Ghent, 7 August 2023– With sound checks blaring in the background, Tetiana and Olena are busy preparing to receive the hundreds of jazz enthusiasts that have arrived in Ghent for the city’s annual music festival.

For 10 days each July, the Gent Jazz Festival brings together renowned artists from all corners of the world to perform at the charming Bijloke site in Ghent, the capital of Belgium’s East Flanders province. Organized since 2002, the festival is an opportunity for people of all ages and walks of life to come together, bound by their love for jazz.

The Gent Jazz Festival is a 10-day summerly display of music and culture. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

To facilitate the integration of Ukrainian refugees within Belgian society, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) supports those fleeing Ukraine in finding volunteering opportunities in Ghent. IOM staff have observed that engaging in meaningful volunteer experiences can vastly expand the social network of those living in accommodation centres.

This is Tetiana’s second year volunteering at the jazz festival. Last time, she was mainly helping out in the kitchen. “I love being a volunteer because it gives me the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people,” she explains.

For Olena and Tetiana, the festival represents an opportunity to meet people, make friends, and practice their Dutch. Photos: IOM/Olena Chyzhova

Tetiana used to work as a financial manager at a large government-owned airline in Borodyanka, a town near Kyiv, Ukraine. Soon after the full-scale war in Ukraine started in February 2023, shelling destroyed most residential buildings. Tetiana and her mother hid in their basement for weeks. When they resurfaced, they realized that their apartment had been hit by the blast.

With little to hold on to anymore, the two decided to flee. “I had never been to Belgium before the war and we didn’t know anyone when we arrived here,” Tetiana recalls. “We were taking shelter in the same place as colleagues who were going to Ghent to join their son, so we decided to follow them.” Once they arrived in Belgium, Tetiana and her mother moved in with a Belgian host family.

A few months later, the two moved into a room at an accommodation centre for Ukrainians fleeing the war, run and funded by the City of Ghent since June 2022 with support from IOM. At the centre, most of the guests are women and children who are given the opportunity to build a new life in Belgium.

As the capital and largest city of the East Flanders province in Belgium, the city of Ghent has been welcoming towards Ukrainian refugees this past year. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

Through the initiative, IOM aims to decrease the vulnerability of those displaced by the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine by creating safe spaces where they can search for sustainable housing and find job opportunities.

At the two accommodation centres that IOM supports, the staff ensure that people can safely share their issues, concerns, and suggestions. IOM also refers them to local networks to access education for their children, language courses, volunteering opportunities, leisure activities, and health and mental health support.

“We are enjoying our peace and quiet in Belgium, but starting over in a new country is not an easy process,” Tetiana confesses. “I had to learn a completely different language and look for a job in a new sector.”

Tetiana will soon sign up for an orientation and training programme for administrative work with VDAB, the public employment service of Flanders. She knows that in order to find a job she likes, she needs to perfect her language skills. “I use every chance I get to practice my Dutch and volunteering at the festival is the perfect avenue for that.”

Olena has been pleasantly surprised by the camaraderie which quickly developed between the festival volunteers. Photo: IOM/Olena Chyzhova

For Olena, this is the first time she is volunteering at the festival, but she has been pleasantly surprised by the camaraderie which quickly developed between the volunteers and by the overall atmosphere at the festival site.

“During our breaks, we have coffee together and after our shift, we watch the concerts,” Olena says. “For me, this is an opportunity to expand my social circle and learn new things.”

Olena came to Belgium from Kyiv with her son Oleksandr at the beginning of the full-scale war. Just like Tetiana, she is also currently staying at one of the accommodation centres for Ukrainians in Ghent, but she has recently started searching for an apartment to rent for long-term stays.

Olena and Tetiana are using the music festival as an opportunity to improve their Dutch. Photo: IOM/Olena Chyzhova

Back in Ukraine, Olena worked at a bakery in a large supermarket, but she has since had to look into finding different job opportunities. “I’m actively looking for a job in Belgium because it’s very difficult to rent an apartment without a work contract,” she explains.

During her first six months abroad, Olena found it challenging, but little by little, she adapted to her new life in Belgium. She already speaks some Dutch because she has been attending the language courses organized by local authorities.

“Things make more sense to me now,” she says. “It’s not clear when and if I can return to Ukraine; for now, I just want to get to know this country, find a job, and help my family in Kyiv.”

IOM is providing support for the accommodation centres and activities for Ukrainian refugees in Ghent with support from the City of Ghent and the city’s Public Centre for Social Welfare (OCMW).

This story was written by Olena Chyzhova, Cultural Mediator with IOM Belgium and Luxembourg in Ghent.

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