Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Belgium - Last Thoughts

After a long set of flights back to the US and waiting nearly 48 hours for the luggage to arrive, some final thoughts on our trip to Belgium last week.

We saw and learned so much about Belgian government(s), society, and issues around immigrant integration in such a short time, it is really very hard to come to any sort of conclusions. But there are a couple of things that did become very clear:

#1 Belgium does have the best chocolate in the world (it wasn't all work and no play...)

#2 Their beer is pretty darn good too. Didn't try all 550 kinds, but the ones we had were quite smakelijk!

More seriously, it seems, from what we could glean in one short week, that some of the issues of integration are linked to a perspective that requires immigrants (and their Belgian born offspring, often 2nd and 3rd generation) to make changes to adapt to mainstream society, sometimes giving up critical parts of their identity, while there are few efforts to change in the receiving society to ensure that immigrants are welcome and treated equitably.

There are many wonderful government sponsored programs in place to help immigrants assimilate into their new community.

But we also heard from some of these 2nd and 3rd generation allochtoonen that despite the fact that they were born in Belgium, speak Flemish, French, English and Arabic fluently, are university educated, and gainfully employed, as seems to be required to be considered "integrated" by Belgian society, they still felt less than welcome, still experienced much discrimination, and were overall treated much like second class citizens in many situations.Perhaps it is because Belgium has only recently been confronted with these immigration, religious, and race issues. They have not experienced hundreds of years of slavery and a civil rights movement that raised these questions in the US over 40 years ago.

Of course, we still deal with these issues every day in the US. But it seems that there is also more willingness to talk about them here, to try to work together to figure out solutions. Perhaps it is just a matter of time before Belgium will have its own movement to raise these issues for discussion on a societal level.

We can only hope that one day, decendants of Moroccan, Turkish, and Congolese immigrants can stand up proudly and declare, "Ik ben allochtoon!" and still be treated with the respect and fairness afforded to the autochtoonen (native born white Belgians).

We are looking forward to the Belgian participants' impressions of the United States as half of them visit New York, Atlanta and Denver in May, while the other half come to Washington DC, Detroit, and Seattle in October.

We're wondering how they will see our efforts at integration and what insights they may have into our own confusing system of immigration and immigrant services...

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