One would think that Brussels was a melting pot of social integration and interaction, given its mix of Flemish and Francophone locals and the large number of international residents tossed in for good measure. But the international community seems to operate safely within its expat comfort zone while the locals get on with their lives alongside the distant foreigners.
The King Baudouin Foundation, named after the country's late monarch, is trying to change that. Its breXpat initiative aims to bring expats and local people closer together. Contacts between expats and locals are often limited or non-existent for reasons such has the temporary stay of expats, the language barrier and the financial gap, said breXpat project coordinator Nosheen Shakil.
"We hope to start initiatives that bridge the gap between locals and expats," Shakil said. "Locals will, in this way, discover the extra value of living in the capital of Europe and expats will feel less isolated and have the feeling to live in a real country, not on an expat island."
BreXpat was launched in March 2007 with a call for organizations in the region to submit applications for funding. The groups had to have an expat partner and a Brussels and could receive up to 5,000 euros ($7,200) to help cover costs.
The Brussels Celtic Rugby Club was one of the successful applicants. The club, formed in 1998 by mostly Irish expats and locals with the onus on creating an expat team with a real and tangible Belgian element, has grown to embrace members from a total of 25 nationalities in all. Its expansion, however, had put a lot of pressure on its funds.
"We have had to make all kinds of new investments and these, of course, cost a lot of money," club secretary Graham Edwards said. "The foundation's financial support has been of enormous importance in helping us invest in the materials needed for a rugby club."
Integration vital to city's social fabric
Edwards believes that team sports of any type, but especially rugby, are hugely effective at promoting understanding between different nationalities and cultures.
"We strongly believe that our unique and very sociable identity and atmosphere is proof of the success of our founding concept and is the reason for our ever increasing success," he said.
Edwards also believes that communication between the expat community and locals in Brussels and the surrounding areas is hugely important in maintaining the fabric of civil society.
"Just go to the Paris banlieus if you want to see what, in extreme cases, can happen when cultures are not integrated in spite of living together," he said.
Sports clubs are not the only organizations to benefit from the foundation's initiative.
The Gallery Gabrichidze in Brussels has also increased its reach thanks to funding support. The gallery organizes international exhibitions for the local Wallon and Flemish communities and expats as well as workshops where the problems of migration, adaptation to Belgian life and dealing with local bureaucracy are discussed.
Aiming to heal a divided nation
"Our aim is to unite the Flemish, Walloon and expat communities under one roof using creativity as a tool," said gallery co-founder Olena Omelchenko. "Thanks to the funding, we are now able to focus on executing our projects without worrying about making profits to cover the losses."
Omelchenko believes that, if Brussels wants to keep its role as the capital of EU political and social life, then expats and locals should live together in more harmony and integration. She says such harmony could then be used as a blueprint for the rest of the country.
"If Belgium wants to keep itself together, then the Walloons and the Flemish should also find a way to cope with each other," she said. "It is important to bring people together and struggle against negative factors which divide them."
While bringing people together is one of the objectives of the initiative, it also aims to promote the different cultures living in Brussels. Liene Reine, one of the organizers of the Riga Nights project, explained that foundation funds are helping to finance a cultural exchange between Latvian, Belgian and expat artists.
Understanding through cultural exchange
"Our aim is to cover the lack of presence of Latvian contemporary culture in Brussels," Reine said. "The Riga Nights project explores, discovers and establishes the possibilities of cooperation between Latvian and Belgian artists, while actively involving the expat community. Ideally the next phase would be to bring Belgian artists to Latvia.
"We aim to create more than just a one-way cultural exposition," she added. "We want to create common spaces for common interactions and performances which will establish bridges among people with different cultural backgrounds, yet sharing something in common, thus stimulating the cross-cultural communication."
The foundation is currently calling for applications for the second round of funding, which will carry on the aims of improving the integration of expats in Brussels and also giving locals a better feeling for the international vocation of their city.Nick Amies