Story: Omid Akbari
Omid: the eternal optimist with the incredible smile. In 2010, this Afghan young man left Iran and came to Belgium. After years of uncertainty, his asylum application was recently approved at last. Through music, poetry and volunteering, he shows he is much more than just someone with or without documents. “You know what? A residence permit doesn’t determine who you are. A lot of people make that mistake."
By Awet Desta Aregawi
Who? Omid Akbari
In Belgium since: 2010
Integration programme at bon: 2013
Omid, can you tell us about your arrival in Belgium?
I came to Belgium in 2010. As an asylum seeker, I first stayed at a centre near Liege and then in Dinant. In 2012 I had to move to Waasmunster. After about 6 months, I received a negative decision for my asylum application. I applied a second time, adding new elements. In the meantime, I lived at a transit residence in Brussels. I received a second negative decision. My motto is to “Never give up!”, so me and my lawyer decided to appeal to that decision. During that time, I was considered an illegal immigrant here for 4 to 5 months.
Wasn’t the winter of 2012 a very harsh one?
Yes, it was incredibly cold. Luckily by then, I already had several friends who offered me a place to sleep. It was hard for me to accept their help. Sometimes, I pretended like nothing was the matter. Getting on a train without a ticket was against my principles, but I had no money to pay for the train.
I got to know a lot of good friends during that difficult period, friends who also supported me on the bad days. Because you know what? A residence permit doesn’t determine who you are. Even though a lot of people make the mistake thinking that.
How did you end up in “your little castle”, as you call Klein Kasteeltje?
After the winter, the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons sent me to "my little castle". It was difficult in the beginning, but later I got to know many of the residents and even took up music: piano and tabla (an Indian percussion instrument).
You also started your integration programme at bon during that period. How was that?
It was very good. At bon, I mostly learned that people should respect each other, despite their differences. In class, we listened to each other a lot. I also learned to put things in perspective. A lot of people at bon are multilingual, which inspires me. You know, in Farsi we say you should leave out the “N” of “not”: in Farsi, “Nmitavanam” means “I can not”, but if you leave out the “N”, it means “I can”.
When the lessons social orientation finished, I asked my counsellor if there was something I could do during the summer months. That is how I ended up in the youth project Masir Avenir. I worked at the cafeteria for two months and bought fruit for the other youngsters. I’ve also helped out as a volunteer in recruiting new students at markets.
You seem to lead a busy life. What are your days like?
On Mondays, I take part in a poetry workshop in Klein Kasteeltje. A blissful afternoon. Sometimes, I write poems or translate Farsi texts to English. On Tuesdays, there is a music rehearsal with Globe Aroma. On Wednesdays, I join the circus activities at Foyer. Then on Thursdays, I sing with Globa Aroma in Bozar. Thanks to those activities, I was able to meet a lot of people, both Belgian and non-Belgian. Over the weekend, I mostly stay inside, in my little castle.
Let’s talk about current events. Do you follow the situation of Afghan asylum seekers?
I of course sympathise with other asylum seekers’ situation. In Iran and Afghanistan, there is no freedom. I cannot understand that people are being sent back to such countries. They are being sent straight into danger.
People don’t come to Belgium without reason. Leaving behind your country, your culture, your family, is never the first option. It is because there is no other way. I also saw a lot of misery on my way here. At times, the line between life and death was thin. I cannot understand that some people think we would take all those risks just to get money from the OCMW in Belgium. OCMW support lasts a very short time only. After all the hardships I conquered, I want a quiet life. I want to work and pay taxes. I did not leave behind my beloved mother to get financial support here.
You received good news recently: your asylum application was approved. What are your plans now?
I’ve gained experience in electricity in Iran. I could do something with that. I would also like to go study for social services. I believe my experience as a refugee could be useful. I have to think about that.
I also have to leave Klein Kasteeltje. After receiving a positive answer on your application, you have two months to find a new place. That is something to worry about, but I call that a “sweet problem”: having to live as an illegal immigrant was a whole other problem.
I admire your optimism!