day 21: volunteer


The flat we lived in together in Brussels when we got married, was in a kind of unique location. You’d walk out the door and turn right and within a block there were nice restaurants, trendy bars, boutique shops. Turn left and you’d find a park where Roma gypsies would gather at the end of the day, a block over were two centres of asylum seekers, and two blocks further was a street where prostitutes would wait for work.

The need was right there on our doorstep. So I got involved in the smaller residential centre for asylum seekers on our street. Each Monday night I’d head there to teach English lessons (I wrote about it here) and every few months I’d help a group of volunteers organised social events for the residents.

Through those regular visits I met an Afghan family – a young couple with a daughter and a second on the way. They were friendly and sweet and I looked forward to seeing them every week. One autumn, they came to me with the great news that they had been granted asylum and were moving out into an apartment in the next city. I arranged to go and see them a few weeks later on the weekend. The day before I called to check the address and the excited father told me “you cannot go there. We are in the hospital. My wife had her baby!”

And so I headed for the hospital instead and spent a blissful morning cuddling a days-old baby and enjoying chatting with her proud family.

But as we talked, I discovered something else. They had nothing. The government was meant to be providing the things they needed, but as usual was taking its time. And they were about to go home to a flat with no baby clothes, no blankets, to crib, no supplies.

So often when I spent time with asylum seekers it was with an overwhelming feeling that there really wasn’t much I could do – I wasn’t a lawyer, I couldn’t plead their case, I didn’t understand the intricacies of the system and why it took years for cases to be heard. But this. This I could do something about.

I went home and called everyone I knew who had had a baby in the last year and said, “What can you give away today?”. Within days I had a growing pile of baby clothes, blankets – even a crib. I was in the right place at the right time to meet a need that otherwise would have gone unnoticed and I was so grateful for that opportunity to act.


There’s a verse in the bible where God tells the Israelites, in exile under a foreign king: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

I’d guess that most of you reading are not forced into the country or city you’re in. You chose to go. And yet there’s a principle here that applies. For better or worse, this is now your home, for this time. And therefore your destiny and your prosperity is intricately wrapped up in it. As it fares, so do you.

Volunteering is one way of recognising this, of recognising and stating that Here is home, whether for six months or six years or for life, this is home. And so I will care about this place. I will learn to love it’s beauty and work to mend it in the places it is broken.


This post is part of my 31 days to embrace expat life. I’m writing every day through October on this topic. Click on the button to see all the posts so far…

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