For more than 44 million Ukrainians, Christmas falls on December 25 for the first time in more than a century. Also in the emergency village of Mechelen. “Most people who live here want only one thing: to get out of here as quickly as possible.”
In container A5a in the emergency village of Mechelen, Julia lets us take a look at her Christmas tree. This year it was shown two weeks earlier than usual. Julia ended up here in September 2022 with her four daughters and granddaughter. She lives in the hope that one day she will be able to return to Zabarovka. “The so-called editors now live in our house,” she says, according to the translation app. “At least that's what they call themselves.”
Julia is one of 450 residents in the Red Cross-run refugee village in Mechelen, just a few dozen meters away whether you're watching a film at a UGC cinema or gazing at the horses and riders during the annual jumping. In Neckerhall.
Now that President Volodymyr Zelensky declared it this way a few months ago, it has suddenly become an obvious fact that almost all contactable Ukrainians in the village indicate that they would not have wanted it any other way. Since 1917, Christmas has been celebrated according to the Orthodox calendar, on January 7. From now on, the birth of Jesus is commemorated on December 25. “This suits us much better,” Christina says. “We also feel more united with Belgium. It was just a matter of flipping a switch. Everyone I know was immediately convinced. Yes of course. Work! And also: why haven't we done this before?”
Except for container A5a, there is no major celebration to be seen. The village is home to women and children who yearn every day for a sign of life from their husbands or fathers. The social fabric involves little more than walking back and forth to and from the bin with the washing machines and then having a conversation about something that would rather be of no use.
“The atmosphere is not good at all,” says a Red Cross employee. Our attention is drawn to a column published by former colleague Tini Galicia on the MO Magazine website on October 10 about her experiences as an employee at the Berlar Asylum Center. “There are many things that need significant improvement, and humane shelter policies are one of them,” she wrote. Thanks to her column, Galicia won the EyesWriteOpen writing competition organized by MO and a travel voucher worth 750 euros. She was able to start traveling immediately, because on the day the article was published she was summarily dismissed by the Red Cross.
“This is what could happen to me now,” the employee says. “Most people living here want only one thing: to get out of here as quickly as possible. They feel exploited. The city of Mechelen pays almost all of them a living wage, but that is largely virtual. A portion is deducted for renting the container. They also have to donate 200 euros a month For food. There is a man who found a job and was offered a meal at work. However, he must continue to pay this 200 euros. People are trapped in conflicting feelings. Of course they are very happy with the care provided, but something goes wrong.
According to anonymous Red Cross staff, the emergency village is an ideal social starting point for many young Ukrainians. Many literally enroll in a Dutch language course and quickly find a job. “But then the hard part begins,” says one of them. “Most of them have a one-year residency. This is not what a landlord in the private market wants to hear. Many here know they could perfectly finance their home and move on with their lives in Belgium, but they feel stuck in this emergency village.”
The new Christmas date was one of the agenda items at the monthly residents' meeting. “It's more symbolic,” says a man near a burning fire pit. He added: “This means that we collectively and emotionally join Europe. Above all, stay away from Russia.”
There's little reason to celebrate in the emergency village, and according to one Red Cross employee, that's because of the elephant in the room. It is a problem that should not be expressed as such, but was mentioned by about 60 percent of the population. This concerns the remaining 40%: Ukrainian refugees of Roma background.
“In Ukraine itself there is already a very strong segregation,” says the employee. “You are also powerless against it. There is a great deal of illiteracy among Roma refugees, as well as a severe distrust of any form of governance. The Roma believe that sending your three-year-old to school shows a lack of responsibility. So, yes, this “It is worrying, and we wonder why the Roma are not housed in the Ukrainian emergency village in Antwerp. They were all sent to Mechelen for one reason or another. We are asked not to discriminate, and we try not to, but the residents are very concerned about that.”
The Belgian Red Cross in Flanders announced that it considered the Galicia Tyne Column to be in violation of the principle of neutrality. The organization did not wish to contribute to this report, as it only wished to allow directed visits to the emergency village.
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