Brussels Lockdown

alarm-959592_1920  Thirteenth of  November 2015. This date is still on the minds of many people around the globe as the dreadful day when a series of coordinated terrorist acts occurred in Paris and its northern suburb, Saint-Denis. Three suicide bombers struck near the Stade de France, followed by suicide bombings and mass shootings at cafés, restaurants and a music venue, the Bataclan theatre. The attackers killed 130 persons and injured 368. Seven of the perpetrators of the attacks also died. The attacks were the deadliest in France since World War II and the most fatal in the European Union since the Madrid train bombings in 2004.  They led French president François Hollande to declare a 3-month state of emergency and launch Opération Chammal, the most extensive French airstrike operation against ISIS to date. Counter-terrorism measures were also taken by other states in Europe and North America. In addition to triggering political reactions, the event resonated with people across the globe, especially on social media where the Twitter hashtag PrayForParis and the Facebook profile filter French Flag were launched so that people could show their support for France and the families of the victims of the attacks.

Many things can be said about the consequences of the attacks in France and elsewhere, but today I want to focus on some of the effects it has had on my home country, Belgium, and more specifically on Brussels, my hometown.

Some of the men that participated in the attacks lived in Brussels and one of the main perpetrators, Salah Abdesalam, who survived the attacks, is suspected to have crossed the French-Belgian border after the attacks. This prompted Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel to announce a lockdown on Brussels by declaring a level 4 security alert, which is defined by the National Security Council as an imminent and serious threat. As a result, subway lines, schools, universities and many shops were closed down for several days. The Winter Market, one of the biggest annual attractions held in December in the center of Brussels risked being canceled and attracted substantially fewer people than previous years. Military personnel patrolled the city, police presence was increased, streets were empty, and the overriding message was to “avoid all crowded places and stay at home if you can”.

In addition to implementation of these security measures, a total of 20 arrests were made in Molenbeek, a neighbourhood in Brussels where some of the Paris attackers lived and where they may have been radicalized. The arrests were coordinated by Belgium’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Jan Jambon, who stated that he would “clean up Molenbeek”.  Molenbeek was scrutinized by foreign media for several weeks after the raids and many European politicians criticized Belgium for its lack of security and anti-terrorism intelligence.  A headline in the famous French newspaper, le Monde, read: “For Belgians, the Abdesalam brothers did not constitute a threat” and the British daily, The Guardian, stated that “Molenbeek was becoming known as Europe’s Jihadi central”.  Donald Trump, one of the Republican Party candidates for the US presidential elections, claimed that “the capital of Belgium had been adversely affected by its lack of assimilation from their Muslim residents”.

As a Belgian living abroad, I was often asked about the state of alert in Brussels and many individuals who were eager to discuss the issue with me had narratives similar to those proposed by the media. This prompted me to read news articles on the subject and talk to my parents and relatives living in Brussels. It brought me to the following conclusion: while these allegations may have some truth to them, it is important for people to carefully analyze the context of the situation before making assumptions about the gravity of the situation in Brussels, and particularly Molenbeek.

First, with the population increasingly feeling frustrated by the lack of public transport, closed shops and closed schools, the level of alert was decreased to 3 on the 27th of November, only 6 days after imposing security level 4. The decision was made without pointing out any real change in the situation, suggesting that the threat may not have been as prominent as had been claimed in the first place.

Concerning Molenbeek, of the 20 arrests made, 16 people were interrogated and 15 were released. This suggests that the majority of those  arrested did not constitute a direct threat to security and that the intervention was carried out as a show of power. Jan Jambon’s solution was to clean up Molenbeek. This is a simplistic solution that is overused by politicians when referring to the perceived threat that neighbourhoods of lower socio-economic standing pose to the general population. It is a dangerous term because it separates the inhabitants of the said neighbourhood from the rest of the population and treats them as the “problem”. It implies that  if something had to be “cleaned up”,  it must have been “dirty” in the first place. Further alienation of a stigmatized group of people can only increase resentment and lead to more violence.

My suggestion is to urge people around the world to carefully analyze the information they are exposed to by the media and political interests when they address the problem of terrorism. They should consult multiple sources of information with differing perspectives in order to have a more informed opinion on the matter.  Increased knowledge and awareness of the factors contributing to terrorism are essential for the initial steps that will hopefully lead to its eradication.


 About the author:

Fiorella pic newFiorella (19) attended our Brussels Workshop as a student of Collège Saint Michel. She is currently an undergraduate student in biological science at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Fiorella is interested in politics, arts & literature, sports (climbing), guitar and travel. Her dream job is being a veterinarian for wild animals in a national park. More…


A Helping Hand for the Refugees

1The closing of the Serbo-Hungarian border in October 2015 caused a massive influx of refugees seizing their last chance to make it into the European-Union through Hungary. Katharina* (54), housewife and mother of three children in Munich decided in October 2015 to go to the Serbo-Hungarian border to offer her help to the refugees.

She agreed to share her experience with us in this interview.

YCF: What motivated you to go to the Serbo-Hungarian border?

Katharina: I decided to go there, when the refugee crisis and particularly the position of the European-Union at its borders were at the center of media attention. The spotlight was put on the Syrian refugees and their struggles at the borders to get into the European-Union by land or by sea. When I saw these people in Hungary walking by feet on the streets direction Austria I couldn’t stop thinking of them.

Furthermore, there was a wave of solidarity coming up in Munich, the city in which I live, as well as in Germany in general.

But the thing, that pushed me the most, was the urge of the situation and the will to face it. I mean, there was a huge humanitarian crisis just about 500 miles away and I couldn’t stand it, just to stay in my comfort zone and not do anything about it.

YCF: How did you go? And who did you take with you?

Katharina: I got in contact with a small group of people in my neighborhood who also wanted to do something. Most of them helped by donating stuff and/or money, but two of them were willing to come with me to the border to help the refugees there – a German architect who was about 40 years and a Syrian man who has lived in Munich for over 40 years.

Once the group was formed we decided to rent a truck and fill it with the donations. We even got supported by a charity organization which gave us among other things strollers and baby-carriers.

We first arrived in Budapest, where we originally wanted to help, but we were quickly told that there were enough people willing to help in the city. However, there was a huge lack of people at the Serbo-Hungarian border.

YCF: Once there, what was your first impression?

Katharina: I was surprised by the lack of infrastructure when we arrived. We first had to clean the surface to even think about creating a kind of infrastructure where we can welcome the arriving refugees. Then we distributed tents and made a plan to create a structure.

I was also surprised, that there were just very few people who came for humanitarian causes and a lot of journalists. I even felt, that there were more journalists than volunteers that came to the border. And there were quite a lot of Hungarian policeman at the border as well.2

YCF: What were your main activities at the border?

Katharina: Well, the activities varied. As already said, we installed tents to welcome the refugees, but we also gave them dry clothes when they arrived wet from head to toe because of the heavy rain. And we gave shelter and information to the disoriented refugees. We even gave money once in a while when they lost everything on their way. We also gave the often terrified children some toys and brought families to main train stations so that they could continue their way from there. As you can see, we always had something to do.

3YCF: What impressed you the most?

Katharina: I think it was to see so many families. Of course, I expected to see some families, but I was surprised to see that many families with small kids I thought meeting a lot more young to middle-aged men, who made the way to get their wives and kids later.

I was also surprised by the dignity and the decision of the refugees. Some of them had made very tough ways to get to the border and most were very tired. But all people were incredibly respectful and helpful one to another. I’ve never noticed a violent skid or even a feeling of aggressiveness.

Last but not least, I was surprised by the fact that there were not only Syrians trying to cross the border, but also a lot of Iraqis and Afghans fleeing terror and war.

4YCF: What was your most shocking experience

Katharina: One evening we were looking out at the border, if there was anyone who could need our help. We noticed someone hiding in the bushes, so we went a little closer. It was a young woman with a newborn in her arms. The young mother just gave birth a very few days ago in Serbia. But she didn’t have the time to recover from the birth. She had to continue her way direction Hungary. Once they arrived at the border, she sat down in a bush and stopped moving. She stayed in a severe state of shock with her newborn for one day and one night. The baby was almost not dressed. He wouldn’t have survived one more night like this in the cold.

At the example of this woman you can see how the refugees are going to their extremes. There is no going back for them.

YCF: Are you still active in the help for refugees today?

Katharina: I am indeed. I joined an organization in my city that offers different types of workshops for the refugees. The aim is, to integrate them and to offer them something to do during the long days. The workshops vary from German-classes and help in the bureaucratic steps to sports and cooking workshops. I personally lead a painting workshop with another woman. With this workshop we try to give them an opportunity to show their artistic skills and to express their experience. At the end of the workshop we’ll expose the paintings in a gallery to show it to a broad public.

* name changed as requested

Interview: Clara Hachmann

About the author:

Picture Clara HachmannClara took part in our “My Europe”workshop in Munich in 2013. She is one of the winners of the international writing contest from the workshop and has been actively representing the voice of young Europeans through the “Youth Council for the Future” (YCF). Read more…

Meet with My Prof.

Georgi meets his Professor Dr. Steven to learn more about his view on Europe. (Picture: Dr. Martin Steven, Georgi Kirkov; Remix by Spotlight Europe)

Ever wondered how your professors and teachers see Europe and its future? Then lets conduct an interview with them! Spotlight Europe supports you when you want to do an interview. Georgi (21) goes to Lancaster University and has met with his professor Dr. Martin Steven.

Georgi: Who is Dr. Martin Steven?

Prof. Steven: I am a lecturer in political science at Lancaster University, UK, and also the convener for postgraduate studies in Politics. My research interests fall within the area of comparative government, especially the European Union. I have published around 20 articles and books on the role of political parties and interest groups in the public policy process, including projects focusing on multi-level governance, electoral system design and social policy issues. I have also worked in the past in the public and not-for-profit sector, including for a London-based NGO.

Georgi: The news about the Scottish independence referendum is gradually fading away, but how likely is it to have another one in a couple of decades?

“Nationalism has a tendency not to go away completely.”

Prof. Steven: There is a chance – at present, the Scottish National Party is enjoying a lot of popularity in the opinion polls. The SNP would need to win an outright majority at the next Scottish elections in 2016 to bring forward a new referendum in the near future. We know from studying similar cases such as Quebec in Canada and Catalonia in Spain that nationalism has a tendency not to go away completely, but develop in different forms. Yet if support for independence in Catalonia is presently strong, support for it in Quebec is presently relatively low so we will have to wait and see in which direction Scotland heads.

Georgi: Do you believe that the EU gave Greece loans which it knew could not be repaid without taking new ones and in a way put the Hellenic Republic in a vicious circle?

Prof. Steven: I am not sure the EU has done anything too unreasonable – the Greek economy needed to be bailed out due to excessive public expenditure, and the Commission, the Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund stepped in to help. While it is reasonable for many ordinary Greek voters to feel disillusioned with aspects of EU economic policy, it is not really fair for the new Syriza government to suggest that the problems are all the responsibility of Brussels.

Georgi: Where will the enlargement process of the EU end? Do you think that Turkey should ever become an EU member state?

“The Eurozone crisis has really affected confidence in an ever closer union.”

Prof. Steven: It used to be that the answer to this question was ‘no’ as European leaders appeared to be intent on widening and deepening their borders as much as possible – but the context is quite different now. The Eurozone crisis has really affected confidence in an ‘ever closer union’, even amongst those who believe that EU integration has no reverse gear. Turkey has been a candidate country for European membership for many years – and I do not think that will change any time soon due primarily to the size of its population.

Georgi: How do you imagine Europe in the year 2065? Will the EU survive?

Prof. Steven: It is a good question – the former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’… We can be confident that the government of Europe will be reformed quite a lot over the next few years. There may well develop a type of two tier European Union, one with the Euro (and therefore also fiscal union) and one outside the Eurozone that resembles more of a free trade area. But it is difficult to see the European Union not surviving in some form as different European countries have too much in common both economically and culturally to not work together politically.

Visit Prof. Dr. Steven´s website for more information about him. (Site)

About the interviewer:
Picture Georgi Georgiev Kirkov, Spotlight Europe
Georgi interviewed his Prof.

Georgi (21) participated in our workshop in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2012. He currently studies Politics and International Relations at University of Lancaster in England.

“I Still Have the Dream to Go Home One Day”

Two women sitting near the Black Lake, Montenegro, Spotlight Europe
Two different ladies with a different background – yet they both still long for their home countries. (Flickr: amira_a/licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Clara: Where are you from? How long do you already live in Germany? What motivated you to come?

Biljana: Originally, I am from Kosovo. I fled to Germany about 15 years ago, due to war in my country. It wasn’t safe anymore for me in my home country.

Karina: I am from Montenegro. My husband and I were pursued due to our political convictions and so we decided to flee to Germany about 17 years ago.

Clara: How did you come?

Biljana: Since I had the right to come to Germany as a war refugee, I came by plane. Although I came legally, the bureaucratic process was really hard and took me an enormous amount of effort and time.

Karina: I am what you can call an illegal immigrant, but actually, once I arrived, we were all treated the same way. For me, the bureaucratic process was also really tough. Since we were classified as numbers, we felt quite humiliated. We kind of feared the administration, because they could decide if you stay or if you have to return where you came from. At that time, I always feared opening my mailbox, because I thought there could be a letter telling me I have to go back. And I know I wasn’t the only one having that fear.

Clara: Have you had difficulties with the language?

Biljana: The switch from Montenegrin to German was really difficult, because both languages are quite different. I still have some difficulties nowadays, although I have lived here for 15 years now. Additionally it was not mandatory to learn German at that time as it is now. There weren’t free German courses. We had to learn everything on our own.

Clara: What was your economic situation before you came? How did it change?

Karina: In fact, I had a good life: I liked my city, I liked my job and I had a good income. When I arrived in Germany, everything changed for me. Although the German and Montenegrin cultures weren’t so different, I couldn’t speak German and therefore I was only able to do the most basic jobs. That was a big economic and professional crash for me.

Clara: How did the Germans receive you?

Karina: In fact, the Germans were quite different. There were Germans who were very nice to me. They gave me help and shelter and they helped me to integrate.

Biljana: There were also people who weren’t nice. One day my son was on a school excursion and there was one bed, which was broken and nobody wanted to sleep on it. So, the teacher decided, that my son had to sleep there, although there was no reason except for the fact that he was a refugee.

Clara: Was it worth for you to come to Germany?

Karina: Yes, I think so. I still have the dream to go home one day, but my children live here and I am quite integrated today. So I can say, I have a new and normal life, which I definitely wouldn’t have had if I had stayed in Kosovo.

Biljana: If you ask me, I’m still not sure, if it was worth it. I still dream a lot of my home country and I still want to go back there. But it was not possible to stay in Montenegro during the war. And so things happened like they did. I can’t change it today. But sometimes I regret having left my home country.

About the interviewer:
Picture Clara Hachmann_small, Spotlight Europe

Clara (18) participated at the My Europe workshop in Munich, Germany, in 2013. She is involved in the work with the Youth Council for the Future.

Laura G. from Madrid

Call- button with a nurse figure on it, Spotlight Europe
Laura found a job as a nurse in Germany – a profession still demanded there. (Flickr: Nat/licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Due to great unemployment among the youth, many young people from Spain have decided to come to Germany to find a job. Laura G. (name changed as requested) is a young women from Madrid, who was fed up of not finding a job in her home country and decided to try her luck in Germany. She agreed to share her experience with me in this interview:

Clara: What motivated you to move to Germany?

Laura: After finishing my schooling to become a nurse, I waited two years for a job in Spain. A friend of mine (also a nurse) had already moved to Germany and told me there was still work left. As I couldn’t wait for a job any longer, I decided to move to Germany.

Clara: How did you get to Germany?

Laura: I saw an announcement on the web, proposing such a travel. First I contacted a company in Spain, which then contacted a company in Munich. I worked in this temporary employment agency in Munich as a nurse for a year, then changed for a private hospital. The whole organisation of this change cost me a lot of effort and time.

Clara: Did you have great difficulties with the language?

Laura: Since I’ve never learned German at school or anywhere else while I was in Spain, it surely was quite difficult. I began to have German classes three weeks before my departure, but it wasn’t enough.

Clara: Has your move been a big change in your life?

Laura: Yes, since I moved alone. My whole family still lives in Spain and even though the support they give me, I miss them a lot. Also, you have here a different culture, different weather…

Clara: Do you feel integrated now?

Laura: The people are really nice here and give their best to make me feel integrated, but since my German isn’t that good, I cannot say that I am perfectly integrated now. I can’t go to the Bank, the doctor or the hairdresser without having difficulties to express myself and I think if you really want to feel integrated you have to do all these things without major difficulties.

Clara: Was it worth it?

Laura: It surely was worth it! I now have a great job with great colleagues and friends. I am really satisfied with my decision to move here!

This interview was translated from German to English

About the interviewer:
Picture Clara Hachmann_small, Spotlight Europe

Clara (18) participated at the My Europe workshop in Munich, Germany, in 2013. She is involved in the work with the Youth Council for the Future.

Kindness Knows No Borders

Young Afghan immigrant waiting hopefully, Spotlight Europe
Thanks to the help of socially committed citizens, immigrants may find new hope. (Flickr: ResoluteSupportMedia/licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Not only because of its wealth, but also because of its ideal geographic location right in the middle of Europe, Austria has become an important destination for immigrants and asylum seekers, mainly from Eastern Europe. As the refugee camps fill up and the government is trying to come up with a solution, some citizens have decided to take action themselves.

Mr. Huber (name changed as requested) has been living with a family from Afghanistan for three months now. Since we live in the same neighborhood, he’s been an acquaintance of my family ever since we moved here and when I heard of his rather extraordinary living situation, I knew I had to grasp my opportunity. I invited him over to our house:

Benedict: What was your motive to accommodate this family of three?

Mr. Huber: As I read the newspaper every day, I can’t even miss the countless articles and headlines on refugee camps being full, the government not knowing what to do and, in consequence, the hatred against foreigners growing. I simply felt the urge to do something about this situation. Being 75, my wife has passed away six years ago and my children have obviously moved out as well. I thought to myself: This is a big enough house and I could use some company anyway! So I phoned my daughter and discussed my idea with her.

Benedict: How did she respond?

Mr. Huber: She was definitely a little hesitant at first. She complimented me for wanting to help actively, yet she also pointed out that it would be a little dangerous and unsafe for me to have complete strangers in my house. It took me at least four hours and countless phone calls, but in the end I managed to convince her!

Benedict: Whom did you turn to after your decision?

Mr. Huber: My daughter was very helpful with all of the paperwork and the research. She contacted the Bundesamt für Fremdenwesen und Asyl and they eventually found a family that agreed on leaving a refugee camp to live in a private household. I was especially surprised when I learned that the state would pay me, after all I just wanted to do something good.

Benedict: Do you get on well with the family?

Mr. Huber: I honestly couldn’t be happier with them. I’ve rarely ever met someone as appreciative and polite as them. They (father and mother) raise their two-year-old girl with so much love and even started to teach her the few basic German words that they learnt in the German class I signed them up for.

Benedict: Do you know why they had to leave Kabul?

Mr. Huber: They were surprisingly open about it and sat down with me to tell me the whole story. They are Shiite and when a Sunnite family threatened them with honor killing they knew they had to flee. The trip to Austria must have been terribly exhausting. They fled to Greece, where they were staying illegally for about five days, until the father was arrested. They didn’t really tell me how, but after he got out of prison a few months later, they somehow managed to get to Austria. What makes the whole situation especially dramatic is that the mother is soon expecting her second child and was therefore already pregnant during the trip.

Benedict: Have you already thought about what’s going to happen after they move out from here? After all they can’t stay forever.

Mr. Huber: Unfortunately no one really knows how and when the asylum proceedings are going to end. But as soon as they will receive their basic care money (Grundversorgungsgeld), they will have to start looking for their own place to stay.

This interview was translated from German into English.

About the author:

Benedict Winkler - Author at Spotlight EuropeBenedict (16) participated in the “My Europe” workshop in Vienna, Austria, in 2013. Since then he has been a member of the Youth Council for the Future (YCF).