I filled notebooks with what happened to me since I came to Belgium. If I sum up my life, I would say: I had something, I lost something and I have not found something... We will see shortly... When my wife arrives, it will be a new life. It's time to continue and finish writing this story.


Orlando 


My name is Orlando Rodriguez, but as evidence of my integration in Belgium, I added 'van de', so I became Orlando van de Rogriguez. I was born in Havana, more than fifty years ago.


My life there? That of a young man who lives in an embargoed country under economic siege for years. I'm basically someone positive and optimistic. I learned to push the rules and limits, nothing really serious, but you quickly fall into illegality under these conditions. Yet, if you can manage well, the police is more complicit than enemy. My father was a bodyguard of Che Guevara. They had an eye on me, but I was pretty free anyway. I had one foot in a different world.


My life was filled with parties. It was nightlife, dancing, partying, women and music. The music, always music. I organized things in a way to manage living well. I sold products that are not easy to get; for example, cigars. Obviously, as I said, they keep watch on you; they see that you have economic resources, even though you do not work much. So, they come to see you, they suggest you just share a little and they will leave you in peace. I've never been afraid. I have never gave in, never surrendered, but at the end it's tiring.


At some point, Cuba opened to tourism. Business was better. And then there were the women. Some have made it a way of life. They charmed tourists and used their financial resources. I never participated in it. Of course, frequenting bars and pubs at night, I met women, but I never wanted to live like that. The women, that was for fun, not to make life better. It was not always easy, but I liked that life. But, over time, like many Cubans, I wanted to leave the island. I knew that I would leave someday. I knew my life would continue elsewhere.


I met a woman. We fell in love. She was Dutch, she lived in Belgium. We organized my departure. When it happened, I had the feeling that it was all okay and that it was what had to happen. Inside, I knew I would leave Cuba one day. We got married. We lived together. Unfortunately, my wife died fairly soon after. How dramatic! She died on my birthday... Each year it is a special day. I have been in Belgium for fifteen years and this event marks my life. Her family and I stayed very close. I was adopted in a way. They helped me a lot, but I want to support myself. I know that if someday I need them they will be there.


I never wanted to have the typical life of migrants. I knew Cubans here and in Paris, some of whom I knew from Havana, but I did not get involved in the community life here in Belgium, finding it falsely friendly. It is a resource, nothing more. Similarly, I would not go into the networks of small jobs. Obviously, I had a residency permit, but that does not necessarily mean that your situation is better; when you are newly arrived in a country, when you do not know the language, when you do not know the country, you have the same difficulties as everyone else. So I thought that if I had to suffer, I might as well be doing what I loved: sculpture.


I spent a lot of time collecting items for my sculptures. Meanwhile, I had acquired a van, I recovered metal, which I sold, and at the same time, I gathered what I used to sculpt. Sculpture is my passion. And music too. I entered quickly into the world of music. I met people who introduced me to a community of roadies. For over ten years I have travelled the road with artists and going to festivals. It's a pretty small world. We know almost everyone. I have very good friends. I love this work. So, yes, sometimes there are quieter moments; in the winter, for example.


I think that I was born under a lucky star. I believe that I make things happen. I live in Flanders. I did not want to depend on anyone. In my initial contacts with local authorities, I realized that I should learn Dutch if I wanted to get out and be accepted. I took courses. I approached people. I was the only black man in that community; people stared at me of course, but it did not last, when they saw that I wanted to be friends with them, people welcomed me and they ended up not seeing me, I'm part of the landscape now.


One day, in my travels I saw an abandoned farm. I entered the yard and I told myself that I’d like to live in a place like this. Time passed. I was working. I carved. I exhibited some of my works with other artists. I met a man very interested in my work. We met again. He wanted to help me, but he did not know how. I told him I was looking for a home. He offered me a building he owned but that was not occupied. When I saw that it was the farm I had seen a few months earlier, I could not believe it. Since then I live there. He rents me the house for a nominal amount and I maintain it. My life is made up of these little nudges of fate. But I need to push  it to make it go. I could have chosen a life where I received public assistance, and I know that some have no other choice, but I did not want to. I wanted to keep control of my life, to make choices, and not wait for a decision that never happens.


Belgium is an incredible and wonderful country. Of course, there are idiots, as there are everywhere, but it is a country where you have lots of possibilities, where generally people leave you in peace, and it’s up to you to prove your value. I wanted to leave Cuba. I did not know how it would happen but I knew it would happen one day. I wanted to see what life was like elsewhere. It happened. No doubt that what we do, what we do not do, what we choose, and what we put in place sometimes, without us realizing it, ends up happening. But hey, I know I got lucky and that not everyone does.


Today, I want my mother to come visit me. We talk often via telephone and internet. This is also why I work a lot on renovating the house, to fix it up and welcome her into it. It's been a long time since we saw each other last. It's time now.

(Orlando’s mother died a few weeks later. They will never meet again)





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