Belgian Program Teaches Social Skills to Immigrants

Kamal Deep is a mechanical mechanical engineer with two diplomas from his native India. He has lived in Belgium just six months.

Together with his classmates, he is learning how to navigate through the Belgian bureaucracy at a “social orientation class.”

Deep says he hopes this will help him find a job for which he is qualified. “It’s very easy, if you study well here. We have diplomas in our country, and if you transfer them, job is no problem for students here,” he said. “But everybody tells it like this: it is very difficult to ‘make papers’ in Belgium, for permanent residency. Otherwise, it’s a very nice country, it’s a good country.”

These social orientation classes, offered by the Brussels-based non-profit group BON, amount to 60 to 80 hours of study, followed by Dutch language classes.

Teacher Marina Volodina is Russian, and has been living in Belgium for nine years.

She says the fact these classes are not obligatory shows these students are eager to learn. “No-one told them you have to do that or you will be punished,” she said. “That’s why it’s really only the people who want to integrate in the country, who understand what it actually means to live in a foreign country. And they show their will to do that.”

Students learn how social welfare benefits work, and how to negotiate a salary.

Rosemary from Ghana has two children and has been in Belgium for two years. She says, before coming to these classes, she did not know Belgian healthcare was free for all.

“We are learning. They are teaching us how to find jobs, also, how to fight for your rights, and how to get yourself employed, and some of the information we never know,” she said.

Those who run the program say its success lies in combining individual counseling with group sessions.

Director Eric De Jong says, for too long, newcomers were seen as a problem. But his organization is fighting to change that perception. “We do need newcomers to establish our society long term. It’s everywhere in the world,” he said. “Where you have a big economy, you need other people to get in on the same level to establish your society.”

As a deep recession takes hold of Europe, these recent arrivals say the quicker they integrate themselves, the better chance they have of building a new life for themselves.