1) Please tell us about Wwelcome: when, how and why it came to be established.
Wwelcome was established one year ago on April 1st 2018. While working for an insurance company, the two founders discovered a great need for personal assistance with the various sorts of documentation required of newcomers to Belgium.
Even though some organisations (including governmental) already provide administrative assistance, newcomers sometimes had challenging or negative experiences when trying to get their paperwork in order .
Our organisation supports immigrants to Belgium with whichever issues they bring to the table. It’s our mission to make them feel at home here: hence, Wwelcome.
2) What services do you offer and how are these funded?
Over the past year, we have noticed a great variety in the types of support that people need. Therefore we mostly operate in a Q&A style. Our members bring us letters, bills and contracts to translate and explain, or various application forms to enter. Sometimes, they ask for advice about immigration, naturalisation, buying a house or getting a divorce.
Next to explaining and offering advice, we mediate on behalf of our members with the government, insurance and energy companies, realtors, banks, employers, schools and landlords. Though we are not lawyers or accountants, we are the link between our members and these specialists.
All of this we provide for a monthly subscription of €10 (our “All-You-Can-Eat” formula!). If people prefer, we can also service for €10 per hour.
In addition we can accompany people to the hospital, police, OCMW, or any place else in order to interpret. We offer discounts at our partner organisations and various stores such as IKEA, Carrefour and Kinepolis. The more members we have, the bigger the discounts we can offer.
For business owners, we offer the above and a number of additional services. We support them with taking the first steps in establishing their business, creating financial plans, understanding social and health requirements, applying for loans and by advertising them through our media platforms. Business owners pay a different membership fee, depending on the type and size of their business.
3) What are the most common challenges or difficulties experienced by newcomers to Antwerp?
The most common challenges that are brought to our attention are firstly, communication and arranging matters with the government and aligned associations. Bureaucracies are not always open-minded or willing to communicate in English, and people often don’t know what they are expected to do next. Even for Dutch-speakers, it is often difficult to grasp what is meant by some of the letters newcomers receive. Secondly, problems with justifying bills: many people just pay the invoice as is, even though they could reduce a payment by giving the correct information and not have to pay the (entire) bill. This means they avoid paying for a service that they don’t receive or don’t want.
4) Many are concerned by the rise in populism across Europe at the moment, and the racism, anti-immigrant or xenophobic feelings which accompany this rise. Is this something that is a you notice here in your work, or in your personal experiences?
We don’t come across direct racism. However, many people experience discrimination at an institutional level (government or companies) due to the fact that they cannot advocate for themselves in Dutch.
We notice that sometimes organisations (also landlords, employers and even business partners) try to outsmart our members. However, when we make the call or write the mail, they are quick to respond with “sorry, yes, I understand…”.
There also happens to be a rule that for administrative *Artikel 60 work, Muslim women are required to take off their scarf. If they don’t, they are fired and lose their allowance.
5) In your line of work, what does success look like?
Everyday success for us is bringing peace of mind to our members, resolving their worries and offering an optimistic view of their future.
Long-term success would be a flourishing organisation throughout Europe where we can touch the lives of millions of immigrants; welcoming them with open arms and providing an antidote to the negative populist voices. When people feel welcome, they are keen to contribute positively to the communities that they have made their home.
Wwelcome is located at Bredabaan 371 in Merksem. If you’re coming by tram, then trams 2 & 3 stop almost outside our office at the stop called Burgemeester Nolf.
10 top tips you might find handy if you are new (or newish!) to the City of Antwerp.
1. Don’t forget to ask for help.
In Antwerp you’ll find so many communities for each nationality that you can easily reach on different social networks. Use these tools when you need help. Ask politely for info: you’ll find better allies here, than anywhere else.
See: Expats in Antwerp group on Facebook or go to Language café events like at
This might sound cheesy, but life doesn’t stop for them just because we’re away. They get old, have babies, they move on. You might want to ensure that you hear from them regularly. It’s just a little more effort that you have to make, than if you still lived close to them.
This might sound silly when living in a English-friendly country, but learning some Flemish might give you advantages you didn’t consider before…. and don’t forget that leaving a shop or the post office with a smile, is also a positive way of connecting with your new neighbours.
Explore the international community in the city you’re living, but don’t forget to make friends with Antwerpenaars too. They don’t have to become your best friends yet, you need them to help you better understand the society, to feel less misplaced. when someone explains a local joke to you, it can help you feel more included.
History is what makes a city big or small. It’s number one evaluation element to figure out whether a city is interesting or not. Never ignore this important aspect while being part of Antwerp community. It could be finding a local guide, going to a museum and reading the little guide book or reading some history books at the library, etc. History is what makes everything start.
Some people might seem less interested in you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share the traditions of your own culture. If you listen and respect Belgian culture, locals will appreciate every once in a while being introduced to an aspect of your culture too. It doesn’t have to be big; it could be something small like baking something typical for your office.
8. Avoid negative comparisons.
If you are about to start a new journey in Antwerp, try to be positive about your new environment, and avoid negative comparisons. People around you should accept you for who you are, where you come from and what you stand for. In return, give the host culture a real chance to introduce itself.
9. Never miss an opportunity to have new encounters.
You are never really alone if you surround yourself with new friends. If people you don’t know well invite you for an activity or an event in the city where you live, try to attend. Even if you’re not going to have the time of your life every time, it’s important to participate in as many events as possible and meet as many people as possible.
Waking up on the morning of June 24th this year was -I imagine- a pretty grim experience for most British people living on the European mainland, myself included. Not least, because having been away from Britain for over fifteen years, I had not been entitled to vote in the referendum that would affect my status in the place I now consider to be my home.
I understand fully that the consequences for the 1.2 million Britons living outside the UK but within Europe, would most likely have been far from the minds of UK dwelling voters who do not have valued family connections to Europe – although it was pretty painful to learn that rights you had taken for granted had also been voted away even by people you thought of as your nearest and dearest. However, I did wonder what sort of image voters might have of us, were they fleetingly to consider who we might be. It seemed to me that on the few occasions when the media did reflect on this, it frequently involved invoking the stereotype of the retired or bar-owning British expat living it up around a beach in southern Spain, as depicted in pictures used in articles like this one or this one (which uses the same image) or here (there’s that Union Jack bedecked bar yet again!). I’d like to point out that this is far from reality for the vast majority of British people living in EU countries: we are nurses, builders, translators, wait staff, small business owners, teachers, civil servants, receptionists and many more regular jobs besides. We are working parents, stay-at-home-parents, single parents and ‘trailing partners’ (as the re-location literature so flatteringly terms those who accompany their working partners on international moves). We are single people, or couples, or busy families doing school runs, jobs, hoofing it round the supermarket, paying our bills… We are -for the most part- really NOT sunning our leathery beer bellies in Malaga, while refusing to learn a word of Spanish. Our lives -like those of people in the UK – consist of the usual unremarkable elements that form the basis of regular working days in the communities in which we live.
I arrived in Belgium in 2006, from the Netherlands, where I had been working for six years as a teacher. I also took up a teaching post on arrival in Antwerp, and this was the reason for my move here, with my (Dutch) partner, who is also a teacher, and my daughter, who was five at the time. My two youngest children were born subsequently (in 2008 and 2012) here in Antwerp, and attend local schools.
We quickly settled in, and came to appreciate living in Antwerp. What’s not to like? It’s a vibrant city where there is always something going on in the community. Over the ten years that we have lived here, we have enjoyed being part of city life, often through regular community public events laid on by Stad Antwerpen. These have become more familiar to us the longer we stay. Our lives have become punctuated by annual dates on the family calendar: Autovrijdag (car free day), Bollekesfeest (a beer festival), Zomer van Antwerpen (summer events program) and- as temperatures dwindle and the days grow shorter- Winter In A (winter and Christmas events). It’s a lovely city to visit, if you get the chance.
I haven’t lived in England since I was 18, and I left the UK from Scotland in 2000, but I never thought that having a British passport could become an impediment to accessing employment on an equal basis, or would complicate travel around Europe. I never thought that I would be voted into becoming a ‘non-EU citizen’. I suppose I am guilty of taking my European identity -and the belief that it would be reflected in the passport that I hold – completely for granted. Born in 1971, my life so far corresponds almost exactly to the period of UK EU membership.
So once the shock had dissipated a little, I began to think about what to do next. My eldest is going to be finishing her secondary education in a few years and may wish to apply for further education. That might be in Britain, but equally it might not; she might prefer to apply for a local course, or one in another EU country. It seems absurd that -as someone who has never actually lived in Britain, nor outside the EU -she was at risk of becoming a non- EU citizen. Maybe everything would be OK, but as the terms of Brexit seem so utterly confused and unclear (despite the recent -largely unsurprising- statement that the end of March 2017 will be the deadline for triggering article 50), I quickly felt inclined to start looking into gaining Belgian nationality so that future options remained as broad as ever they had been for myself and my family. If I had citizenship, it would automatically be passed on to my children. I would not need to give up my UK nationality, but it would not be recognised by Belgium. So I decided to request Belgian nationality, and what follows is what I discovered. Belgium’s regulations regarding citizenship are more lenient than many countries and a bit of Googling revealed that I was eligible to apply. Belgium requires that you have lived here, and that you provide evidence of ‘economic participation’ (i.e. earning and paying tax) over an unbroken five- year period. You can apply for citizenship if you have not been paying tax, but would need to have been resident for ten years in such a case. To apply, you need to demonstrate your period of residency, your employment status, that you have paid tax, that you speak at least one of the three languages of Belgium and that you are integrated.
Firstly, I needed to go to a legal translator to get a translation of my British birth certificate. This cost about 70 euros and took a few working days. I also had to get a letter from my employer, confirming that I have a permanent contract and stating the date when the employment began. I then set the printer to work, printing out all the tax documents which showed my ‘economic participation’ over the past five years, and salary slips for the current tax year, up to the time I began my application. Armed with all this, I went to the Districtshuis, where all of the documents were scanned and kept. The woman who assisted me was professional, efficient and helpful. She told me that I did not need to do an integration course or language test, as this is assumed, given the length of time I have been holding down a job here (I hope she is right, as I have a friend who has been told differently!). She then directed me to the Federal Fiscaal Overheidsdienst to get one more document that would cost 150 euros. I have subsequently come to understand that this is basically a fee for the creation of the dossier, but as you can see from the picture below… I was not clear about its purpose at the time…
[This needed to be stamped of course. Anyone who has lived in Belgium for any length of time, will know that stamping things is Very Important Indeed, and that even in the digital age, there are few things that Belgian bureaucracy enjoys more than a bit of ‘stempelen’ on hard copies of … pretty much everything.]
So I dutifully got those things and headed back to the Districtshuis. I saw the same efficient and helpful lady who was, once again, efficient and helpful. She chatted in a friendly way and did some more scanning.
And then she had me copy out this statement in my very best handwriting:
“Ik verklaar Belgisch staatsburger te willen worden en de Grondwet, de wetten van het Belgische volk en het Verdrag tot bescherming van de rechten van de mens en de fundamentele vrijheden te zullen naleven.”
(I declare that I wish to become a Belgian citizen, and to comply with the Constitution, the laws of the Belgian people and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms)
And I think it was at that point that something changed. I realised that I actively DID want those things. I wanted to be Belgian. Not in a fervent, flag-wavy way. Not in a national anthem, or a marchy boots way. Nor can I claim an exhaustive knowledge of Belgian art, history or politics. I simply like our life here, in Antwerp, Belgium, the EU, and I think that Human Rights are important. I had started the application as a bureaucratic, practical procedure -a rubber-stamping, as it were – to retain rights and freedoms for practical purposes, living in an EU country. But somehow copying out the words and signing them did cause a small sea change. I was reminded that I do indeed believe in those EU values. I find I am less attached to a specifically British identity than I thought I was. And Belgium has been good to us… this small, imperfect, often divided country, frequently maligned by stand-up comedians who probably haven’t been here (or who are short on material perhaps) as being … BORING (yep, you’ve heard the jokes, right?).
Well, whatevs, as they say. Needless to say, that is not a view of Belgium that I share. I’ve had confirmation that my dossier has been received and I am waiting for the decision – which is meant to take 4 months from that point. That would be the 22nd December -my Dad’s birthday. I am proud that he campaigned energetically for the Remain side, and we commiserate together frequently. It would be a good to be able to offer him the consolation that three of his grandchildren will retain -and no doubt benefit from retaining – their EU status. So not a day goes by when I don’t at some point think about my application, and that thought is always accompanied by a heartfelt hope that my it will be granted.
… But if you are interested to hear what happens next- stay tuned, and I’ll let you know as soon as I hear.