Brussels, doors open in the parish

In Saint Roche, not far from EU institutions, thousands of stories intertwine. Father Van Geel took the Pope's invitation seriously

They walked for three months and paid very high sums, up to 5 thousand euro, to reach Europe. Most of them come from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan: Countries destroyed by a war that seems never-ending. When they arrive they are tired, they’re exhausted but they don’t cry. They don’t complain. All they want is to be able to see a future again. Thousands of stories intertwine in the Saint Roche parish in Brussels, a few meters away from Parc Miximilien, where for months some thousand migrants have been cueing up at the Office des étrangers to obtain a legal asylum status enabling their permanence in the Country. We’re in the heart of the city home to the European Union; where heads of Government and State meet on a regular basis – as was the case Wednesday September 23rd – to decide on the number of migrants to be welcomed in their home Countries. Of all the camps located throughout Europe, Parc Maximilien is the symbolic site of the exceptional inflow of people – men, women and children – that are knocking at the doors of European cities from the South of the world. Precarious conditions. “In the past three days – said Fr Hugo Van Geel, parish priest of the Saint Roche church – it rained constantly in Brussels and here it rains heavily, under the blows of vigorous winds”. For some time already the parish has been opening its doors to offer a warm shelter during the night. Often the migrants are soaking wet, and that’s why the first things they are given are dry clothes and a warm drink. There are only 25 beds available. Every evening Caritas workers go to Parc Maximilien and select the migrants that are in greater need of help. They are given a “papier” that they display in the parish. Thus the most vulnerable and fragile are those welcomed inside the church. The parish priest remembered a group of young people aged 14-17, from Syria. They met during a trip and decided to continue together so as to make it less difficult to face their three-month-long journey by foot, amidst obstacles and hardships. Many are the women who arrive here: often they are pregnant with very young children. Life flows as they wander for long periods, and sometimes they have reasons to celebrate and be happy. “Like that evening – recalled father Hugo – when we had to call an ambulance because a woman was starting labour”. But upon their arrival these women and their children are in very bad conditions. One child had a burnt hand. Another breathed so badly that he had to be brought to the hospital. “Nonetheless – added father Hugo – these children are always kind, joyful, they take you by the hand to tell you they want to play. We have never seen them crying”. And they would have many reasons for doing so. Over the past months, in the corridors of the parish they heard stories of war and suffering. But nobody complains. “All they express is thankfulness, and they are grateful for anything they are given”. Reception inside the parish entails serious, complex organization. The migrants have to be welcomed, accompanied, and they cannot be left alone. In the Saint Roch Church a team of 10 people ensures service and take shifts to ensure the presence of one of them during the night. A group is dedicated to clothes distribution. But solidarity abounds and is unending: “every day we receive cookies, bread, cheese, blankets, and everything we receive we donate to the needy”. Pope Francis calls, Belgium replies. In the summer months the Belgian Bishops’ Conference reiterated a Caritas appeal to owners of unused property asking them to make their homes available to the migrants. The appeal was met with 300 offers that prompted a pilot-project across Europe. The bishops view the coming months with concern. Monsignor Jean Kockerols, auxiliary bishop in Brussels, just returned from Parc Maximilien. “While at present – he said – civil and political authorities, charitable organizations and many volunteers are working on the ground to respond to the emergency and supply immediate needs, it is clear that in a few months, when a significant number of refugees will have obtained legal asylum, everyone’s help will be even more urgent. Consider, for example, the importance of integrating children in schools, finding a job for parents or accommodation. “Also in this new phase parishes will be engaged in the front line”. This will require “major openness towards the refugees” on the part of the communities. We must learn to listen to these people. Theirs are stories of grave suffering. Most of them come from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. It will therefore be necessary to open up to other cultures and at the same time give them the best of ours”.

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