“Where will I go?” It’s a question 14-year-old Saïdi wishes he didn’t have to ask. Having endured a frightening escape from the Taliban in Kabul, and a dangerous journey across the sea, this young Afghan craves stability. Still, he knows the opportunities afforded him at the Don Bosco Institute in Tournai, Belgium are exactly what he needs to build the secure future he dreams of.
Saïdi is one of an estimated 22.5 million refugees worldwide who fled persecution, conflict and human rights violations in their home countries. These refugees, according to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) are among the 65.6 million people currently forcibly displaced. Many, like Saïdi, are unaccompanied minors seeking asylum and better opportunities in countries across Europe. And each of their stories is unique.
“They endure so much,” says Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. “Our missionaries in Belgium, Italy, Spain, and many other countries throughout the continent, share their heartbreaking histories with me almost every day. And yet -- there is hope. These young people, their resilience and their incredible potential, are the reason we are so committed to working on their behalf.”
For more than a year, Salesian missionaries and staff at Don Bosco Tournai have sponsored Saïdi and other young refugees, in order to ensure their successful integration into the host country they hope to one day call “home.” Plans are in the works to expand capacity at the facility. Here, youth receive shelter, meals, access to social services and, most importantly, education.
“They are taking courses in various subjects, including language classes in French and English, mathematics, science, religion, physical education, drawing and music,” says Flore Dubois, a professor who teaches French to foreign students. “There is a true spirit of cooperation: if someone does not understand the exercise, another helps. The older ones, especially, are motivated by the desire to find a job. And for most of them, they want to be allowed to stay in Belgium once they reach majority age.”
The road hasn’t always been easy: differences in culture and customs often challenge students and teachers alike, especially in the areas of structure and discipline.
“They obey school rules,” explains Don Bosco Institute teacher Annie Michel, “but here, they initially view our presence as coddling. So we work on such things together, because it’s important to develop a mutual respect culturally, while helping the boys integrate into our system.”
Despite such challenges, Ms. Michel reports that Saïdi and his fellow students have “an amazing thirst for learning.” And they are thriving in a family environment where everyone contributes, helping with meal preparation and cleanup, and having a shared sense of responsibility and kindness.
In two years, Saïdi will graduate from his current Salesian school and will need to seek support elsewhere as he awaits word on his immigration status. Missionaries and staff are working with local and municipal networks, as well as other Salesian-run programs in Belgium, to help him and other youth make a smooth transition.
The event will be poignant for Saïdi. “This has been my home,” he says, “and I wish I didn’t have to leave. But I am also grateful for the opportunities I now have thanks to the Salesians!”
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