Spotlight on Brussels
by Sheryl Abrahams
It’s Friday night at La Serre, a garage-turned-café and event space in Brussels’ Flagey neighborhood. An acoustic duo plays blues music, while tattooed bartenders serve up organic beers and fair trade teas. Clustered around the bric-à-brac tables, over plates of fragrant couscous, are a mix of young professionals, families and hipsters. There are Europeans, Americans, Thai, and North and South Africans; singles, couples and children—and, yes—Unitarian Universalists.
La Serre is a project of the Brussels-based NGO, La Communa—and tonight it’s hosting a pop-up café run by a fellow NGO, Oasis Belgium. Oasis works to support and empower the marginalized—including women who have experienced trafficking, violence and exploitation, and the isolated elderly. This pop-up is part of a new social enterprise helping women beneficiaries to use their culinary talents to generate income and business experience.
Packed into the La Serre kitchen along with Oasis staff, volunteers, and the two North African chefs, members of the Brussels Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (BUUF) are busy taking orders, serving food, and washing dishes. Other BUUF members are painting children’s faces at a nearby table.
BUUF became involved with Oasis in 2016, when a BUUF member (me) began work as a volunteer Oasis case worker. While I work with Oasis more regularly, BUUF members have also come together once each winter to prepare holiday gift bags for Oasis beneficiaries working in “Thai massage parlor” brothels throughout Belgium. The gift bags are delivered along with a Thai-language newsletter and written information, in Thai and English, about Oasis support services. These include social and emotional support, community-building events known as “women’s away days”, and practical support such as referrals to medical, social and legal services, language classes and job training. BUUF is now helping with the launch of Oasis Belgium’s new social enterprise, which runs pop-up cafés and catering services in close partnership with its beneficiaries.
But La Serre is a familiar location for BUUF members for another reason—it’s also the site of a culinary-based social enterprise run by Our House. This Brussels-based NGO takes a community-based, participatory approach to refugee integration. Our House works from a belief that integration into a new culture works two ways, with cultural sharing that enriches both the newcomer and the host community. Their weekly pop-up cafés, managed and run by refugees and asylum-seekers, share new cultures and foods with the people of Brussels, while providing needed employment and skills training. While two BUUF members have taken on larger roles with Our House, including assisting refugees in finding housing, others have hired their catering services, patronized their pop-up cafés, and/or contributed to their recent crowd-funding campaign to expand their business.
Just as our meetings always include the chance to break bread together, BUUF members recognize that sharing meals is often the beginning of deeper connections between people of different backgrounds. We hope that our connection with La Serre will lay the groundwork for even deeper and more meaningful social justice outreach in Brussels and beyond.