Several days ago, I went for a walk-through Brussels, Belgium, but more specifically walked down to the canal. I took the number 92 tram through downtown Brussels, grabbing a sandwich along the way, and lightly walked to the rhythm of the only album I have downloaded on my phone - YSIV by Logic. After my third time through the album, I looked up; I was in the middle of a park.
Maximilian park - located in the heart of Brussels. There are anywhere from 500 to 1000 refugees from multiple countries, but with high concentrations from Eritrea and Syria. At the time, all I knew was I was ignorant enough to walk with headphones in while I strolled my six-thousand-dollar camera setup around my neck, like an 80s rapper preparing to claim bankruptcy. I didn’t know what these people thought of me, but probably something along the lines of what a total ass. That day, I turned back out of the park, I wasn’t emotionally or psychologically ready to take a stab at talking to someone I knew nothing about, but I promised myself I would go back with a camera and a pen.
Days went by, and still I hadn’t gone back. Instead, I went on a bike ride, visited Brugge and Antwerp, and kicked myself in the ass for why I couldn’t gear myself up to talk to these people. It was a mixture of fear and being ashamed. How could it be that I had no idea of this park, I had been in Belgium for 2 weeks at that point and no one talked about this park, full of refugees located only blocks from the city square. Finally, on Monday, I was done wasting time and took that same number 92 Tram to Brussels, to give my mind some peace. I circled the park several times, trying to find someone who looked like they may want to talk to me. The sights were the same though - mattresses lined the ground, hanging clothes could be found on every fence, and a group of men were in a tight circle holding one another like brothers. On my third pass around the park, I was thinking of reasons to can the project and just go get a cold pint in town. At that point, I was telling myself they probably don’t speak French or English. I drew a smile from a man across the park, which could be translated in any language as calm down its all good to be here. I walked over and introduced myself and he did the same. Within about 60 seconds, there were about 8 men around me. After shaking everyone’s hand, I told the man that spoke the best English why I was there and that I would like to learn their story and photograph the park. They began explaining to me that photographs would not be possible. Out of fear of the governments seeing them and the sadness of their families back home seeing them sleep in a park, they did not want to be photographed. I respected their wishes and got to talking. It turned out these men are from Eritrea. I didn’t know at the time where Eritrea was, but they explained, Eritrea is a small country on the eastern side of Africa along the Red Sea. Eritrea is also known as the North Korea of Africa. Although Eritrea was not at war at the time these men left, it was considered a Mental prison. All media was controlled by their Government, photography was prohibited, and their boarders enforced a shoot on sight policy for anyone trying to leave the country.
We went on to talk about why they left. One man wanted to go to school, but could not in Eritrea; some were scared for their lives; and the remainder did not want to be forced into the army, which is considered by foreign agencies as slavery, based on the service holds no minimum requirement and can last a lifetime. I started to put pieces together in my head and the no camera policy made sense, based on the strictness of a government that truly did not want to encourage any sort of innovations or freedoms. One major fear is the false accusation of conspiracy or treason by their neighbors. This would lead to being put in prisons with real criminals. These prisons contain large rooms with extremely limited food and the possibility of random executions at the hands of the guards. A trial would not be given, but they would remain jailed until their “investigation” was complete.
The Men I talked to explained that they left from Eritrea to Sudan, and from Sudan they made the trek to Libya and finally would end up in Italy. In Italy they were forced into large refugee camps where they felt the welcome of Europe (that was a joke). To them, Italy was the worst country they were in. They were treated as second class citizens and were fingerprinted in order to go through immense processing. From Italy, there are various routes through Europe, but it seemed all of these refugees had the same idea which was get to the U.K..
These men have been gone from home for one year and nine months and they were still living in a park in a first world country. One man applied for asylum in the Netherlands, but was refused and told to leave. I asked why he wanted to go to the U.K. and his reason was it would be the best opportunity to get asylum and begin his already delayed life. From there, these men and I started talking about their current situation in Brussels. They all lived in the park full time, except for when it would rain and then they would move into what looks like a small gym. Occasionally they may be invited into a house to take shelter from the weather. This was mid-october and their clothes and blankets hardly classified as cold weather options. For food, there was an organization that would come once a day to bring a meal. Some days, though, no food would come and they would either not eat or find alternatives ways to find calories. I did not ask how that may be, because I was afraid it may be embarrassing for them.
It’s not uncommon to have police come by to pick a handful of refugees, for no particular reason, and remove them from the park. I couldn’t get a clear answer of where they would go or what would happen to them, but I could only assume they would either get sent back to Eritrea and get killed or sent back a few steps to another refugee park. At the end of our conversation, we sat down and rolled cigarettes together and enjoyed a smoke. They told me that I should feel safe in the park, so we said our good byes and I walked off. I learned so much from these men and was truly grateful to have gotten to talk to them. After several minutes, I had an idea for a photo to put with the story. I went back and asked them if I could just take a photo of the back of their heads. After light discussion, the agreed. Sadly, they turned around looking into the brightest wall in the park and as soon as I drew my camera I heard a lot of conversation from others making me rush the process. I snapped my 2 photos and then said thank you again and left. At this point, I didn’t want to press the photo situation; I was lucky enough to have had the conversation I did. I walked home, only stopping once for another cigarette break on a bench. When I got home, I made a coffee and began researching Eritrea, which culminated into my understanding of what these men told me. Many of them would be killed if they ever returned to Eritrea, and it seemed the media was doing nothing to shed a light on this situation. All I had was the few news articles concerning the situation in Eritrea and the words of these men living in Maxamillion park. I don’t have contact with any of these men, but I hope wherever they go, they receive the same love that they showed me.