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Sofie Demeyer

A lawyer passionate about immigration law helps a non-profit organisation for refugees

During her law studies, Marileen Vandenberghe became fascinated by immigration law and this is how she ended up as a volunteer at the non-profit organisation Bij Ons Thuis, a voluntary organisation dedicated to the reception, guidance and support of migrants and refugees in Aarschot and the Hageland. In the beginning, when she was not yet a lawyer, she already helped the non-profit organisation with legal advice but now that she is a lawyer, she also initiates proceedings in immigration law where necessary.

How did you get in touch with the non-profit organisation At Our Home?

Mr Marileen Vandenberghe: Quite a coincidence actually. At the gym I heard people talking about something to do with foreigners, we got talking and I was invited to an introductory evening of the non-profit association for new volunteers and that's how I got into it. I was not a lawyer then because after my law studies I did not immediately find a law firm where I could do an internship and so I first worked as a lawyer in immigration law for four years.

So in the beginning I only helped with legal advice within the non-profit organisation, but once I became a lawyer I could also start files if there were any proceedings to be conducted on immigration law. If people need legal advice on something I am less at home in (a rent dispute, a traffic fine, a divorce, ...) , the NPO can call on other lawyers who help the NPO where they can.

How often do you volunteer for the non-profit organisation?

Mr Marileen Vandenberghe: This does not happen at fixed times or during a consultation hour, I give advice when I am asked for it, the volunteers associated with the non-profit organisation know me by now and know how to reach me.

Mr Marileen Vandenberghe: Indeed, I'm really only a very small cog within the asbl. The organisation stands for a whole range of activities, for example the non-profit organisation has converted a house in Aarschot into a refugee house but there are also private individuals who take in migrants and refugees. This is then, for example, someone who sometimes stays there for months until a decision is made on their asylum application. In total, the association accommodates about 25 people in this way: single men, single women or families with children, and since many different nationalities are often housed under the same roof, this sometimes creates quite an atmosphere!

In addition, the NPO also counsels some 65 families who have residence papers but for whom it is difficult to get started once they have been granted residence rights, they are then assigned a buddy who helps them find a house, work or a school for the children. This is often done in close cooperation with the OCMW, CAW and other organisations.

The non-profit association has about 120 volunteers and everyone decides how many or for what tasks they want to commit. There are people who give homework help to children, others help to write a job application letter, still others give cycling, swimming or driving lessons. In short: the NPO tries to respond to all possible requests for help and usually succeeds. Of course, volunteers are also needed to organise activities to raise money for the association. Every year there is the so-called sauce day. Then we prepare four kinds of spaghetti sauce to sell, this year we made and sold more than 1,200 litres of sauce, which was quite an organisational challenge!

Mr Marileen Vandenberghe: Our volunteers also want to be informed and so I provide training on asylum and migration, someone else talks about communication around migration, but the whole issue of housing or medical care for migrants also comes up. The volunteers want to understand what problems the people they accompany are facing in order to help them in a more targeted way.

Caring for the volunteers is at least as important at the NPO as caring for the migrants and refugees.

Through my work at the non-profit organisation, I always try to approach the person in the stranger and I take that into my law practice as well.
Marileen Vandenberghe

What do you take from your work as a lawyer into your volunteer work?

Mr Marileen Vandenberghe: I note that theory and practice are often far apart. Let me give an example: a family reunification procedure for an Afghan family, an application has to be submitted and the law prescribes which documents have to be added, which seems pretty clear. But there is no Belgian embassy in Afghanistan, the application has to be done in Islamabad (Pakistan) and that is really not always easy, simply because of the distance. If the husband is in Belgium and his wife and children want to come to Belgium, it is not obvious because for Afghan women it is virtually impossible to travel long distances without a male escort.

So there are all kinds of thresholds that you have to take into account as a lawyer but which the asylum authorities do not lose any sleep over. Gradually, you also learn to think along with them about solutions to a number of practical problems, such as how to get an appointment at the embassy in Islamabad.

And finally, what do you take from your volunteer work into your law practice?

Mr Marileen Vandenberghe: I find it difficult that asylum authorities no longer approach foreigners as people but as files, files that have to meet certain conditions. Take that example of family reunification again. They only check whether all the documents are there but they don't take into account the practical problems involved, empathy is often lacking. Through my work at the non-profit organisation, I always try to approach the person in the foreigner and I also take that into account in my law practice. Of course, this is not always obvious because sometimes I am more of a psychologist or a social assistant while I am expected to deliver legal work at the end of the day.