The use of a project like ours
Ruben Van Bost
To those who would ask what use this project had, I will answer. I can’t speak for everyone but to me it meant a big change, both on the mental level and to me as a person. I will not say I was ignorant or shortsighted before we started, but compared to what I know now, what I can understand and explain, I learned a great deal. A couple examples will make this clear.
I used to think all foreigners and undocumented migrants were mainly Turkish or Moroccan. Well, I was wrong. There were people in this country coming from other countries I had hardly ever heard of. We interviewed people from Ghana, Uzbekistan, Slovakia, Ecuador, Cameroun, etc. There is so much more diversity than most students would think.
Another example that changed my way of looking at things is this. I really thought all countries had their own more or less independent development – from agriculture to the industrial society – that each country owned most of the resources it used, that there was some trade and that everything was more or less proportional – if not the world-economy would surely collapse. Again I was wrong. No country had an independent development. Think of the Belgians in Congo. They robbed the country and exploited it to the core, we stole a lot of wealth from that region in the middle of Africa. And once we left or were more or less thrown out, the independent Congo was blamed for being behind the leading Western countries. Today still these former colonies are not being treated fairly by the rest of the world. And look at China where today large American multinational companies plant their industries, or maybe rather to Chinese companies in Africa, looking for cheap labor and resources. That’s how they see it, but I call it exploitation and repression. Workers that are paid far from a decent wage, especially compared to the profits those companies make. No country develops or falls behind solely on its own. And this makes you think in a completely different way about refugees and undocumented migrants.
Together with Glenn I interviewed a family from Slovakia. A Roma family – or as they sometimes are ridiculed: gypsies. The family was oppressed, exploited, beaten, robbed and extorted in their own country. They didn’t want to live there anymore, they wanted to be happy, work, make some money, buy a house. They have been living here for years and all the time they have tried to get legal residence documents. But according to the Belgian state they don’t fit the right profile. Because they don’t have “good reasons” to be on the run. They’re not political refugees, they didn’t have any problems because of their religion or nationality. They just happen to be “gypsies”. In principle they should get their papers, but they don’t have any proof on paper or photo of personal persecution. If they can’t prove that they have been maltreated and repressed, then immediately they are considered liars and profiteers. So now they stay illegally in Belgium because to them returning to Slovakia is no option.
The man in the family has very bad teeth, they crumble and the gum inflames. Most of his teeth were simply black. But he could get no help from a dentist, although he did have that last single right to urgent medical aid. Apparently something like that is not urgent enough and the teeth of an undocumented migrant are less important than the teeth of a Belgian. Here human rights are breached, rights of the people that need them the most. And it is quite clear that too few people worry over this. More so, “we” feel threatened by “strangers”. Actually this “we” is an extra threat to them. They escaped a kind of misery we can hardly fathom but because the so-called basis for more rights is too small, “we” can’t help them. Well, then it is very good that “we” tried to make that basis somewhat bigger, no?
In Belgium we have a thriving economy. But if we were to send back every undocumented migrant to his country of origin, quite some companies would run into serious trouble. People without legal residence work whenever they can, but do so illegally because they’re not allowed to work. What means to employers: cheap workforce, often in sectors no Belgian wants to work. And when these cheap workers disappear these companies will make less profit, will have to make cuts, pay workers less or fire them, then these will have to be careful not to spend too much, so consume less, which …
On the other hand our population is aging. This means we need more money to pay for pensions. Well, if we were to let more undocumented migrants stay legally in this country, wouldn’t that help solve this problem? And wouldn’t that also solve the problems in those dirty difficult and dangerous places they work?
Present day policy needs more balance. We have to get away from this black-white thinking about migration that keeps that basis so small. Not everybody can stay in a single country, but can we possibly leave behind so many in inhumane circumstances? Countries like Belgium should try to improve justice in the world, if not their concerns about the dignity of its policies are but peanuts.
The use of this project is that it educates students to become world citizens. Our slogan captures it well: show and prove that we are all citizens of one world, no matter the fictitious borders, and that righteousness is also a global issue.
One learns a lot about the world in school, but to immerse your self in such a problem a whole school year long, doing interviews and going on excursions, that is something quite different. It is more real and it touches you deeper. In the PPGO – the pedagogical project of our educational system – it reads that we above all things should become people “that will defend human rights, support social justice and democratic institutions”. I had no idea. I simply thought we went to school to learn bits and pieces so that later we could get a job. Well, I think that is why our engagement makes the difference. And that is the use of a project like ours.’ (JWW, p.45-50)