30 Years

Belgium originally agreed to receive on a temporary basis 428 Uganda Asians of undertermined nationality. They arrived on November 8 and 9, 1972, and were offered hospitality at the holiday centre at Zon en Zee, at Westend, under the auspices of Caritas Catholica and Entr'aide Socialiste. The cost of maintenance is being paid by UNHCR, while the above-named voluntary agencies are contributing some US$ 12,500 for medical expenses and transportation inside Belgium.

By government decision of October 27, 1972, 30 families were selected for permanent settlement at the end of November by the National Labour Board and the voluntary agencies. An amount of some US$ 123,000 was allocated by the Government to UNHCR to cover resettlement costs incurred by the voluntary agencies for the permanent resettlement of the Asians. The task of providing employment and accomodation was entrusted to the following four voluntary agencies. Caritas Catholica, Entr'aide Socialiste, Entr'aide Edumenique and Solidarite liberale internationale.

Large families form the majority of the Uganda Asians who have accepted the offer to settle in Belgium. All 30 families now being integrated total some 175 persons (including 80 children), originating sometimes from other countries, in particular the United Kingdom. Like some other resettlement countries, Belgium has granted refugee status to the families admitted for permanent settlement. By March 30, 50 persons had found an employment.

The Visseries et Trefileries Reunies, a wire and scre-cutting factory, was the first company to show concern for the people uprooted from Uganda and, in January, offered nine jobs for unskilled labourers in its laminating plant at Machelen, near Brussels. "This is hard work, not a pastry shop," the likely candidates were warned.

Nothing actually obliged the job-seekers to accept on the spot the first job they were offered which might mean a complete change from their past activity and an adaptation to a rhythm of work for which they were not prepared. Nine men, however, eventually accepted. A few days later, they departed from Zon en Zee, leaving their families behind. They were to live temporarily in accomodation put at their disposal by the factory. Their performance was considered satisfactory and a few weeks later the factory offered another seven posts which were filled at once.

"At first glance, I found them a bit slight," explained Mr Stuckens, the staff manager, "Short, frail, small hands... Around here, when the rollers have to be loaded, size is important, and strength, too! But there were hardly any problems. Now that their families have joined them and they have their own home, they are in high spirits..."

"A proof of their will to succeed is their assiduity at the Flemish language course organised in the factory for the benefit of the Asians to improve the knowledge acquired in the courses they had attended in Zon en Zee," notes Miss Strypstein, a Caritas welfare officer in charge of their integration.

"The most skilful of alL.."

Mr. Natwarlal P., 40, a father of eight children, aged three to 14, belongs to the first group employed by VST. It is quite natural that he, like his fellow-countrymen was particularly attracted by the high salary offered by the company: BF 75 per hour, plus 20 for group work, plus special bonuses. With a large family and him the only breadwinner the amount of money on the wage-slip is of vital importance. Mr. P, however, unlike his fellow countrymen, had the advantage of being familiar with this kind of work. At Machelen, he very soon proved to be very competent, capable of operating a machine on his own and, when working with others, of training teammates. "The only serious problem for Mr P was the change from English measurements to the metric system, " says the staff manager. "We find him to be a particularly skillful and conscientious worker, and we can fully trust him."

The Machelen plant works around the clock. Mr. P. is part of the shift which starts work at 2 p.m. For a few weeks he has been living with his family in the five-room apartment of a three storey house in Halle, ten minutes' train ride from the factory. The rent amounts to BF 3,000, including heating, gas and electricity. It is not a mere matter of luck that the rent is so cheap. The flats are located in a former convent that was made available gratis by the Diocese and rents could then be adapted to the needs and means of this family and of a Moroccan family, accommodated on the floor above. A young Belgian couple lives there; both wife and husband are teachers who have decided to help immigrants. During the initial period, this kind of help is essential; it includes services to cope with daily life, such as shopping, various application forms to fill out, medical care, registering of the children at school... "Apart from the usefulness of this type of help it is even more important to make the new comers feel they are not isolated. I believe we have succeeded. We are visiting each other. We call each other by our first names. The P children are invited to their schoolmates' families, who, in turn come and see them." And the friendly neighbour adds: "What touches us most is their good will. The Moroccan from the floor above spontaneously offered to paint the flat for the P family.

Mrs. P, in turn, offered to babysit for us during the day."

Such relationships are no more than natural. But the mere fact that they could be established right from the day the Ps arrived at Halle, saved them from the early hardships of adaptation, from ignorance or fears, which, of course, may be dispelled sooner or later but which often undermine the precious optimism newcomers so badly need.

Though efficient welfare services exist on a local level all over Belgium, Mr. De Brandt, the secretary general of the Belgian Caritas Catholica considers of primary importance the friendly help provided by volunteers whom Caritas seeks to recruit wherever large families settle. Indeed, the presence of these sponsors is not the only stimulating or regulating factor which determines the social and economic progress of the newcomers. The substantial material assistance provided by the agency in charge of their integration is meant to ensure that their standard of living is similar to that of their neighbours, and at a level which the immigrants can be expected to maintain in the future.

Mr De Brandt indicates that furniture is given free to families moving into permanent accommodation. He also paid out BF 2,400 to the P.family. “This amount corresponds to two months’ family allowance which this family is entitled to. Now that the basic conditions are met and the application forms filled out, the further allowances will be paid by the social security office. The P.s, like the other families, should, as they start working, benefit from the same advantages as Belgian workers.

Various trades are practiced by Ugandan Asians in Belgium: Two jewelers got the same job they had in Uganda, four weavers are employed in a rope factory at Ostend; three work in a supermarket, four as waiters, two as storemen… We went to see these two at their palce of work and at their home. There we were welcomed by Ammanula B.

“Frankly speaking, I didn’t really know where Belgium was on the map. When we left Kampala, I actually thought we were going to land in Italy. We arrived at Brussels airport and went on to Westend, where we stayed for three months in very comfortable living conditions. However, we all were worried about our future and wanted to start working again as soon as possible and live a normal life.”

Ammanula, 19, is the third son of Mr. Abdul B. They are a family of ten and at present resettled in Hasselt, a small industrial town ten miles from Brussels.

“How lucky we are to be all together here,” he says, overflowing with gratitude. “ Everything was ready for us when we came here. Thirty people were here to welcome us… And in the fridge we found food for at least a fortnight.”

His father and one of his brothers are employed by a wholesale dealer in material for home decorating. This job, and the large, comfortable flat, were found for them by Sister Marie C., a nun of the order of Scheut, who works for Caritas. Sister Marie’s family owns the business; they only needed one employee there, and first hired Mustak, the young brother, as a storekeeper. And then, learning that his father Abdul, who owned lorries in Uganda, knew something about mechanics, they thought they might employ him as a van driver or a maintenance mechanic. His problem, at this stage, is still the language. This is why father and son – who already understands Flemish – still work side by side. Mustak, who is only 17, earns BF57 per hour, his father 66. “The elder B. has quite a few skills,” says the employer. “He can operate a drilling-machine, handle a saw as well as a plane; he can do carpentry work, too. You just have to explain to him – in English at the moment – what he has to do, and then he does it. Anyway, father and son always do their job well, and when they have finished they go and ask the boss for more work to do.”

Father and son are both timid and reserved. They nevertheless readily agreed to be filmed at work. The3y did not believe that they deserved all that publicity. Much more relaxed at home, as they welcomed their visitors, they answered questions. “Of course3 we are happy! How could it be otherwise?” says Mr. B. “Think that a month ago, we didn’t know what was going to become of us.”

But the most talkative of the family is Ammanula, the student. He explains that as he and his elder sister had more aptitude for academic work, the family decided that he should go on with the medical training he had started in Kampala. A fortnight ago, he was given an opportunity to go to London for an exam. If he passes, he will try to get a scholarship to continue his studies, preferably in England.

“of course I want to settle here. I am learning Flemish and French. If I pass my diploma in England, I can always take the necessary exams to be able to practice in Belgium…”

His elder sister lives in England where she is married. Two other sisters were given an opportunity to go there to finish their “O-levels” (Secondary School final exams). They will come and join the family, too, when they graduate. Two younger sisters and a small brother attend the nearest primary school. We met the girls coming out, surrounded by classmates. How do they feel? They are not deaf and dumn any more, the teachers, and above all, the classmates, see to that. It started with a smile, a ball game, shouts of job. Soon, the bit of Flemish, learnt at Zon en Zee bursts out spontaneously. “It’s us who do the shopping now! Bread? “Brood!” And butter? “Boter.”

The Belgian girls around break into laughter. And the mothers, watching at a distance, can’t help smiling, too.