9.5.2016 / Yleinen

A story with love from Antwerp

Julkaistu Kategoriat YleinenAvainsanat

for Marja Kantanen

A Protestant Social Centre

As a protestant pastor/reverend I work in the Protestant Social Centre in Antwerp. The team of workers and volunteers is coming from all over the world: different histories, different disciplines, different religion. Very interesting and inspiring. Many different people are meeting each other, “coming from all sides”.

In our centre, we work with different target groups (as it is called in social works). In our house we see people who live in generation poverty, as well as other people from all over the world. Refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants without papers. Old and new Belgians meet each other in our centre. But each of these groups have their own activities too.

Jef, a real human being

I still see his eyes, glimpsing of humour, but I see also the depth of homesickness, when Jef told me about his life. His life that was built on his workplace: he was a ship repairer in the Antwerp harbour. As a small human being in this big booming business. Many years he worked there, together with his mates, with whom he shared his life. He stayed in his job until the bankruptcy of the big Beliard and later Mercantile shipyards. With love did he show me the place, where he was during his whole working life.

At the moment we were there together the roads were already broken: “it looks like the roads in Congo” he said with grim laughter, “that’s really different from the past”.

With his hands he fondled the tools, left behind in an old barn – softly he called the names of the different things and showed me how to use it. The names of these tools I forgot, but the feelings of love I still remember. At the rotating disc we stayed a little bit longer: here was the accident in which he lost three of his fingers. Later, as he lay on his deathbed, I specially fondled this hand. The hand with the most remembrance of his life at the shipyard.

Jef, a life-teacher

Jef was one of my “life-teachers”; he taught me how to get talent for life. I see how he lived in our neighbourhood, left behind because of his unemployment together with other unemployed and poor people. He never took part in the “urban exodus” that started during the eighties of the past century. He lived his life, with humour and longing for a rich fulfilled past. Homesick for the time that he was seen as a person, a human being, a someone – now he felt like a nobody, a non-person, unnecessary for the society.

The vacancy of houses as a result of the “urban exodus” didn’t take too long: new people came to fill the houses, new children were heard in the streets, new fragrances were to smell through the open windows, new languages took possession of his neighbourhood… His mates of the past were old, died already or became grim, Jef looked at these developments with a shrug and his unrelinquishable humour: “it will take my time..” he always said, while he smiled grimly. He tried to understand where the people came from, although he never really talked with the new neighbours. But the coming of people from all different countries made him dream about his boyhood as a kitchen boy on a big ship. Some of these countries he did visit and although he never had a lot of time to leave the ship in the ports where it had to be, he smelt the fragrances and heard the languages. For the most part of his life he “was whole alone” as he said – in spite of his mates on the working floor, and even his daughter, whom he loved with his whole heart (and that was a mutual love!).

Jef died a few years ago, a cruel cancer did eat up his weak becoming body. He was only 70 years old.

Jef and his health

Jef died, like a lot of his mates, fairly young. Men with a lower schooling are dying mostly 5 year earlier than men with a higher education. For women the difference is 3 years. People with a lower schooling live more than 15 year in bad health than higher educated persons. The mental health is also different: poor people have more mental problems than other.  The price of poverty is enormous. Access to health care remains a problem for those who live in poverty. The distance between a patient and a therapist is huge. The affordability of care remains a problem for those who must provide or who are often sick with few resources. Health expenditure is a big bite out of household budgets.

So, working and fighting for good health-possibilities is one of our tasks in our neighbourhood.

Jef, never experienced the big changes
Jef did never experience how our neighbourhood developed further: all Belgian shops disappeared, the shops in our neighbourhood are filled with Moroccan butchers and fish shops, Turkish bakers and greengrocers, Pakistan clothes shops, African barbers and East European “everything-selling-shops”. Cosy, strange, different, but these are the shops in our neighbourhood where all people live together.

Here we live with 170 different nationalities together.

In our city the extreme right winged party was growing during the nineties and the first decade of this century, but they lost more and more members, during the last years.  With the consequences of its policy and ideas we fought during years, and still… The racist, anti-Islamic atmosphere that they fed are still deeply felt, in spite of the changes of population. The market of housing and work, are still effected. At the places, in the parks, in short, in the public space people are still excluded and hurt.

Since 2012 another right winged, nationalistic political party took over the power, and I’m not sure that this is really any better. The future will only tell.

Jef and the world

The development of migration that we have seen the last few years in the whole world and so also at the European borders takes a lot of our energy: it’s not new for us, but the media and the European policy are killing the workers who are busy with this theme. Time is too short, reflection is in a fix, we have too much work. In the first place with supporting the new (and the old) refugees.

But in the second place with all different things like: policy influencing, open letters about housing, working, living, to responsible ministers, to educate new volunteers, to enthuse groups in society and churches, to bring good info and real stories. Life goes on. Questions are growing in our neighbourhood, in our centre, in our own life. In my own life.

Love in times of fear

Jef was an artist in the art of living. He always commented everything and everybody, he was an experienced, humoristic, special guy. I loved him and all his madness. One of my life-teachers. He taught me to see life in perspective and through his eyes I learned to perceive what happens in our neighbourhood.

He is alive in my imagination. And together with him and people like him – their names don’t matter: Hesham, Achmed, Houda, Zalina, Leona – I still fight for happiness (in my opinion “rights and peace”) in our neighbourhood, our city, our world. Together we fight for love, also in times of fear.

ds Ina Koeman
Antwerp, 27th of April 2016

Kirjoittaja: Ina Koeman työskentelee Antwerpenissä, Belgiassa pastorina yhteiskuntatyössä.