Shannon Damery, writes about her experience of researching European identity and belonging of Eurochildren in Brussels, highlighting the complexity and shifting nature of these terms. She is a PhD student at Université de Liège.
I’m terrible at ceramics. I have not talent for it whatsoever, but I spent several months in Brussels, Belgium making malformed pots, confused looking birds with crooked beaks, and little turtles that looked more like angry hedgehogs. My classmates, on the other hand, made the soaring likeness of Big Ben, elegant mosques, and plaques with heartfelt messages in several languages. These artists were at least 15 years my junior and encouraged me to carry on even while they tried to hide their laughter at my sometimes-monstrous creations.
I took this class at a ‘social cohesion’ non-profit that offers various supports and language classes to migrants in Belgium. My aim was to meet people who would become participants in my PhD project, and this class was free for teenagers with migrant backgrounds (mostly first and second generation). My PhD project centers on young migrants’ sense of home and belonging in Brussels, and this ceramics class offered an interesting window into this issue.
The teacher of the class, who I will call Yasmine, is a Belgian woman who is an artist and French language teacher and ascribed to the philosophy that the class was for everyone that needed it. It appealed to people who were undocumented and unable to take classes at places where they might have to show ID (for example at the Brussels Centre for Fine Arts), young people who wanted something to do after school, and ‘new’ migrants who hadn’t yet made many friends. The parents of these young people often took language classes at the center and that’s how they met Yasmine and heard about the ceramics class. The participants were from many different backgrounds, had different statuses in Belgium (refugee, citizen, undocumented, etc.), and had varying levels of French and Dutch language ability.
Yasmine somehow made everyone feel welcome, even this 30-something researcher from the US who spoke horrendous French. If a participant showed up with a friend one day, this wasn’t a problem and the teacher would simply cut an extra piece of clay. When it was someone’s birthday there would inevitably be small cakes to share or a special surprise. If there was an outing planned with the class, we sometimes went to museums or cultural events together, many things were considered. Would we have to walk because cost might be prohibitive or because someone who was undocumented might be asked for their papers on the metro? What language would the event be in and how would everyone be accommodated?
This ceramics class seemed to me like a kind of snap-shot of the city of Brussels itself, and perhaps of Europe as well. A large proportion of migrants, a multi-lingual group of people, and people coming together over shared interests and experiences when it would seem that they have very little in common. The young people who had been in Belgium for several years often spoke Dutch and French and the class was always a chorus of several different languages – French, Dutch, Arabic, English, Spanish, Dari, etc. This was especially strange for a monolingual person such as myself who grew up only hearing snippets of a different language a few times a week in a high school classroom.
To me, it seemed that there was something special happening in this cluttered workroom, but I began to think that maybe it’s not so very unique. One of my classmates, 15-year-old Salma, explained it best. Her parents are Moroccan and she was born and raised in Spain. She moved to Belgium when she was 10 and did not hold back when talking about why she disliked about Belgium. She said that because she wasn’t born in Belgium, and she speaks Dutch and French with an accent, she could never feel like she was ‘integrated’. I asked if that was a problem for her and this was her response:
Salma: No, it’s not a problem because… I think here in Brussels it’s not a problem, but I don’t know if you go from Brussels to, I don’t know, another city here in Belgium, but not Brussels. In Brussels we can integrate, not integrate. But because there are many people that aren’t from here, so it’s uh, there are lots of nationalities. So, they aren’t integrated too.
Researcher: So, no one’s integrated?
Salma: Yeah! **both laugh**
More and more cities in Europe are beginning to look quite a lot like Brussels, the unofficial capital of the European Union. People, and perhaps young people in particular, seem to be becoming more likely to value other identities over that of national affiliation. This occurrence is apparent in Brussels where migrants from Europe and beyond appear to have less in common based on their or their families’ country of origin than they do based on shared migratory status, the languages they’re endeavoring to learn, or their neighborhoods of residence. There is sometimes belonging in abundant difference, and this is what Salma was referring to. The ceramics class offered a space for socialization, an atmosphere of language learning, a place where ‘newcomers’ and ‘long-termers’ could interact, and most importantly it offered a space of belonging. Perhaps what was happening in this ceramics class concerning the young people’s sense of belonging in shared difference, also speaks to a rapidly growing and evolving phenomenon of a European identity.