The Senior Volunteers Programme has been specifically developed for UK volunteers aged over 50.
We were living at the Rixensart asylum seeker centre for nearly three weeks from 22nd June to 11th July, with two-day breaks when we stayed in Brussels. Rixensart is a smart little town with the odd café and bar, about half an hour by train from Brussels. The centre is home to 107 residents seeking asylum in Belgium. Most are young, including some very young mums and their babies, so volunteers of a grandmotherly age were a novel experience for them. The majority of the volunteers came from conflict zones in Africa, the Middle East, and the Baltic states. Some had been living in the centre for a considerable time; others, including one Syrian family, were newly arrived.
We lived alongside the residents, eating in the main dining room, going on their trips out, and learning about the asylum seeking experience in Belgium. Our main duty was to plan and provide activities for the children from age four upwards. As it was Ramadan and the schools (attended by all asylum seeker children in Belgium to age 18) were still open for week one, participating numbers varied a lot. There was a heatwave whilst we were there, and water play afternoons were probably our most popular events. We also did artwork (bricolage), outdoor and indoor play, and face painting. We supported a local fete in which the centre had been actively involved; making cakes for sale beforehand with the residents, and running some of the games on the day. The highlight for us with the children was a party to which we were all invited by the birthday girl. We provided a cake and an introduction to pass the parcel.
The language barrier was not a big issue; the UK volunteers without French managed well, and others used what they had. Some of the residents had no French either. Collectively, the group had considerable experience of languages, living in other countries, volunteering, children, and getting on with people. The centre staff were all helpful and there was a good atmosphere. We also got good support from the Belgian SCI office. It was a good experience, providing fun and insights into asylum seeking, whilst at the same time being demanding, emotionally and physically. Hence, the days off were welcome. As well as the usual things in Brussels (galleries, bars, the Grand Place), the UK volunteers got to see the lovely cities of Bruges and Ghent.