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Praying with Refugees in Belgium: then the storm died down
25 September 2014

Mariam relished the time she spent with her grandson at their home in Antwerp, Belgium, before she was detained pending deportation back to Georgia, (Jesuit Refugee Service)
She spoke about six police men who had come take her from her home, as if she were a dangerous criminal at risk of flight.
Bruges, 1 October 2014 – Detention centres are places where storms frequently erupt, especially in the spirits of anxious, angry and stressed detainees. They feel overwhelmed, as if drowning. Yet in the middle of these dark storms, suddenly something can change. It is difficult to identify exactly what, but something changes their perspective, draws their attention to elements almost lost in the storm. It might be that God is at work.

I witnessed such sudden changes during the conversations I had with Mariam*, a 73-year-old woman from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, whom I accompanied for five months in the detention centre in Bruges, northwestern Belgium.

One day, when I visited the centre, Mariam caught my attention amidst 30 other women who were sitting in the dayroom. I was struck by her age. Her cane betrayed that she had difficulty walking. I approached her and presented myself as a Jesuit Refugee Service worker. She was happy to tell me her story.

Her first sentences were difficult to understand. She spoke Russian with a strong Georgian accent. The story sounded confusing and was interspersed with plenty of emotion: a lot of tears and also anger, particularly as she described the moment of her arrest.

She spoke about six police men who had come take her from her home, as if she were a dangerous criminal at risk of flight. But where would she flee? Her only wish was to stay with her Belgian daughter and grandson.

After our discussion, I did not know this would be the first of many others to follow. As she spoke about the difficult life and that of her daughter. I could read despair and impotence in her eyes.

Her daughter had been married to a Belgian who had committed suicide shortly after the wedding. After years of depression, she had metanother man with whom she had a child, but he left her shortly after the birth. As for Mariam, she came to Belgium after being during the war in South Ossetia, and, of course, because she wanted to support her daughter and grandson.

After having exhausted all the administrative procedures to remain in Belgium, she was now going to be deported back to Georgia. Not a single meeting with Mariam passed without her breaking into tears. When she cried, all the inner pain and suffering become visible on her expressive face.

I usually let her cry as much as she needed. All of a sudden, she would realise how kind centre staff and JRS volunteers, and how professional her lawyers were.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Your Reflections
I was often amazed by the potency of these sudden changes. How was it possible that in the middle of this deep and seemingly endless grief, something stronger than herself helped her to overcome this darkness and bring her back to life. Each time the wind died down, she was completely calm again.

Nathalie Salazar Medina, JRS Belgium