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Refugee Life in Europe

Luxembourg is a small, quiet and rich country. Buses and cars wind gracefully around its padded meadows, yellow flowers waving in salute. A country where people live in the comfort of non eventfulness. And the capital city is grand. Pretty, its tidy roads regulated with sculptured trees. Spotlights which are angled to highlight the tradition filled stone of the cities many important buildings. The university buildings are some of the grandest, recently built in a modern brick and glass style. Their stature is commandingly symmetrical, and contrasts strikingly with the voluptuous parks surrounding.

Which is why it’s such a surprise to find Don Bosco house, hidden just metres away from one of the universities central buildings. Metres away in distance, but decades away in state, and atmosphere.

Don Bosco house, Avenue de la Faiencerie. The grand hotel, the place where Luxembourg city’s refugees are sent; having made their way, across countries, to seek safety. Refugees, asylum seekers, Europeans, Caucasians, Africans, from war torn countries, from former dictatorships, from just next door.

The building is large, three stories high, and made of the same concrete and steel as most schools constructed in 1950’s Europe. The new arrivals, having made their way from the housing office by bus, pass up the chipped steps to the ground floor.

There a mild stench of urine and mould greets them, as does the sight of leaking pipes, puddles on the floor and graffiti. But after the trials they’ve been through these things have no affect upon them, and the Russian house master shows them to their rooms.

Provided there is enough space, the women and men are given beds in separate rooms. I arrived at Don Bosco’s late at night however, and the women’s room was full. The house master contemplated this for some time, then moved a Burundi girl of about 8 years age into the same bed as her mother, giving me her bed, and her sheets.

I was not there as a refugee, nor was I from a country with any kind of conflict or economic instability. I had simply arrived in Luxembourg out of interest, and a Russian at the train station had given me directions for “a very cheap hostel.” It was indeed cheap, five euros a night for someone without the right papers, such as myself – but this did not prepare me for what I saw.

There were twelve other bunk beds in the narrow room, all of them full, draped with clothes and towels and surrounded by personal possessions of every kind. An array of brightly coloured shawls next to the Burundian’s bunk. Some half ripped canvas bags alongside an Estonian’s. Several other mothers and daughters sharing the same bed, all of them Africans.

There was also a sink, some graffitied lockers, and a small table. My stomach churned as I saw some blood smeared toilet paper, and cotton rods covered with ear wax lying on the table. The air in the room was thick and foul. I escaped outside to find the bathrooms.

Walking through the corridors I saw barren school classrooms, with stacked up desks and broken – although pretty – stained glass windows.

Fifty people were being housed on the ground floor, and there were three women’s toilets. The stench of urine was thick, but not stagnant, as the door to the toilets was broken from its hinges, allowing air to circulate. Three sinks, one of them rusty and broken, provided cold water to wash with, and on my way back out of the door frame I noticed a former public school sign which still read ‘Girls’.

At basement level lay the showers and washrooms. The floor was flooded, and again I felt a wave of nausea as I looked around the tiled space. Rubbish floated on top of the dirty water – but not only rubbish. There lay waste too, human excression and sanitary pads. A pyjamed man emerged barefoot from a shower, and hopped from dry patch to dry patch past me. Plastic bags and clothes lay beside the washing slabs, seemingly abandoned.

The next morning, Maxim, a young Estonian there with his family, told me there were other washrooms in better conditions, on the upper floors. But you had to be careful getting there, he said, the people who lived on those floors weren’t happy to share.

I was exhausted after a tumultuous night. The house had echoed with noise; with children crying, with people walking in the corridors outside, with murmurs and tremors, and the creak of the bunk beds; and the neon lights had been turned off and on repetitively. And as I had lain awake in the early hours, I had seen cockroaches wandering about the walls and lockers.

Maxim was in good spirits however – he’d slept well, as his room was not completely full. He was staying in the men’s room as his family could not get a room for themselves, although he didn’t think that was a bad thing.

On the arrivals floor the families were housed four to a room. The family room I saw was long and narrow, each quarter partitioned with sheets, giving a space of about six metres square for one family. The Bosnian woman I talked to had four children to look after and entertain in this small space, and, she said, so did her neighbours. Maxim and his family could not secure one of these luxury apartments however, as they had been in Don Bosco’s for only three months.

Some families had been there, cramped and waiting, for four years. Waiting for the sign from the government, a positive or negative stamp, which would decide their fate. A positive stamp would mean they would receive some rights as a legal refugee in Luxembourg, and be moved on to other accommodation and possible employment. A negative stamp would mean deportation to their country of origin. The government kindly pays for these return flights, and provides a small amount of spending money besides – but the repercussions in some home countries are difficult to imagine. Failed asylum seekers are often ostracised from their communities and labelled as traitors. In Belarus a failed asylum seeker, seen as treacherous and a deserter, can receive an eight year prison sentence.

So Maxim and his family didn’t mind waiting so much. With time perhaps they would secure a spot on one of the upper floors, where the family rooms were bigger and more private. And after all, Maxim was receiving an education of sorts – not only the seven hours of German and French lessons per week – but with his bus pass he was able to ride freely around the central city, and see for himself, just how the upper half live.

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