Belgium is a country with a rich cultural history, as well as a terrific opportunity to experience nearly all the cultures of the world through the current diversity of the country and influx of immigrants to Belgium. When you hear Belgium, the first things that come to mind are the chocolate filled waffles, French fries, or frites, and of course some of the world’s richest and delicious chocolate! However Belgium has much more to offer than traditional food, art and history as it is not home to hundreds of thousands of people from nearly every country on earth. These new residents of Belgium provide you with the opportunity to learn more and more about the different areas of the world in terms of cuisine, textiles, and everyday life as you interact with those you serve and befriend.
For those planning on volunteering, know that the diversity of Belgium can accommodate those from nearly every area of study or interest. There are opportunities for those studying: agriculture, botany, veterinary sciences, communications and organization, French, education, health and nutrition, medicine, biology, and nursing.
If you are interested in agriculture, veterinary sciences and environmental conservation, there is a strong culture of innovation and experimentation in rural Belgium, creating a need of volunteers from various fields of the agricultural and environmental sciences. One way to volunteer is through the WEP International-Farmstay program in Belgium. This experience allows volunteers to stay with a host family for 1-3 months and will help them learn or improve their skills in agriculture and French through complete immersion and service by working on a farm in Belgium. Agriculture in Belgium is pretty even split between crop productions and raising stock are also terrific positions available for those who are interested in ecology and “going green” to learn about the new innovations of ecological farming in Belgium.
There are also great options for those more interested in the healthcare, AIDS treatment and prevention, nursing and education. One of the biggest volunteering opportunities is to apply with Concordia. Concordia is a world-wide charitable organization that focuses on the rehabilitative work with children with special needs, and organizing activities in the refugee center. Concordia is doing terrific work with the surge of recent African refugees that are set up in camps all throughout Belgium. This can be incredibly fulfilling and joyful work as you help the hundreds of thousands of African refugees during their first few months out of their war torn countries. You will see their lives change for the better through your medical treatment and rehabilitation while they adjust to life in a new country. Your language skills will improve immensely and you will form friendships that will last a lifetime.
Know Before You Go: Before leaving for Belgium, it is a great idea to study up on not only your French, but also the current political and cultural events in Belgium. With Brussels as the capital of the European Union, as well as the country being divided between two distinct cultures and languages groups, it can be a great benefit to understand what is happening right now. Also, while studying about Belgium, understand that in the past ten years, the influx of immigrants from Africa and the Middle-East have skyrocketed and in certain parts of big cities you may feel as though you’ve entered Turkey, the Congo, or Romania. Understanding these cultures will also be a great benefit, particularly if you plan on volunteering with the African refugees. Also, it can be great to know about the cuisine of these countries so you can know where the best restaurants are!
How Volunteering in Belgium Will Help Your Future: Volunteering in Belgium will no doubt be one of the highlights of your life, and for many volunteers will even be a turning point in your life where you recognize you blessed you truly are. After spending months with those who have come to Belgium from impoverished countries all over the world, you will have a new outlook on life and will understand the meaning of true gratitude. You will also find some of your best friends in those you serve in Belgium and many volunteers keep in touch with their international friends for decades after their service. Academically speaking, an international benevolent experience looks great on a resume and college application as it sets you apart from thousands of others without the life and cultural experience you receive in your weeks or months abroad.
Best Places to Volunteer: You’ll discover that each city in Belgium is as culturally diverse as the other. Brussels offers you dozens of different cultures, ethnicities, religions, and cuisines. Brussels has an incredible history that is demonstrated by their several museums, monuments, and breathtaking architecture. Smaller Cities such as Liege and Charleroi provide an equal cultural experience. Liege is considered the heart of Waloonia, which is the traditional Franco-Belgian culture and is the birthplace of the French fry and the most incredible waffles you will ever taste! The smaller cities all over Belgium will provide you with the agriculture experience you’re looking for, as well as incredible landscapes of rolling hills, gigantic Belgian horses, and friendly, small town neighbors.
Health and Safety of Volunteers in Belgium
While extensive vaccinations are required for a French visa, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that Belgium doesn’t have such strict requirements. However, while there are no requirements, there is always the recommendation that you are up to date with all your flu and immunization shots so you can enjoy your time and not worry about getting sick. If you do fall sick during your stay in Belgium, there are many local doctors but you will probably feel most comfortable going to the American Hospital, which will require you to have current health insurance.
Having health insurance is always recommended, but if you aren’t on your parent’s insurance plan, or your university won’t allow you to keep insurance through them while you are volunteering, don’t worry, there are many health insurance companies who will provide you with affordable coverage during your international stay. As far as your safety goes, it is much safer than many other countries around the world as there are no epidemics or water contamination problems in Belgium. However, many of the African refugees have been infected with HIV AIDS, and your supervisor will give you training on the necessary steps to avoid infection.
Contributed by Lucy Markham