Abstract The church is often considered a haven and a sanctuary. In the case of a group of undocumented and asylum-seeking Afghans in Brussels, a church was literally a place of refuge. This article explores the home-making practices of Afghan immigrants who were given sanctuary in a Brussels church and who made the church their living space. They slept, ate, socialised, and organised political activities in the church, while also appropriating nearby public spaces to serve various functions in their lives. Home is an increasingly important concept in migration studies, and this article explores home-making through an investigation of what may be lacking in the notion of sanctuary. In this article, home is treated as a series of connections, including connections to people, cultures, places and objects. These connections serve as a way to explore whether the Afghans made the church and surrounding urban space into a home or why they remained homeless despite the proffered sanctuary. 1. Introduction This article is based on fieldwork conducted from January to June 2015 with a group of undocumented Afghan men who were living, or had lived, in a Brussels church. According to Eurostat (Bitoulas 2014), more than 25,000 Afghans sought asylum in the European Union in 2013, and 1675 applied in Belgium. When I first arrived in Belgium in 2013 the plight of the failed Afghan asylum-seekers was made clear in the local media and it was even clearer in the streets. I was often bumping into protest marches and demonstrations where the demands were that Afghan failed asylum seekers be given the right to remain in Belgium. At one point, there were more than a hundred men, women, and children living in the aforementioned church. By the time I began fieldwork, there were approximately fifteen men, mostly in their late 20s to 30s, still residing there. The Afghans residing in the church explained to me that, initially, the church leaders welcomed the group and were vocal about their distaste with how the undocumented Afghans were being treated. After being welcomed as a guest in the church myself, conducting several interviews with the temporary residents, engaging in conversations, and accompanying the residents on protest marches, it became clear that their ‘home’ connections extended far beyond the walls of the church. Ultimately, the city and church were both important sites of home and homelessness in participants’ lives and they looked beyond the church to find and create home. In order to discover how and where the participants of the study ‘felt at home’ and created home connections, there is first a fundamental question that must be answered. What is home and how should it be defined in this instance? It is undoubtedly a complex concept and in the social sciences it has come to be recognised as both physical and imagined, and is closely linked with memory and idealised visions of what a home should be (Chapman and Hockey 1999). For the purposes of this article, I use a combination of different definitions of home that seem to fit the reality of the lives of the participants. I gathered data for this small ethnographic project1 through a mixture of participant observation and semi-structured interviews with the residents and former residents of the church. In line with anthropological practices, I made several visits to the church itself and also accompanied participants on protest marches and at demonstrations. Three participants agreed to have their interviews recorded, two more were completed without the aid of a recording device, and some participants were interviewed more than once. Further ethnographic data was acquired through more informal conversations with participants. All participants2 were aware of the project and how the information would be used and their oral consent was obtained before conversations.3 Church officials were not interviewed due to the absence of the church leader with whom I was told to speak during the time of fieldwork. Although the church representative was not available during this period, I continued with the project because this research specifically investigates migrants’ home connections in the city of Brussels. The perception of participants is the key component of the gathered data. For these reasons, the perspectives of church leaders and members are absent. The research favoured depth instead of breadth and did not endeavour to be representative, but instead to uncover insights of one particular case which may in turn contribute to the wider discussion and investigation of home and belonging among migrants in precarious situations. 2. Support for the failed Afghan asylum-seekers Beginning in 2011, the responsibility of asylum and return procedures fell to State Secretary Maggie De Block, who became known for her emphasis on returning irregular migrants to their country of origin, either by supporting them in voluntary returns or by force. This policy led to an overall increase in individual deportations in 2013 and growing concern that mass deportations would not be far behind (Willner-Reid 2015: 513). In September 2013, the undocumented Afghans began organizing daily protests in front of the parliament and on 25 September it was widely reported that the police dispersed a crowd of protesters by forceful means, including the use of tear gas (Charlier 2013). The following day, the police forced a large group of Afghans out of the vacant building where they had been living and about half of this group (approximately 150 people) came to an agreement with the official of a church in the city centre that allowed them to take up temporary residence in the church. In an interview with Reuters the priest from the church cited his disagreement with the current Belgian asylum policy as his reason for offering shelter to the group (Bartunek 2014). The media coverage that was drawn by the strong police action, as well the unique situation of a large group of migrants seeking sanctuary in a church, created a wave that swept the city up in the plight of the Afghans for about a year. There were solidarity actions, marches, hunger strikes, and support offered from civil society groups. Support and empathy for the group were widespread and De Block received plenty of negative press, but her popularity with her own constituents remained largely unchanged. Ultimately, her office asked the failed asylum seekers to re-apply for asylum and the majority of the group from the church decided to go ahead with these procedures. This also meant that they were allowed to live in the centres that are provided for asylum seekers while they await the outcome of their applications. As a result, most of the Afghans left the church by February of 2014 (Willner-Reid 2015: 514). The Afghans that remained in the church were those that felt they were more likely to have their applications for asylum rejected and thus be deported; mostly single men. As the majority of the Afghans left the church and press coverage and civil society support waned, the remaining residents of the church strove to find new ways to engage with the city of Brussels. 3. Home in the social sciences Home has become an increasingly important concept in migration studies, and it is through this lens that I will focus my treatment of the concept. I will also look at the concept of hospitality in regard to the church. While hospitality is clearly a value shared by many faiths and traditions, the church in question is a Christian church, and it is on this tradition of sanctuary and hospitality that the article focuses. The social sciences have long recognised that ‘home’, while sometimes including a physical dwelling, comprises ideas, imaginaries, and feelings that go beyond the walls of a ‘house’. Studies of home and the domestic include institutions, temporary dwellings (such as squats, hotels, etc.), public spaces, memories and aspirations. In this article, I treat home as a series of connections, including connections to people, cultures, places, and objects. My participants created home for themselves both within the physical space of the church and in the city of Brussels itself. The treatment of the concept of ‘home’ evolved during the course of the fieldwork and after interactions and discussions with participants. In order to avoid the influence of normative notions of home that may not fit the reality of the experiences of migrants, I did not use the term ‘home’ in interviews and conversations except in rare cases and only towards the end of an interaction. The ideas of home and belonging in this article are based on my interpretations of what my participants cited as being important elements of their lives. This approach led to an exploration of the four following areas which proved to be central in participants’ lives: routines, cultural practices, ownership of spaces, and community belonging. Although this study is mainly anthropological in nature, my understanding of home in this particular context starts from human geographers Blunt and Dowling’s (2006) definition of home-making as a continuing process of the making and remaking of relationships between people, spaces, places and culture (Blunt and Dowling 2006: 2–3). Many scholars now recognise home as a process (Cieraad 2010: 99) and as something temporal, including nostalgia, the present connections one makes and the ‘projection’ of a future imagined home (Cieraad: 99). ‘“Home” brings together memory and longing, the ideational, the affective and the physical, the spatial and the temporal, the local and the global, the positively evaluated and the negatively’ (Rapport and Dawson 1998a: 8). Cieraad (2010) further explains that home connections are ‘created and maintained through objects, relationships, and routines’ (99). Home can encompass everything from a country or a group of countries (i.e. Europe) all the way to a specific object or set of practices, and homemaking may begin ‘by bringing some space under control’ (Douglas 1991: 289). Rapport & Dawson (1998a) describe home as being a site where issues of incorporation and exclusion come into play (8) which is clearly the case in this study. What becomes particularly significant in the circumstances of migrants is that there may be ‘a splitting of home as a place of origin and home as the sensory world of everyday experience’ (Ahmed 1999: 341). Liu (2014) points out that there is also the possibility that many first-generation migrants were not able to leave a past home in the past and are also unable to fully create home in the current place of residence (19). This is where the concept of homelessness comes into play. 3.1 Homelessness Just as home is multilevel, ranging from the individual/personal to the country or even global level, so too is the sense of homelessness. Blunt and Dowling (2006) explain that places traditionally considered to be home-sites can be ‘unhomely’ and vice versa (121), and Mallett (2004) stresses that home ‘cannot be simply equated with shelter, house or household’ (79). This becomes even more complex when speaking of home in the case of migrants. Despite the fact that home can be carried with people, can exist in their minds and imaginations, and that mobility and home are not mutually exclusive (Blunt and Dowling 2006), people can still feel out of place or be homeless. Rapport and Dawson (1998b) highlight a similar idea about home in the condition of movement. It is not that in an age of global movement, there cannot be a sense of homelessness—far from it—but that a sense of home or of homelessness is not necessarily related in any simple or direct way with fixity or movement. 27 It is also essential to remember that ‘it is possible to be homeless even while physically sheltered’ (Blunt and Dowling 2006: 127). Blunt and Dowling (2006) also cite various official entities’ definitions of homelessness and explain that these definitions place too much emphasis on the absence of something. However, many dwellings and conditions that would be described by the state and other official entities as substandard, thus making the person ‘homeless’ by official definition, are indeed homes for the people living there (Blunt and Dowling 2006: 128). In fact, ‘senses of home and belonging are created by those without shelter, in many and varied ways’ (Blunt and Dowling 2006: 129). Ultimately, home might be better described as a feeling and then discussed in terms of ‘how much’ and ‘in what way’ one feels at home. There is often no concrete answer to the questions of ‘if’ or ‘where’ someone feels at home. Instead, this article investigates people’s multiple feelings of being ‘at home’ or homeless through their various connections, with a focus on those connections stated above. While the church offered sanctuary, and provided shelter and the resources for some other basic needs, it becomes clear that sanctuary and home are very different things and may even be at odds with one another. The participants struggled with the elements of these concepts and ultimately were often at home and homeless at the same time, experiencing elements of both statuses in different areas of their lives. 4. Church sanctuary While I will only speak about the circumstances in one church in Brussels, and it is not the case that numerous churches in the city provided shelter for undocumented migrants, it is important to discuss church sanctuary as a practice, its history, and the church’s relationship with the state in cases of offering sanctuary. The offering of sanctuary by religious entities is a long-standing practice in many parts of the world. It is an ancient religious ideal found in the Qur’an, the Bible, Hindu tradition and ancient Greece (Marfleet 2011). ‘It is known that, as early as the 4th century A.D., persecuted people found temporary shelter in churches’ (Koop 2005: 356). It has been used to provide shelter and protection for those who were accused of committing crimes and also in times of war to protect soldiers and citizens from opposing sides (Marfleet 2011: 4). These stays have traditionally been temporary and the actual locations of sanctuaries have depended upon objects or places of great spiritual significance, such as altars and holy sites (Marfleet 2011). The physical locations have somewhat changed over time, occasionally expanding to include other buildings owned by the church and even encompassing entire cities as with the ‘sanctuary city’ movement (Bagelman 2013: 50), but many of the fundamentals of the practice have remained. The offering of sanctuary has remained an unofficially recognised power of the church. While there are documented instances of state authorities and police entering churches to forcibly remove those seeking sanctuary, the authority of the church to grant protection to those within its doors is still widely respected (Koop 2005: 356; Neufert 2014: 36). This was the case with the Brussels church in this article. According to my participants, the police had been asked by the state to intervene and remove the Afghans from the church, but the police refused. This becomes even more significant when taking into account documented cases when the police used force to evict undocumented Afghans from other locations in Brussels (Willner-Reid 2015: 513). According to Marfleet (2011) the year 1681 can be considered as a turning point in state intervention for the protection of those tied to other states (440). In this year the Calvinists from France were offered asylum by the King of England and this gave rise to the idea of refugees as we know it today (Marfleet 2011). ‘Abolition of “church” sanctuary in the seventeenth century marked a significant weakening of the religious establishment—a change consistent with the emergence of national state formations which claimed exclusive rights to define regimes of protection’ (Marfleet 2011: 441). As state power has increased the power of the church has declined (Lippert 2005: 382), however, the diminishing of this power has not led to the dissolution of church sanctuary. For the purposes of this article, I use Lippert’s (2005) definition of sanctuary as ‘ … those incidents in which migrants entered and remained in physical protection to avoid deportation by immigration authorities and entailed efforts to expose this fact’ (385). Jørgensen (2013) describes trends of church sanctuary in Europe in the 1990s and 2000s and cites examples from Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and France where immigrants seeking refuge in churches have had favourable outcomes in terms of the granting of legal status (300). The protection my participants received from the church, and their later feelings of discomfort and unease, contributed to their view of the church and its various roles in their lives, especially that of a shelter, a home or a site of homelessness. 5. Potential home sites/ways of making home 5.1 The church The first time I went to the church I was pleased to see that there was a sign displayed inside the open doors that read ‘Afghan info point’. There was a cluster of tents and wooden frames covered in plastic in the back corner. As I made my way there I passed the posters and boards displaying photos, articles and facts about the situation in Afghanistan and the efforts of the Afghan asylum-seeking community in Belgium. In the otherwise empty church (aside from people that were perhaps inside the tents), there were two men standing outside one tent. One of them was speaking English on his mobile phone and I struck up a conversation and asked if we could do an interview. If he had not been standing there, I am not sure how I would have got someone’s attention. Would I have called out? Waited for someone to emerge from a tent? Or would I have simply left and tried again later? I knew people were living there, and despite the fact that the building was open to the public and the ‘info point’ seemed to welcome people inside, I felt as though I had to adhere to the kinds of protocol and respect for privacy that I would observe upon visiting someone’s house. It was striking to me that the group had such limited privacy. Though literature on home explains that the boundaries between public and private life are blurred, and we always find one within the other in some way (Blunt and Dowling 2006; Sabra 2008, among others), this was a very clear example of the public life entering the private living space and it seemed that the absence of a dedicated living space, separate from a working space (the presence of the info point in the church), and the worship space of the congregation, impacted the participants’ relationship with the space and hampered their ability to feel at home there. During future visits, usually before protest marches, I was invited into the tents and makeshift structures and was able to observe the living space the residents had created for themselves. In the framed structure that I was usually welcomed into, there were six or seven mattresses on the floor and some rugs. The mattresses, placed side by side so they were touching, took up most of the floor space, and it was on these mattresses that the participants said they slept, but also where guests were invited to sit during visits. There was a small empty space at the foot of a statue of Jesus where residents stood to make tea on a hotplate. When guests were offered tea, the residents of the church often went without tea themselves or shared one mug because there were not enough mugs to go around. There were coats and clothing hanging from the wooden frame over the beds and also some decorations, the most striking of which was a kite that a participant had made himself and which was adorned with Afghan and Belgian flags. The welcoming of guests, and the offering of drinks, seemed to be the recreation of cultural practices participants were accustomed to performing in Afghanistan. In addition to things like the ‘flag kite’, they also wrote messages in some variant of Arabic script4 that they taped to the plastic sheeting that served as a wall. This connection to Afghanistan can be considered a display of cultural belonging as described by Vanessa May (2013). She explains that ‘cultural belongings are experienced in an embodied manner, for example when singing a national anthem, wearing a familiar piece of clothing or eating a national dish’ (131). May emphasises the sensory connections that people have with the world around them and states that, ‘We come to know the world through our sensuous embodied experiences of touch, sound, smell and taste (371). While May describes these embodied experiences and practices as a type of belonging, I also see them as a type of home-making on a collective and cultural level. At the very least, they can be considered an exhibition of a home connection that the residents were creating inside the church. The actual embodied (Pink 2009; May 2013) practice of writing Arabic script for display, making the flag decorations, and preparing, serving, and drinking tea, are all examples of the creation of cultural connections, both to Belgium and Afghanistan. According to Fiona Parrott (2005) the objects that people choose to display, and the ways in which they are displayed, speak to the level of attachment people feel and the attachments they wish to create to the current space. She explains that people in her study, which took place in a medium-secure psychiatric facility, were focused on their future and past homes, and they did not wish to make strong connections in the institution. For this reason, people were reluctant to ‘fix’ things to the walls because ‘fixing objects to the walls of these rooms metaphorically fixed them in the institution’ (Parrott 2005: 250). The participants in my study appeared to be ready to fix themselves in the space, but the space itself was already temporary and the shelter of the tents was both metaphorically and physically flimsy. Their willingness to fix themselves in the space of the church was, perhaps, more representative of their desire to remain in the city and not the church itself. The failed asylum-seekers and the church officials all deemed living in the church to be a temporary solution. As a temporary living space, the church offered little in the way of physical comfort but, as guests will often do, participants made efforts to contribute to the upkeep of the space, as well as to make themselves comfortable inside it. During one visit to the church I observed a participant sweeping what looked like coloured sand off the floor. When I asked him what the sand was from he said that he did not know but that it was from the worship service. He did not attend the event, which was usually the case for participants, but he said he wanted to help. This cleaning, rather than being the practice of a past routine, seemed to be the act of a good guest attempting to be polite and remain in the host’s good graces. Several participants spoke about how cold it was in the winter and the fact that they did not have electricity at night. One resident, Sam, said that the church officials had begun locking the toilet facilities. Sam was 27 years old and had been living in the church for more than a year. The following is a quote from Sam about the situation in the church: Yes, the priest last time he said that we must leave the church, we must leave the church and I said, where can we leave? We are fighting against injustice. Yes, we are fighting against government. We want justice, we need paper. Even if we not get paper we will not leave the church. - said you cannot stay anymore in the church, it’s not the place of the sleep. I said, I know, and every week we have a demonstration we stay the bad situation without the electricity. Now in the church we don’t have nothing. We don’t have electricity, we don’t have water, we don’t have, uh, toilet. Like that. Some participants also mentioned that they stayed with friends when they were feeling sick or wanted to shower and do their laundry. Some of them moved out of the church altogether, staying with different friends and moving often. One participant, Amir aged 25, said he left the church and moved between friends’ houses because his health suffered too much when living in the church. After moving out he still visited the church frequently to spend time with the remaining residents. Amir explained that: I tried to stay in the church since January 2014. Yeah, and I continued there to August, but because of the cold weather of last year, I mean from the 2014 in January and February, I had a little problem with my stomach. So just because the treatment was really expensive for me, because I have no any access for medical assistance, so because for my treatment I paid cash, so it was really expensive. So, I prefer to stay with my friends at night because it’s more warmer, than to be in the church because it’s really cold. For various reasons, which my participants said included looking after their belongings and ensuring they would be able to return to the church, when they went out for a march or protest they always left someone behind in the church. Despite attempts to appropriate the space and have some kind of control, their control was always limited. The space of the church appeared to mainly fill the role of a shelter in their lives, but it was also a place they used to organize their movement. While in 2013 ‘The church became not only a living space, but also a centre of operations, and a focal area for Afghan social life’ (Willner-Reid 2015: 513), during the period of my research things had changed in the church. The motivation for and support of the movement had dwindled, there were fewer visitors to the church, and both the church officials and my participants were eager to find the group a new place to live. The church, at this time, could also be an example of an ‘unhomely home’ as described by Blunt & Dowling (2006), because residents were barred from creating strong home connections there. Clearly, the church is not meant to be, or designed to be, a place for people to live, especially long-term. Church-sanctuary is traditionally meant to be temporary, the length of stay depending on the situation and which church or religious tradition is being discussed, but sanctuary being offered for a number of years is far from common practice. The longer the participants lived in the church the more the idea of sanctuary began to be overshadowed by the discomfort of the living situation. The inability to cook, maintain personal hygiene routines, and welcome guests in the way they would wish seemed a denial of the ability to create home through routine practices. Beyond setting up tents, there were not many ways for participants to bring the space under control, which Douglas (1991) cites as a factor in creating home (289). As I mentioned previously, home does not necessarily indicate a physical place. As Rapport and Dawson (1998a) state, ‘one is at home when one inhabits a cognitive environment in which one can undertake the routines of daily life and through which one finds one’s identity best mediated—and homeless when such a cognitive environment is eschewed’ (10). 5.2 Cafes Stepping outside of the church, the city of Brussels, from its houses and cafes to its very streets, seemed to offer more opportunities for the residents to make connections and create a sense of home. It is fitting to begin with the first experience I had with my participants outside of the church, which involved having coffee in cafes. When I organised interviews with two of my participants, Sam and Amir, they both suggested that we meet in a cafe. In fact, throughout the course of my fieldwork I never conducted an interview inside the church even though I had been there several times. The first interview I conducted was with Sam and he took me to the cafe where the residents of the church were able to use the bathroom facilities. He explained that they paid the cafe a monthly fee in order to use the sink and toilet as much as they needed. Sam knew the wait staff and after the interview he insisted on paying, which made me a bit uncomfortable. A few days later I had some follow up questions for Sam and he took me to the same cafe. This time I made it to the counter before Sam in order to pay for our drinks. When we left the cafe, he looked upset and told me that in this place I should never pay. The motivation for my insistence on paying for my own drink may be apparent. I did not want there to be any sense of obligation for either party. For example, if I am not able to interview someone twice or meet them again, I do not want that person to be waiting for the coffee or drink that I ‘owe’ him or her. Some weeks later I had my interview with Amir. He took me to a cafe that he visits often. After the interview, I dropped my change onto the waiter’s tray before it was even on the table. I nearly threw it at him in hopes of avoiding the issue I had encountered in the previous interviews with Sam. Despite my best attempt to avoid an uncomfortable situation, I received the same reaction from Amir. He said that when we come to this place I should never pay. ‘This is my cafe’, he said. I asked if I could buy his coffee if we went to a different cafe, one of my choosing, and he said ‘Of course.’ The interviews in these cafes show that I was viewing these interactions and places very differently from the people I was interviewing. The preliminary conclusion that I have come to is that Sam and Amir were treating me as a guest in their home. It seems that living in the crowded church, with very little privacy and personal space, led them to appropriate spaces in the rest of the city. The cafes can be viewed as a type of living room, an extension of their domestic space. As May (2013) explains: ‘Although we are born into a world of ready-made structures, which inform how we interact with our environment as well as the meanings we give it … people can subvert expectations by using space for their own means …’ (139). In these instances, participants were creating routines and connections and, in some way, taking this space under control. The domestic sphere of their lives spilled over from the ‘living space’ of the church and into the cafes, similar to the way described by Veena Das et al. (2008: 355), in their study. Veena Das et al. explore the idea of the flows of domesticity and state that there can be ‘multiple domesticities that emerge at different times and are neither coterminous with family nor indeed with household’ (2008: 349). Cafes are public, or at least commercial, places, but Sam and Amir conducted private business there. They created a kind of personal space and claimed ownership over ‘their’ particular cafe. In contrast, they never spoke about the church in such terms of ownership. Amir also described the difficulty of speaking with his family and how infrequently he was able to contact them. When he did speak with them, this communication usually occurred in internet cafes. The computers that Amir used in the net cafe could be compared to the telephone in Das et al.’s study. They describe the telephone as an ‘object through which the boundaries of prison and home are constantly negotiated’ (356). In the case of Amir, I see the computers in the net cafes as the conduits through which Amir connects to his family and a past ‘home’. In this way, Amir’s home in Afghanistan is being incorporated into the city of Brussels in the way described by Das et al. (2008: 355). It is another instance of private life being lived in a public space. In many cases, participants found ways to meet their needs of privacy and ownership by looking outside of the space of the church, where these practices were often impossible. 5.3 Neighbourhoods Due to the fact that the participants looked beyond the walls of the church for their home-making needs, the neighbourhood in which the church was located and the entire city of Brussels were key to their home experiences. Sam and Amir said they spent a great deal of time at friends’ houses. Some of these friends were Belgian and some were previously undocumented Afghans who had received some kind of permission to stay in Belgium and had a place to live long-term. Sam expressed a sense of comfort when he said he knew he could go to his friends’ houses when he wanted to take a break, have a shower, and do his laundry. Just I stay in the church and sometimes I go to my friends’ house and I take a douche [shower] or wash my (…) clothes, or to stay a few days. In some of the days I will be sick or headache. I will stay a few days, three days, four days and come back in the church. Similarly, Amir cited his health as a main reason for staying with friends. However, more than having his health and hygiene needs met, Amir felt a sense of comfort, and perhaps even a bit of ownership, in friends’ homes. He proposed that we could have future interviews in the house where he was staying at the time. He said that we could have tea and I could speak to his Belgian friends about their views concerning the immigration situation in Belgium. This highlights his sense of home, which seemed to be stronger in locations other than the church, and also the strength of his connections at the interpersonal and community levels. Amir also spoke about his participation in a music group. This was significant because, as May (2013) explains, ‘musical experiences have also been known to play an important part in relational and cultural belongings’ (135). When he lived farther from the city it was impossible for him to participate in this music group. He said that the people in the group were all from different countries and that their singing together was ‘like a solidarity action!’ This is similar to May’s explanation that ‘music can also form part of collective experience and identity, as evidence whenever Liverpool Football Club fans sing “You’ll never walk alone”’ (135). These small group interpersonal relationships were very important in Amir’s life in Brussels, but his involvement also points to the value he placed on creating a routine in the city. Another instance in which the importance of routine in Amir’s life became apparent was when I was half an hour late for our interview. This was a complete misunderstanding on my part, and when I asked Amir about meeting again in the future he stressed that it would be important that the time fit both of our schedules. ‘Because even I am an illegal guy, but I will try to make schedule for my life. It’s better, yeah?’ Amir’s routine helped him to create a sense of control over his life and the space of the city of Brussels. It also made a difference that Amir no longer lived in the church, allowing him the time and space to focus on other issues and priorities. He would come to some protests and to visit the church, but he no longer felt the need to come to every demonstration. Feeling welcomed in his friends’ homes and having the ability to create a schedule and a set of routines helped Amir to treat the current space in the city of Brussels as his home. At least to some degree, it also showed that he was trying, and sometimes succeeding, in making connections in and to Brussels. On the other hand, Amir cited feeling detached when he lived in social houses that were far away from cities: Inside the centre there was too many [meaning a lot of] people from Afghanistan, but the problem of the centre was quite far from many places that I would likely to go. For example, to library, to internet using, to have a contact with my family. But it was really far, even the cell phone sometimes have no signal there to contact someone [if] you have friends in Belgium. It was too difficult. In this description, Amir explains that while living in the social house he had trouble connecting with people, both back in Afghanistan and in Belgium. Most of his friends lived in Brussels and he wasn’t able to easily make it to a net cafe to contact his family or use his cell phone to call his friends. He was not able to participate in practices that would foster home connections either to Belgium or to Afghanistan. 5.4 The street The streets themselves are another example of public space that may be described as spaces for home-making. Becerra (2014) explains that ‘public space serves as the terrain where urban dwellers engage in contestations over the meaning(s) of belonging and nonbelonging; it is where membership-in its multiple expressions—is enacted, negotiated and embodied’ (332). As I mentioned previously, it appeared that my participants were better able to create ‘home’ outside of the church, and this includes neighbourhoods and the street itself. In terms of appropriating the space of the street, Amir, counts a section of the street as his favourite place in all of Brussels. Amir no longer lives in the church, but he is still undocumented and moves between his friends’ homes. In the following quote, he recounts what his life was like when he first arrived in Brussels, even before he lived in the church, and was still sleeping in the park near the Office des Étrangers. Because when I reached to Brussels, I mean in 2011, so obviously during the day I was just free to make a walk so, just I was a little, I mean even have a little stress in my mind because I have no place to stay. I was [living] in park but my favourite place that I like in Brussels, and even after I would receive my document I would likely go off and visit this place because it’s a place that it’s like uh, what can I tell you? It’s a place that’s my favourite one. […] It’s uh Place Poelaert [a place with a view over the city]. Because there is a wall and you can see all the Brussels around, like all the place. Often, I go around night. Before I mean, but not now, because when I am busy I couldn’t go there often. So, I’m going there just to, I mean, sit over the all and look to the Brussels at night. It was really my nice place that I like it so much. But I like it around night. I just going on the wall in summer and spring and I likely to stay there maybe for one hour and sitting on the wall. I like it. And even after I receive my document still I will like to go, sometimes going, and visit there. Amir used this part of the city as a place of quiet reflection where he could be alone. In the park, and later in the church, he lived with many other people and did not have private space. In this example, he was using the public space of the street to serve a ‘domestic’ purpose in his ‘private life’. He could come to this place, where there are often people taking in the view, anytime he liked and he would not be questioned as to why he was ‘loitering’ there. In contrast, when I was late for our interview, Amir remarked that he had been worried about standing outside the cafe and waiting for me. He said that he probably looked suspicious and he did not want the police to notice him. He explained that he tried looking at different things in shop windows to appear as though he was shopping. In this way, his relationship with the city and his current home-connections on the city streets were tenuous. He had a routine and a place that he felt was ‘his’, but his attempts at creating a home in the present place were tempered by the reminder that he was undocumented and had to be careful how he moved in the space. What is clear in this case is that ‘public space by definition can be used by all; yet it cannot be permanently appropriated by anyone’ (Becerra 2014: 353). It seemed that the very act of having to reappropriate space on a daily, and almost constant, basis contributed to the participants’ sense of homelessness. 5.4.1 Protests When accompanying my participants on protest marches I learned a bit about the procedure that goes into getting a permit to have a demonstration on the street. The residents of the church were always sure to have a permit for their demonstrations and they coordinated with the local police to organise their marches. One participant told me that he got to know some of the police officers, and a couple of the officers told him that if he ever got picked up for not having papers then he could mention their names and they would try to help him. The protest marches seemed to be a way of appropriating the space of the street and turning it into a meaningful place (Tuan 1977). They were also creating social connections, learning about the legal system in Belgium, and claiming the right to protest by going through the same official legal channels that everyone, including citizens, has to go through in order to organise a demonstration. The Afghan men were comfortable in the street and even in the very act of protesting their official and bureaucratic exclusion; they were finding some level of inclusion and acceptance. As Becerra (2014) states in regard to her participants, this could be interpreted as ‘a movement that led to the official recognition of a group by the state. In granting a permit to allow this practice, the state recognised not only its existence, but gave Mexicans a legitimate place within public parks’ (352). It is also significant that the Afghan men felt safe and secure enough to organise and carry out these marches. ‘… if a person feels unsafe or otherwise unable to access a space, they are likely to avoid it. If too many public spaces are like this, this reduces not only people’s sense of belonging, but also their sense of a ‘right to the city’ or citizenship (Young 1990)’ (May 2013: 143). In other instances, participants worried about being picked up by the police, as in the example of Amir I described above, but during the marches they felt they had official protection and this contributed to the sense of ease they seemed to feel. And ease is one aspect of home that Tucker cites as being deeply significant (Tucker in Mallett 2004: 82). In addition to their spatial significance, protests were also vital to participants’ home creation because they felt they had the potential to change their circumstances and, perhaps in the future, become rooted in Belgian society. Some of the marches only included the members of the Afghan community while others were for the entire undocumented and asylum-seeking community. As May (2013) claims: ‘Belonging is not merely a state of mind but is bound up with being able to act in a socially significant manner that is recognized by others’ (142). The protest marches clearly fit this description and the participants were also showing their attachment to Belgium as a current home, and their hope to create a future home there as well. Additionally, the marches added to participants’ sense of routine and ability to structure and have control over their lives in Brussels. A sense of control they did not experience in the church. Sam: They already several times asked asile [asylum] from CGRA [Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons] and maximum four times or five times they got negative decision and the sixth time they asked also asile [asylum] and some of them waiting for the result. There are several person, we already receive negative decision and we don’t have nothing, so another people are waiting for the results, yes. Interviewer: So, every day you do something, like looking … Sam: Looking for solution, yes. Interviewer: So that’s your job right now? Every day you look? Sam: Yeah. In the above conversation, I put the word ‘job’ into Sam’s mouth, but I wanted to be sure that this was a daily practice. Even in informal conversations with Sam he nearly always spoke of the next protest, the current and upcoming efforts to gain asylum status and the outcomes of his friends’ recent appeals. Clearly Sam had a routine, but this routine did not seem to aid in the creation of any home-like feelings or connections. Instead, this routine appeared to be part of Sam’s struggle to bring the space under control. He wanted to have control of his movements and choices in Belgium and the lack of documents and rights made this impossible. The protests were also significant in terms of participants’ relationships with members of the surrounding community. When marching to the Office des Étrangers (foreigners’ office) they were often waving to people they met on the street and chatting with people who were not involved in the march. Participants’ relationships with neighbours seemed to contribute to a sense of routine and comfort in the neighbourhood space. They also knew the way to the office by heart and chatted and joked the whole way. There was a sense of ease and routine in the act of walking to the office to protest, and indeed, these marches occurred regularly. At certain times, they happened once a week, and sometimes even more often. While these marches were not parades in the display of ethnicity and community that Becerra studied in her work, the marches did fulfil some of the same purposes. Becerra (2014) explains that ‘parades are performances as much as they are spectacles because participants engage in acts of representation as they walk down, past, or through a public space with the explicit purpose of being seen’ (342). The participants wanted to be seen and recognised as having the right to the space they were using and, even more deeply, the right to stay in Belgium. The members of the community that recognised this right, and greeted and encouraged the participants, were in some small way accepting them into the community. One of the most intriguing moments of the protests was when one resident of the church, Abdul, held up the Afghan flag in front of the Office des Étrangers. He held it during the entire protest, around an hour, without putting it down. His arms were kept straight and he held the flag high in the air above his head. The flag was not light. The ‘pole’ was a thick wooden rod and the flag itself was approximately two feet by three feet. It was cold during this particular protest and Abdul was not wearing a coat. Eventually he began sweating and the muscles in his arms were quivering, but the flag stayed in the air. He switched arms once in a while, and he even let his friends help him put on a coat, but he did not lower the flag. Sam said that they made the flag by hand after their other flag went missing. Abdul did not speak English or French, though he did speak Flemish, so it was up to Sam to explain Abdul’s motivations, as well as explaining mine to Abdul. He said that Abdul always held the flag this way and that it was because he was proud of being Afghan. In this instance, it seems that we can speak again about embodiment. The residents of the church made the flags themselves and Abdul went even further by using his very muscles to display and maintain a connection to Afghanistan. It was also significant because the participants were trying to convince the Belgian authorities to allow them to stay in Belgium. Perhaps because they were, by their own explanation, forced to leave Afghanistan, they, and Abdul in particular, wished to show that they maintained a very strong connection with Afghanistan. This was a display of national belonging to Afghanistan in the streets of Brussels, where the participants were also making different and numerous home connections to the city and, as Becerra (2014) explains, they were creating a sense of unity after their sense of rooted community suffered in the act of leaving Afghanistan (345). 6. Conclusion The undocumented Afghans in my study were living a constant struggle for home and belonging. While they were physically sheltered in the church, the temporary nature of the situation, as well as the diminishing efforts to keep them comfortable, left them in a state of homelessness inside the church even while they tried to create connections with Brussels. As Mohammed, age 25, stated when I asked him about his daily life. I don’t have any normal day because I am deprived of normal right. I have no right to do study, to work, to have shelter. So how do you expect to have normal life? In Mohammed’s estimation, he was denied what he considered the most important aspects of a home: the right to study, the right to work, the right to have shelter (he excluded the church as a place of shelter in this instance perhaps showing how poor he felt the conditions were there). Normal does not exist for him without the rights afforded to him by citizenship, institutional belonging, and the agency that accompanies these. Through an examination of participants’ home connections in terms of routines, cultural practices, their ability to control and claim ownership of spaces and practices, and their social relationships in various communities, it became clear that the streets were more welcoming than the church itself. While their lives in the church may have been different in the earlier months of their stay, by the time I began my research it seems that it had become a place that they had to struggle to appropriate rather than a place where they felt welcome. It was simply a shelter, and while it provided the basic tenants of the definition of ‘sanctuary’ it was not a home. The rest of the city offered more opportunities for building home connections. Even while undocumented, participants managed to gain official recognition of their rights and belonging by obtaining permits for their demonstrations, and they were granted unofficial membership through their connections with other community members (i.e. Belgian friends, Amir’s participation in the music group, people they met on the streets in the neighbourhood, etc.). They were also able to demonstrate their continued connection to Afghanistan, even if they knew they were unable to go back and did not ever speak about this possibility, through the marches and displays of cultural items such as the Afghan flag. If we agree that homes are indeed temporal (existing in the past, present, and future) then my participants seemed to be trapped in their present struggle. The barrier of the lack of documents on one side and the danger of returning to Afghanistan on the other, kept them from imagining a return to Afghanistan or creating a future home in Belgium. The church was intended to be a temporary shelter, and this sense of impermanence threatened their home-making capacities. Bagelman (2013) describes the unexpected problem of limbo that results from the sanctuary cities movements and how temporary refuge can have negative effects on those living in such a state of uncertainty (50). The Afghans living in the church were clearly in a state of limbo. Due to this, and because no private or personal space was available to them in the church, they were forced to constantly reappropriate the public space, in the way described by Becerra (2014: 353). While this allowed them to create home connections in Brussels, sanctuary was not enough to fulfil some of their most crucial home-making needs. Their home connections were tenuous, unsure, and easily undone—as was their ability to remain in Belgium. Funding This work was supported by funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement no. 316796. Acknowledgements The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement no. 316796. During the research period the author was part of the INTEGRIM Initial Training Network as a Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher. The author would also like to acknowledge Dr Marco Martiniello for his supervision of the PhD research that led to this article and Claudia Paraschivescu for early readings and conversations. This research would have, of course, not been possible without the patience, insight, and contributions of the undocumented persons that shared their stories and gave freely of their time. Conflict of interest statement. None declared. Notes Footnotes 1. This research was conducted as part of a PhD project. 2. Pseudonyms were used for all participants in order to protect their anonymity. 3. Oral consent was deemed sufficient due to the legal situation of the participants, and consent was acquired prior to each interview or conversation. 4. It is likely that this was some form of Perso-Arabic as most respondents were speakers of Dari, and it being a type of Persian language the corresponding writing system would be the Persian alphabet. I did not, however, specifically ask respondents about this. 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Migration Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 22, 2018
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