This post originally appears on Wasapninworld blog and describes the writer’s experiences of looking for a home to rent in the Antwerp area a few years ago.
It is not a very heartening read; we would all (I hope) like to live in a fairer country than the one described here, but as the writer of the post told me, “it’s one way of starting conversations” -and clearly this is very much a conversation that needs to continue in Belgian society.
I had lived at my parents house most of my youth life and then moved into my own property when I got married. I then moved abroad and my residence was always provided by my employer. All rights, contracts and viewing was always prior to my arrival to our new country and home. That was until I relocated to Belgium which was my first job in Europe outside of the UK.
We were allocated a relocation specialist who helps newbie arrivals find a new rental house/apartment and ease them in the country. We should have been greeted by the relocation specialist when we first arrived in Belgium but our relocation specialist was busy and could not meet us. During our first initial meeting we would have been given a new Belgian mobile phone Sim card, get help searching for apartment/house, be taken to the supermarket so we can be accustomed to the new area, and finally have a lovely dinner or lunch- all of which never happened with us because our relocation specialist was busy when we first entered Belgium. So neither did our first trip to a supermarket, and we were never given a new Belgian number so we could be contacted, nor ever shown any apartments for rent. We did all that ourselves. We checked into our hotel (allocated by the employer) and stayed there for a few days looking at our shortlisted viewings which we had done while we were in the UK. After being a few days in Antwerp, our relocation specialist messaged us to request if we could meet for coffee (instead of dinner/lunch) as there are no halal places in Antwerp. This was our first visit to Antwerp and we did not know anyone there but a quick Googling told us that there are plenty of halal places to eat. It was clear for us that the relocation specialist did not want to meet us, so rather than make a fuss we politely declined and that was the last we heard for a while.
Our experiences are limited to Antwerp renting while Muslim in Belgium. Below are just some of the scenarios that panned out.
At first, we decided to stay as close as possible to my new work place, which was located in a very white suburb of Antwerp.
NOTE: My rental deposit of 3 months’ rent is covered by my employer, who are also my reference. My employer happens to be a very reputable work place in Antwerp for over 50 years and my salary was well above minimum requirement.
1. We found this lovely house with a garden. Arranged to see the property and loved it. We agreed to take it but were told that there are other viewers and the decision would rest with the owner. We were told within days that the owner of the property decided to rent with someone else.
2. Arranged to view an apartment walking distance from the above property. There were two apartments available in the same block. It was a brand new apartment block. We were met by the same estate agent as previous. We liked the property and agreed to take it. We were told that the owner will let us know. The owner happened to be the uncle of the estate agent. Weeks went by and we heard nothing even after asking for an update. Emails and phone calls were not returned.
3. Arranged to view another apartment in the same area. Saw the apartment and agreed to take it. We were told someone would get back to us. Every time I would ring to speak to the estate agent, he was never available. We never did get that call back or the apartment.
4. With the above experience rather than go for a viewing ourselves we decided to ask the relocation specialist to visit on our behalf. When we asked about a particular property, she strongly discouraged us, as it is the centre of the town and there are works due to take place right outside of the apartment that we were interested in, which will cause major traffic and will last for months. Heavily reliant on local knowledge we decided against pursuing this further. (We later learnt that the roadwork did go ahead but was not a major traffic issue and only lasted about a month or so, much lower than the impression given to us)
5. We decided to search further away from the work place. A balance between the city centre and the suburb. Rather than pay for extra hotel accommodation we decided to go back home and search from London. We found a brand new block of apartments where three apartments were available. We rang and agreed to take the property without seeing it. We were told they would not rent without us seeing the property. I explained I was in London and it’s difficult to travel with a 3 year old child who is not well. The owner insisted. We had no choice but to make a last minute trip back to Antwerp. As expected, we liked the property and agreed to take it. We were told we would be informed of the update very soon. Within hours of leaving the property we were told that all three apartments had been rented out and they had not realised but other family members had rented them out without them realising it. (Note: These properties were unrented for 9 months as they were advertised on the rental website available for rent.)
6. The message was clear we were not wanted in certain parts of Antwerp. We then decided to search in the city centre or other areas that were predominately occupied with ethnic minorities. We looked at and investigated many properties but did not feel the quality was up to our standards. We also tried to rent in the city centre and during numerous calls; we were told they would not rent to Indians or foreigners. We were shocked to hear this as they did not know we were non-white foreigners because I sound British because I am. They were mentioning it as a selling point.
7. As a last resort I had to ask one of my new white colleagues to ring on my behalf and look at the property. Once we both agreed, it was acceptable I arranged to view the property without my family. I agreed to take the property because at that point no one would rent to us. As it turned out the landlord was very nice who is Jewish in faith and who had rented his property to a tenant who was Muslim in faith. Sometimes the glimmer of hope comes from communities that know what is like to be different.
All the while there were at least 4 other new colleagues coming from different parts of the world who very quickly were able to find and rent. Maybe it was a coincidence that they were all white but I clearly think not. Throughout this experience it must be added that everyone we interacted with was polite, smiling and courteous. On face value, there was no indication of anything being wrong. However, someone who has lived as an outsider all my life you quickly learn to read the body language and the other signs that are very hard to conceal. I know my British accent has made it much easier when interacting with the local indigenous population in Antwerp. I later learnt when making friends with the African, Moroccan and Turkish community of how frank and open the remarks can be. They had been told that renting would not be provided if their wives, mothers and daughters wear the headscarf or if they cook their local food in the apartment.
I clearly do not look white British but I do sound it and my wife wears the headscarf. On face value, we pass by as Moroccans or Turkish depending on the lens of the looker but our accent tells a different story. However, our face value determined our renting while Muslim experience and that was of racism and Islamophobia. The invisible cloak of freedom and equality was marred by another invisible cloak of racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and the colonial mentality of being better than others are. Europe/Belgium has a problem of race and identity and the sooner we face up to it the sooner we can work together to eradicate it. To highlight the seriousness of the problem a report was published in 2017 where “Job applicants with convictions for violence are more likely to be taken on than those with Arabic surnames, criminologists have found. Applicants with a violent past and a Dutch name stood a better chance than those with an Arabic name but no history of violence, said researcher Chantal van den Berg.”1
I have lived as a ‘Paki’ in England and as an Englishman in Pakistan. We have always been outsiders to where I have been posted for my jobs. Identity is something I have had to question and have come to the conclusion that the world has more in common with each other but we focus on the smaller differences rather than the similarities. In the back of my mind, I thought at least it is not this bad back home. Back home for me was the UK but I had not lived there for over a decade due to work but little did I know that it too had changed for the worse when we relocated back in 2017. More information to follow soon.
On a positive note once all the renting problem was resolved at least until the next time we had to move, I found the local Antwerpians of all shapes, sizes and colours to be a lovely bunch so much so much I would much rather live in Antwerp than my home city of London.
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