human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

Elene’s journey from Georgia to Belgium

Interview with a former refugee

When Elene (fictional name to protect her identity) was 9 years old, she left her native Georgia on a journey for a new home. The trip to Belgium and the following few years deeply marked Elene, who, as a young child, was overwhelmed by the huge changes in her life. Now, after having lived in Belgium for many years, she is an Executive Assistant in an international consulting company and lives in Brussels close to her siblings.

To support our #whatishome campaign, Elene generously shared her experience as a refugee and how she later came to find a fulfilling life in Belgium.

What was your life like in Georgia?

I always liked living in Georgia, where our friends and family also lived. Despite the poverty, fear and insecurity, I never dreamt of abandoning the place that was home.

What made you/your family decide to leave Georgia and how did you do so?

We left because of the civil war after the end of Communism. I was 9 years old. There was a lot of chaos, danger and poverty in the country. Our parents wanted us children to have a better and a safer future.

What was the most difficult part about leaving Georgia?

Not having a choice to stay. And even if I had, where would I have gone as my parents and siblings were also leaving.

Leaving behind our mom before she could reunite with us in Belgium two months later. We didn’t have enough money for her travel and our dad spoke English so he thought he could pave the way before she joined.

Leaving behind the school and the teacher I loved, my friends, family, and everything that was Georgia for me. For years in Belgium I would intentionally look for smells that reminded me of that country.

We left so suddenly that I didn’t even have time to say goodbye to our friends.

Why did you come to Belgium?

My parents first wanted to go to Spain but because the culture and the weather was more similar to Georgia, my father was afraid that we would not return to Georgia after growing up. For him departing our country was only a temporary solution.

Belgium, being a small country and at that time not very accustomed to refugees, my dad thought that we would be treated better than in countries where refugees were more common (Germany, France).

What was your journey to Belgium like?

We left in 1996. It was a tough three-day journey. The trip involved a plane, trains, buses and a car ride. The hardest part was when we lost our dad. In Ukraine our train made a 30’ stop. Our dad got off the train because he had to modify our tickets. We wanted him to take us with him but he thought that would only slow him down. My brother, sister, and I stayed on the train, counting every second until our dad would return as everything seemed so hostile. Our dad didn’t come back after 30’. The train slowly started to move and we started to panic. We tried asking several people on the train for help but no-one could or would help us it seemed. It looked like everyone had their own worries or maybe they didn’t understand our Russian that well? I still wonder today why no-one helped. After four hours or so our dad somehow managed to find us. The time during that four hours is too painful to share but we eventually experienced that abundant joy when we saw our dad again. We couldn’t believe it. It was really him.

What helped you get through difficult circumstances both during your journey and since you arrived in Belgium?

For getting through difficult circumstances in Georgia, I was mostly in it by myself. I wouldn’t even dare share the pain with others out of shame. My parents had too many of their own worries to even notice. I wish I had known God then so that I would have been able to share my pain with someone. Only now I see that He has always been there.

What helped most in Belgium in the first years was keeping the memories alive. I would daily revisit my favourite memories from Georgia for fear that I would forget them. I started living in my mind, where I could always go to Georgia and escape Belgium, a foreign place where I didn’t fit in.

What were your family’s hopes for your new life in Belgium? Have these hopes come true?

That we would get good education and live in safety. Yes, they came true.

When we arrived in Belgium in 1996, the country was very safe compared to Georgia then. The Belgian Government provided places for us to stay in (e.d. ‘Petit Chateau’). In these places we were fed, clothed and received material for school.

It was great that we could go to school very soon after we arrived in Belgium. This way we could study to not fall behind in our knowledge, integrate and learn their language(s). For the first few years we were only allowed to participate in mathematics and then slowly after understanding more of the language, we were allowed to participate in more subjects.

After graduating high school, the three of us also had the chance to pursue further education as University entrance fees are very affordable in Belgium. This gave us further opportunities and now the three of us are working and have jobs that we love.

What was your experience as a refugee in Belgium?

I think it doesn’t matter in which country you are a refugee; you are always different and isolated from the locals. You always feel less than the locals and the road seems too long for you to ever catch up.

Today the situation is much different as refugees are better integrated. There are programs, even in schools. In 1996 nothing like that was offered to us. Even in school there were no special programs.

What would you like Europeans to know about being a refugee in Europe?

That refugees also have similar dreams and aspirations but most importantly similar capabilities and talents.

What did you think of Belgium when you first arrived and has your opinion changed in any way over time?

At the beginning, I hated it. Mostly because it was not Georgia, nothing about it reminded me of my home. The sounds were different, the smells were different. I hated the refugee establishments as they were always so scary and dangerous as a small girl with no mum in the country and the dad outside every day giving interviews and searching for ways for us to build our lives anew.

I was going to local schools in a small town, where I was obviously an outsider as there were almost no refugees there. I hated the language, became extremely silent and only after 3 years I started to speak.

The more years went by, the more I realized that Belgium and the Belgian people were not my enemy. It was not Belgium that had parted me from my country, family, friends, language and everything I knew to be mine. It was the war that caused us to emigrate and start a new life somewhere else.

Looking back now, I understand that we had to leave. I can’t even imagine how our lives would have evolved there after childhood.

After becoming a Christian, I realised that God was involved in my whole journey. In His love He blessed us and showed us mercy through the Belgian people. All other negative emotions we faced due to the move faded in comparison.

What do you do now in Brussels? How are you involved in the local community?

I work as an Executive Assistant. I very much enjoy supporting the Executives in their busy lives with managing their schedules, client meetings, travel and other necessities that help make their lives easier and more manageable. I also enjoy that every Director is so unique which makes you search for ways of working that suit their personalities best or helps their work most. I also have the greatest colleagues. I work in a very diverse and international company, and it was a breath of fresh air that on my first day of work no one asked me where I originally come from or why my name was different (in the past these questions again and again reminded me that I wasn’t one of them or that they didn’t see me as such). I very much appreciate that in this company it matters more who you are as a person and how you can contribute.

I am further involved in an international church where I am also one of the Bible Study leaders.

After work I also have time to do what I enjoy: ballet and spending time with great friends.

All of the above is a huge blessing that I don’t deserve, only by His grace given to me.

Do you know others like you from Georgia, besides your family, who have come to Belgium as refugees? How does your life differ from theirs?

Yes there are many Georgians in Belgium, mostly in Antwerp. The biggest difference is that they have formed very close Georgian communities where as we were living more isolated. Now I do have a few lovely Georgian friends.

What have been your biggest challenges and greatest sources of joy since you moved to Belgium?

My biggest challenge has been to feel at home here and to feel equal to Belgians. The first reason was because I didn’t speak their language and believed my home to be somewhere else. But the gap also grew because our personal family life was very turbulent which isolated us even more from everyone around.

Another factor that made me feel inferior and ashamed was our poor financial situation. The school bus picking us up in the morning meant that the other children could see where we lived. We wore clothes that came from refugee centres. Our parents were never able to pay for school trips and we never able to bring snacks or lunch to school. Our school director was so kind and generous and let us eat lunch at school for free.

If we had lived in Brussels the situation might have been different but living in a small town where there were almost no foreigners and where families were well-off just highlighted the gap.

My biggest joy has been my relationship with God, as I got to know Him after being in Belgium for 10 years. He helped me see that we are all His children. Through His love, I also started to love and appreciate Belgium and its people and started feeling home at here.

The times in the past when I felt that I wasn’t accepted in this country had nothing to do with the fact that Belgians have given us huge opportunities and have provided for every aspect of our well-being.

What do you miss most about Georgia?

The people, the chaos that still exists in some way, the warmth of the people, the climate, hearing my language which is only spoken there, the smells.

Are you still in contact with other family members back there?

Yes with everyone and I visit them every year.

Do you still have close links/connections to Georgia beyond your family? In which way?

I have Georgian friends in Belgium, I watch Georgian TV sometimes, and I read in Georgian.

What are your plans for the future? Have you ever considered going back to Georgia?

I have always considered going back. Before we left the country to come to Belgium, I made a promise with myself at the airport that I would return to live there one day. And it has been on my heart since then as a 9 year old.