“There aren’t any needs here.” That’s what we heard over and over when we moved to Luxembourg. Regularly hitting the top three richest nations in the world (by GDP), Luxembourg is a beautiful and pristine little country, snuggled between Belgium, France and Germany.
From first impressions, it certainly looks like there is not much wrong here. The streets and parks are spotlessly clean. The roads are well paved and free of potholes. There are beautifully tended flowers in every park and street corner. The buses run on time and regularly, there are a bike stands all over the city to rent a bike from. The pedestrianised old town is home to the pretty Spanish-style palace with its straight-faced guards marching out front, and a host of luxury brand stores line the streets.
We’d only moved two hours’ drive down the motorway, from Brussels, Belgium’s capital, but we could have been a world away. Brussels is gritty and dirty and the need was in our face as soon as we walked out the door: the Roma who gathered in the park by our house at the end of a day of begging; the asylum seekers who lived in a centre on our street and wandered around in the day, no money and nothing to do but wait to hear their fate; the red light district just a few blocks away, where women from Eastern Europe stood in the windows.
Here in Luxembourg, we asked new friends: How can we volunteer? No one had an answer, because no one could think of any needs. But I wasn’t satisfied with that, so we started digging.
We found out that the number of social groceries—stores selling food and household basics at reduced prices to low-income families—had tripled in the last year due to growing need. We started noticing more homeless people gathering near the soup kitchen, sleeping in bus shelters. We read a news story—just a few hundred words—about the people being trafficked into the country to beg. We heard about the large number of people who jump from the high bridges that span the deep gorges around the city. We took a walk off our normal paths and discovered the strip clubs along dirty side streets.
This city can look idyllic, but scratch the surface and you’ll find real needs, real people in difficult situations.
It’s easy to turn a blind eye when you don’t have the information. It would have been easy for us to live here and accept the frequently-given explanation that there are really not any big problems here. Serving is hard. Serving is messy and complicated and draining. We could have avoided all of that if we’d been willing to keep pretending.
But instead we started digging. And once we knew, once we’d seen with our own eyes, it was impossible to keep up the pretence.
Now, together with others who’ve had the courage to look with new eyes, we organise and we inform and we try to connect people with resources with people in need. We work alongside incredible local organisations, who looked at us in astonishment when we told them we wanted to bring in a group of volunteers.
We know people by their needs now. But what if we knew them by name? What if we knew their stories?
It doesn’t look like much, some days. One Saturday we brought in two make up artists and two beauty therapists to a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence. Two hours of pampering and spoiling and laughing, while their children were entertained with crafts and games in the next room.
It didn’t change much in the big picture. But I like to think we weren’t just giving make-up tips; we were saying, “You are beautiful and valuable and worthy of love and belonging.” We weren’t just giving manicures and pedicures; we were saying, “You are safe and supported.” We weren’t just taking fun photos; we were saying we see a woman with the strength and courage to make a bright new life for herself and her family.
In the process we discovered something else: the ones “serving” had just as much need, only their needs looked like the need to live with meaning, the need to think about someone else first, the need to find a sense of purpose in a life that outwardly looked so successful.
I moved to Luxembourg for my husband’s job. It’s hard to find a job that fits your skills when you don’t speak any of the three national languages. But I have found meaning here too, in the serving and the connecting. I’ve found meaning in waking up to the real city we live in. I’ve found meaning in connecting others.
This post originally appeared at She Loves Magazine.
If you live in Luxembourg and are looking for a way to give back your time and skills, you can find out more about our little asbl Serve the City (one year old this month!) on the website or facebook page.