Since 2015, the citizens’ group ‘Les Cuistots Solidaires’ has been distributing food to migrants and refugees who come to Belgium. During the health crisis, members of the group have continued to provide help, with support from the King Baudouin Foundation. Every Thursday, they distribute a meal to some 300 people in Brussels.
Two long queues form along the canal in Brussels. On the Quai des Péniches, several hundred migrants and refugees await their turn, wearing masks and showing no signs of impatience. A young man from the Red Cross makes sure they keep their social distance. All are waiting for a meal distributed by the citizens’ collective ‘Les Cuistots Solidaires’ (the Supportive Cooks).
Among them are Jala and Motassim, both of whom left Sudan. Jalal is only 18. He was stuck in France during the period of confinement and has just recently begun to move again. Motassim dreams of going to England but does not exclude the possibility of staying in Belgium. Both have been sleeping outside since they arrived in Belgium. They point to a small park, opposite the Quai de Péniches. “It’s really cold at night, even if it’s almost summer” complains Jalal.
Given their harsh living conditions, they have no choice but to get food here. The hot meal today is cornmeal, organic vegetables and chicken. “It’s good to survive”, says Jalal. Beneath a large metal awning, the distribution of food continues. And it’s fast. “In forty minutes, between 250 and 300 people are served here”, says Claudio Guthmann, founder of the citizens’ group as well as interpreter for the European institutions.
A core of volunteers
Les Cuistots Solidaires was set up in 2015. It was a time when thousands of asylum seekers were flocking to Europe and Belgium, often from Syria. Many could be found sleeping on the ground of the Parc Maximilien. "We were a small group of people worried about the refugees and we wanted to do something”, Claudio Guthmann remembers. "I myself left the Argentine with my parents in the 1970s to escape dictatorship and this perhaps partially explains why we are sensitive to this issue, even though there are also a lot of Belgians in our group”. Today, the migrants come from the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and sometimes even Central America. Most of them are not seeking asylum here. Some of them are waiting to cross the Channel. But the challenge is the same for the volunteers: to come to the aid of these exiled people who have no access to official support.
In 2015, Claudio and his friends picked up their phones and called other friends and then friends of friends. And so this support network, which places solidarity at the heart of its activities, was formed, with a solid core of volunteers and lots of goodwill.
With the COVID-19 crisis, the Cuistots Solidaires saw not only an increase in the number of those in need, but also an increase in the number of new volunteers who came to lend a hand to the fifty or so usual volunteers. Among these new volunteers is Fathy, who is a sports coach in Brussels in ‘normal’ times. “I had a lot of free time during the period of confinement”, he says, handing out sandwiches. “A friend suggested that I help out here and that’s what I do. My aim was to meet some of the beneficiaries. I speak Arabic and this enables me to communicate with them. I have seen people horribly affected by their journey, people who can’t look us in the face, because it’s difficult when you have left everything behind and find yourself queuing for food”. When confinement ends in Belgium and the sports centres gradually begin to open again, Fathy will go back to his professional job, but he will also continue to help the Cuistots Solidaires.
Usually, the Cuistots Solidaires hand out sandwiches, fruit, cakes and drinks on Wednesday and Thursday mornings in the Parc Maximilien and in front of the Immigration Office. The collective coordinates the distribution of breakfast at the weekend at the Porte Ulysse reception centre. Another group distributes warm meals to migrants and refugees in the park, two evenings a week. However, as a result of confinement, habits have been greatly disturbed. Each Thursday, the hot meals group now provides food at midday as well as other provisions.
This is the group that Nati coordinates. Nati has retired and has been a member of the Cuistots Solidaires from the start. On Wednesday evenings, she prepares the next day’s meals with her fellow volunteers. “We have a little group that peels kilos of vegetables”, she explains. She hands out a container of warm food to a young man. “These containers are biodegradable and we have been able to purchase them thanks to aid from the King Baudouin Foundation.” The Cuistots Solidaires received 10,000 euros in support as part of the Foundation’s COVID-19 emergency call. “Thanks to this money, we were able to buy material, new folding tables and thermos flasks” adds Claudio. And even though the collective receives donations – the Tanneurs organic market offers the collective a voucher worth around 100 euros each week – other food such as meat, jam, coffee, sugar still has to be bought. The Foundation’s support also helps the group to buy these basics.
In addition to food aid, the Cuistots Solidaires also contribute by giving a little humanity to people who are living in the most extreme vulnerability. “Reaching out to others enables bonds to be created, prejudices to be fought. In the end our work is also about conquering hearts.”
More about the ‘COVID-19: vulnerable people‘ emergency call
During the coronavirus health crisis, the King Baudouin Foundation quickly launched an emergency call for organisations involved in fighting poverty and homelessness, using a faster and simplified procedure. The objective that vulnerable groups, with which such organisations work and which were severely affected by the COVID-19 crisis, could continue to be helped. The organisations selected for support each benefitted from a lump sum of 10,000 euros. The Cuistots Solidaires citizens’ collective was one of the beneficiaries of this call.