Can a Brussels art project help refugees alleviate the burden of time?

Can a Brussels art project help refugees alleviate the burden of time?

Volunteers at the Cinemaximiliaan project house in Molenbeek, Brussels on 23 July 2017.

(Omar Al-Samarai)

“Time is like oxygen. Too much of it kills you,” says Mustafa, a 25-year-old kamanja player and refugee from Afghanistan who is awaiting the Belgian government’s decision on his case.

Mustafa is one of five artist-refugees that I meet at Cinemaximiliaan, a pop-up cinema and arts space run by refugees, primarily for refugees (as well as the wider community) in the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek. Although the volunteers come from different countries, they are all united by their art. All are waiting for a resolution to their cases and their uncertain fate lies in the hands of Belgian immigration officials.

Since September 2015, Cinemaximiliaan has been screening films in an improvised refugee camp in Maximilian Park near Brussels’ North Station, a major transport hub in the city. Between August and October 2017, between 500 and 1000 asylum seekers from countries such as Sudan, Eritrea and Syria were sleeping in the park and in the nearby station. As they were waiting to be registered with the immigration office, they were unable to claim federal assistance and thereby were totally reliant on the help of concerned citizens and NGOs.

The park was cleared ahead of the coldest winter months and many of the migrants are now staying at a nearby reception centre. To some, Cinemaximiliaan still provides a crucial lifeline. “We try to give these newcomers a sense of comfort and security during their long, dark nights,” says Gwendolyn Lootens who co-founded the non-profit organisation with her partner, fellow artist and filmmaker, Gawan Fagard.

The building where Gwendolyn and Gawan live, work and occasionally screen films is a warm, welcoming space. They also host refugees, for a night or sometimes for longer while they wait to be transferred to more permanent accommodation.

More than anything, Cinemaximiliaan is a place where time, not the lack of but its abundance, is sought to be understood and its burden on refugees alleviated.

Could it be possible, I wonder to myself, that in this place in the heart of Molenbeek – an area associated in the mainstream media with idle, dangerous young men who are constantly exiled as ‘other’ – that solutions are found to the perils of ‘too much time?

Gawan makes me coffee as Ali, an Iraqi painter, and Mustafa hover busily around the kitchen preparing eastern delicacies. Various scents waft around me as the Belgian couple engage with the newcomers in small conversations over a long dining table. Laughter echoes in the room.

My mind, though, is alert. Having come to the UK as a refugee in 1990, and being the recipient of both kindness and pity, I am on-guard. I vividly remember how this kindness made me feel patronised and paternalised at times.

I sip on my black coffee and look through the glass window. The rain tapers off. And while we wait for the arrival of a husband and a wife, Batul and Reza, both painters from Afghanistan, Gwendolyn talks about the space. “It is time that their time is valued,” she says, revealing that she and her husband are in the process of making a film about one of the refugees.

I am eager to hear refugees tell their own stories rather than being the subject of the stories of others. We return to the kitchen. The doorbell rings. Everyone has arrived. Gwendolyn suggests we move to the living room upstairs. As we enter, I glimpse a bookshelf packed with books from countries like Iraq and Egypt. I want to say to my host that whoever opens their homes to books from beyond their own borders is also ready to receive the world.

“It’s like being in prison”

Lubnan, an Iraqi refugee, emerges dishevelled from one of two rooms on the floor reserved for guests. It’s close to eleven in the morning. I wonder why he has slept for this long.

The pressure of time is suspended the moment you arrive into Europe as a refugee, I think, remembering my own situation back in London. Having unlimited time ahead of you is crippling and disempowering.

In those days, I spent a significant amount of the first months waiting for the Home Office decision. And since I wasn’t allowed to work, I would wander about, often not really knowing what time of the day it was. Time was abundant but irrelevant, making me wish I could give some of it to the many English men and women, who always seemed in a hurry to get somewhere other than where they were.

It seems that not much has changed since my time as an asylum seeker all those years ago. “The time I have on my hands affects me too much,” Ali tells me in Arabic. “I am forced to wait,” he says. “It’s like being in a prison. It’s as if I have committed a crime.”

And from this open cell in Belgium, to which he came escaping a war, he watches, shackled to time. “I see the hours passing,” he says, his finger drifting clockwise. “And I know I will never get these hours back.”

“Waiting around, for me, was the most painful,” I share with Ali, before asking the group how they can practice their art in this situation. Mustafa answers in metaphors full of wisdom. “I learned to navigate through it,” says the kamanja player. “It’s like driving a car on a mountainous road back home in Afghanistan. I am focused on the road ahead, because if l keep looking in the side mirrors all the time, it might lead to my end.”

This fatalistic language isn’t exaggerated. The hurt is magnified when the journey taken to get to this “safe place” is recalled in detail: “I came from Turkey in a boat, like the rest of the immigrants, to Greece. From there I travelled across Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Germany to be here in Belgium,” Ali explains.

For all the risks he encountered, the time created by waiting seems just as perilous. Like the depths of the Mediterranean Sea, some dangers aren’t immediately visible. “I am trapped,” Ali says, pain gathering in his wide eyes. “We are in a free country but we have no freedom.”

Lubnan nods in agreement. “Back home, I never even had time for holiday,” he tells me in Arabic. “I never had time to relax. Here, I have too much of it. And too much waiting is like carrying out a physical activity. I am so exhausted and tired, even though I don’t actually do much.”

Too much or not enough?

I ask if Belgians are as free as we think. “Yes, maybe time for them is also a prison,” says Reza. Gwendolyn concurs. “Before, I found time so precious. I had so little of it. I was always in a hurry. I’d tell everyone who could hear, ‘I haven’t got time. I am busy’. I used to guard it just as I guarded my privacy.”

Now, it is the opposite. Her privacy and time have become something to share. The qualities of sharing, she learnt through opening her door to these newcomers, seems to inspire her and her husband’s creativity. Their art is proliferating, so much so that, ironically as Gwendolyn puts it, “I wish I had more time.”

What about the others? Is their art affected by this abundance of time? Opinions differ. Batul says that too much time is not bad. She explains that without the time she had, and still has, she would not have become a painter. In this new country, it was “too much time” that allowed her to reflect and become an artist.

Remembering those she left behind led her to seek a brush and paint. “I want to tell stories about the women from my country,” she says. “I want to fight for them.” For Batul, art is a language that festers in the excesses of time. She sees time as something to overcome rather than to be overwhelmed by. She proactively engages with her art, even in the crowded, noisy place where she lives. “Because, I discovered silence is not around you, but inside you.’

Ali agrees. He shows me one of his paintings on his mobile. It is of a musician playing his double bass, behind a net. He might be trapped, but his art goes on, even with sorrow visible in his demeanour.

Gwendolyn, clearly inspired, smiles and says: “Our government needs to motivate newcomers. Give them resources.”

“And treat us like human beings,” says Batul. “I get €7 a week. How can I live on that?”

As I get ready to leave, I am told that Cinemaximiliaan is launching an internship directed at refugee artists. “But more needs to be done,” the artists say, almost in unison.

I wonder if the government will answer their pleas and try to alleviate the crippling impact that waiting for a decision has on asylum seekers? The men and women I have interviewed are not just refugees. They are artists, people with ambitions. They are ready to work and make use of the time on their hands, to fulfil the dreams they have been forced to defer.

“Time,” as Ali says, “does not stop. Like birds looking for freedom, I keep going. I’m looking for a new future.”

I hear laughter behind me as I close the door. I come out of the loft and open my umbrella, timed to perfection with the return of the rain.

This is an edited version of an article originally published in Dutch in the Flemish culture magazine Rekto:verso.