LUNCH IS ON ME
“They will take us over …” Jason said.
“…eventually…” he interrupted her.
“Who is they?”
“It’s a silent invasion you know…”
“What on earth are you talking about? I’m sorry… you’ve lost me!” Jessica was growing increasingly impatient at the way Jason spoke over her.
“That lot over there.” She followed the direction of the jerk of his head and the rolling of his eyes. A family sat at the table next to them.
Jason relaxed the knot of his tie. He threw a few surreptitious glances around the restaurant. Blissfully, he recognized no one. He hung his jacket on the back of his chair. Jason was paranoid about his appearance. His many insecurities compelled him to look “just so” in public. It would not do for any of his colleagues, and heaven forbid, any of his clients to see the damp patches under his armpits or in the back of his hand-tailored, form-fitting, white shirt. He wanted to roll up his sleeves, but then no one would see his cuff links. In his vanity versus personal comfort skirmishes, there was only ever one winner.
The lunch rush was just starting. The summer sun tsunamied down on the office workers spilling out onto the Sablon Square in Brussels. There were still a few free tables on the terrace of “Café Leffe Brasserie” at the bottom corner of the square.
“…and of all places, they have to decide to sit next to us!” moaned Jason. The turn in what had started as a reasonably pleasant conversation made her vol-au-vent and fries as unpalatable as his diatribe.
…BUT THEY ARE JUST CHILDREN
The family at the adjacent table were oblivious to the disparagement. The gentleman, visibly older than his companion, stroked his unkempt beard and adjusted his kofia.
“Please keep them quiet! We don’t want to disturb the other customers!”
“But they are just children” she countered in their defense – but he wasn’t listening. She was covered from head to toe. Her hair did not show. Her face, haggard beyond her years, still suggested that she was once an attractive woman. The niqab is outlawed in Belgium.
“They come here from goodness knows where, and we just let them walk in.” Jason was off again. It was an uncharacteristically warm Belgian summer. He rolled up his sleeves. Cufflinks and clients be damned! “It is becoming unbearable! You can’t imagine what it is like!”
“I think I can.” Jessica spoke quietly. She always did when she was riled. Her copper-coffee complexion shone in the midday sunshine. Her hair, plaited in exquisitely intricate patterns, said to all and sundry that she was African and proudly so.
“Hahahah, that’s funny. You have refugees in your country?”
“We do.” She dabbed her lips with the napkin. She was dressed to an elegance to which Jason could only aspired. She shared none of his complexes. She was confident in who she was, yet without a trace of arrogance.
…BUT UGANDA IS…
“But Uganda is…”
“Yes, I know! We are a developing country! Yes, I know! More than ten million of my compatriots, 27% of the population, live on less than $1,90 a day!” It was now well into the luncheon hour. The traffic around the square had all but disappeared.
“And yes! We still take in refugees in my country.”
She was quite surprised at how exorcised she had become in the face of Jason’s attitude. She sipped quietly on her vodka and orange. She needed to calm down.
“I had no…”
“No Jason, you had no idea. And sadly, you are not the only one who has no idea about refugees in Africa.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have been in Europe for a month now. I have not seen or heard a single mention of the refugee crisis in Africa in any of the media. Not a single word!”
“Jason, did you know that my poor, small, developing country has become home to approximately one and a half million refugees?” “What! Please tell me you are joking?”
“We have, in my county, the largest refugee camp in the world Jason.”
“Yes, really! The camp is in the north of Uganda. It is called Bidi Bidi . This one camp alone is home to 285,000 refugees!”
“I had no idea…”
“It is one of more than 30 refugee settlements in my country.”
“I don’t blame you. Most people in the “Developed World” have no idea either.”
“But… why do you think that is?”
“May I give my honest opinion?” Jason nodded and took a sip of his rosé wine. He was embarrassed. He slowly drew his finger through the condensation on the glass. He was desperate to avoid eye contact with her.
“I guess there are several reasons Jason. In my more cynical moments, I tell myself that the simple answer is that Africa just doesn’t matter to the developed world. I’m sure there is some truth to that, but it is too much of a generalization.”
“Yes, I agree.”
“…but before you agree too fast, I’m sure that you will have noticed that the media here is fundamentally and, I guess understandably, Eurocentric.”
“…yes, I will concede that.”
“I know that what you call the “refugees problem” is huge to you. But can you tell me how many refugees you have in Belgium currently?”
“I can’t tell you exactly, but I know it is a huge number. I hear about it in the media all the time.”
“Well, in 2017 you had a total of under 20,000 applications for asylum and resettlement.”
“Hahaha” Jason chortled. He took another sip of wine. “You mean two million, surely?” Jessica made no reply. “You’re serious, aren’t you?” He stared into his wine. “But…that’s… that’s nothing!”
“May I show you the desert menu, Sir?” Jason’s thoughts were interrupted.
“Tarte Tatin s’il vous plaît. Would you like to try it? It’s very good really.”
“The famous upside-down apple cake with cream? How can I say no?” Jessica didn’t have a sweet tooth at the best of times… but “When in Rome…” she thought.
“Pour deux s’il vous plaît.”
Jason was back in his thoughts. “There is something that doesn’t seem right…”
“… and that is?”
“You say you have one and a half million refugees in your country – with a population of …?”
“About 44 million people.” “So that means…” Jason opened the calculator on his phone.” …let me see… a refugee population of …3,65% of the population.”
“I guess…” she had never bothered to make the calculation. What was the point?
WHAT WAS THE POINT?
“Now let’s have a look for Belgium. We have a population of roughly 10 million. We have about 20,000 refugees…so….”
“Les Tartes Tatin Monsieur” Jason welcomed the interruption. He was embarrassed that he had messed up the calculations.
“I’m sorry, let me start again.”
“This desert is delicious Jason.” He made no reply. He recalculated a third time.
“It’s not possible.”
“What’s not possible?” Jessica wanted to know.
“I have recalculated three times…”
“Well the Ugandan percentage of refugees to population, where 27% of the population lives on less than $1.90 a day is 3.65%.”
“And what is it for Belgium?”
“The Belgian percentage of refugees to population is 0,2%. And the average income in Belgium is the equivalent of $46,000 per person per year.”
The bells in the tower of the Notre de Dame du Sablon chimed 1 PM.
“Very, I guess that is my wakeup call?” Jessica knew he wasn’t joking.
“Jason, in 2017, there were almost 750,000 applications for international protection in the EU. This figure represents a decrease of 44% compared to 2016, when there were almost 1.3 million applications.”
“For all of Europe?
“So, your small country has taken in more refugees than all of Europe?”
“Ah… but those may be the official figures. There are probably millions who are here illegally and those numbers are not included in your figures!” He was pleased with himself. He needed more wine, but it was too close to the time to go back to the office. The damp patch on the lower back of his shirt had spread into a distorted version of the map of Africa.
“Almost right. In 2015, 2.2 million people were found to be illegally present in the EU. By 2017, the number had dropped to just over 600,000.”
RAPED AND RANSACKED
“But the numbers are not what is most important Jason. Each one of these refugees has a story to tell. They have been bombed and brutalised. They have been raped and ransacked. They have fled for their safety and to rebuild a safe future for their families.” Jessica thought for a while. “I guess this is true for all refugees – not only the ones in Uganda.”
“…but tell me, why do you know so much about refugees?”
“I work with an organization called Feed a Million Mouths International – FAMMI. In our work in Uganda we are trying to provide a positive contribution to the plight of refugees by supplying food to the refugee centres.”
“That is a really big challenge.”
“It is…” She sipped the dregs of her vodka and orange. “… but I believe that one person cannot change the world, but I can change the world for one person.” Jason stared into his now empty wine glass. “Even small actions of solidarity and kindness make a difference to people who are in the black pit of despondency. How would you feel if you lost your family, your home, your job and even your country?” Jason waved to the waitress and she brought over the bill. He had a quiet word with the waitress. He spoke softly, in French and too quickly for Jessica to catch it. “…all at the same time?”
“Thank you for lunch Jason.”
“You are welcome.”
They got up to leave. Their co-diner at the next table caught the waitress by the apron. “L’addition? – The bill s’il vous plaît?”
“…but it’s been paid sir.” The waitress said in a confused voice.
“Who paid?” He was agitated and tugged at his beard and readjusted his kofia several times.
“This gentleman here paid for you sir.” The old man pulled his kofia off his head and stared at Jason in confounded disbelief.
“لماذا” he said
“I’m afraid I don’t speak Arabic, Sir.” Jason was crimson with embarrassment. People were beginning to look at them. Nervously he rolled down his sleeves and returned his cufflinks to their natural home.
“Why did you pay my bill? I don’t even know you!”
“err…err…Welcome to my country, Sir” he stammered. Jason tried to smile as best he could. “Lunch is on me.”
- The kofia is a brimless cylindrical cap with a flat crown, worn by men in East Africa, especially Swahili-speaking cultures. Kofia is a Swahili word that means hat.
- A niqab or niqāb is a garment of clothing that covers the face which is worn by a small minority of Muslim women as a part of a particular interpretation of hijab (“modesty”).
- Bidi bidi https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/apr/03/uganda-at-breaking-point-bidi-bidi-becomes-worlds-largest-refugee-camp-south-sudan
- Belgian GDP per capita https://tradingeconomics.com/belgium/gdp-per-capita