A self-quest: The Color in Flanders

We all love colors! We no longer want to see black & white movies or photos! The world is full of colors! We cannot possibly capture the full pallet of the world’s colors on our canvas. How many varieties or tints of green do trees and plants have? How many colors and shades do flowers have? How many tints of blue fly across the sky? I sit with my brush in front of a blank canvas and try to capture the real color of my life.

The color! What about when it refers to our skin? I am treated differently in my own country because I am woman; I am also different in Flanders because..?

My origin and be in Flanders:

I am from Bangladesh, a Muslim country. I grew up in a place where corruption, religious taboos, and discrimination against girls were always at our doorstep. Though my parents never allowed them to come inside or to be a part of our home, but I had to live in that society anyway, I found that I couldn’t adjust. I couldn’t spend my life in an environment where girls were regarded as unworthy. From childhood, I promised myself that one day I would leave my homeland for someplace where religion, gender, and cultural taboos wouldn’t hold me back or restrict my freedom.

I came to Belgium on the 29th of July, 1991 to do a two-year Master’s degree in architecture at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). Before starting the academic year, I followed a three-month long intensive Dutch course at the ILT in Leuven to improve my communication skills.

At that time, I didn’t know Belgium the way I know it now. I didn’t know about Wallonia and Flanders! I knew that people spoke Dutch in Leuven, but even the word ‘Flemish’ was unknown to me. I knew that Belgium belonged to the first world.

I’ve never forgotten my first negative experience in Leuven. It happened on the first day of the academic year on my first trip on the number 2 bus to the Arenberg Castle, where the faculty of architecture is located. At the time, I didn’t know that it was better to carry small notes or coins on the bus. When I stepped onto the bus, I first asked about the destination, to make sure I had the right bus. I then gave the bus driver a note of 1000BF (around 25€) for the ride. He didn’t complain about not having change. He simply took the note, gave me a ticket, and asked me to wait. I thought that he would take the time to give me my change, but instead he started to drive. It was a gloomy and rainy October day, and the bus was empty. After we started moving, I asked for my money back, but the bus driver told me that I had never paid him. I showed him the ticket and asked why he had given me a ticket if I hadn’t paid. He didn’t reply to this question; he just kept driving. I don’t remember how many times I asked for my money back, standing awkwardly in the speeding bus. In the meantime we reached the Celestijnenlaan in Heverlee, though at the time, I didn’t know where we were. I asked the same question again and again, and instead of answering, the driver stopped the bus and let me out on the side of the road, at a place which was not even a bus stop. Later on, I realized that he knew where I had to go because I was not so far from the faculty! He stole that money from me because I was different from him. The pain in my heart was not only from losing the money but also from seeing that there really was no difference between people in the third world and people in the first.

My honest father could not offer me much to start my life in a strange country, and so I had to support myself with student jobs in order to survive. Once again I felt how it was to be different!

The difference:

Student jobs at the university were limited to cleaning houses and offices, working in Alma (the student cafeteria) cleaning dishes and floors etc. I didn’t mind working these jobs at the time because I promised myself I would finish my studies and get my degrees on time. But I was hurt many times because of my color, gender and nationality. I could tell many stories. But I didn’t give up. I followed lectures regularly, worked through break times, evenings, and weekends. I often studied the whole night. In the end, I received two Master’s degrees – both with distinction – the first from the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven) and the second from the Free University of Brussels (VUB), in spite of the hostile environment in which I had to work and live.

Time passed; I became Belgian, but I always remained ‘different’ within Flanders. After I became a single mother, a job was essential. Yet my name and my color seemed to give the impression that I was not worthy of my profession. I kept busy learning new software programs and getting new training, which was difficult to do with two small kids. My diplomas seemed to have no value on the job market even my diploma architecture is recognized. In some cases, I was not even allowed to talk about my diplomas. People were reluctant to advise me to find work in the cleaning sector, in restaurants, or in other odd jobs! But I never gave up trying. I experienced overwhelming negativity in the job market for more than two decades. I escaped from one kind of discrimination to end up with another sort of discrimination! I asked myself, which was worse? Was it really the right decision to leave my parents, my family, and my language to be in Flanders?

People say that Westerners in general, and the Flemish in particular, are colder than Asians. It often seems as though they have an invisible shield around them; they don’t show friendliness, and they don’t laugh easily. Sometimes they know you, but sometimes not! This has happened many times both during my student life and after. For example, in the evening I might talk, eat, and laugh together with other students until midnight, but in the morning I would not get as much as a ‘hello’ from them. It was like the weather in Belgium. You never know what it will be like tomorrow!

Is that normal here in Flanders? No; I don’t think so! You have to find the people who are exceptional and who do not see you as different. The most important thing is not to give up. You have to break through the shield of others by yourself. You have to prove to them that you are worthy. I have a few ‘Flemish’ friends who are now like family members to me. It is thanks to these friends that my life in Flanders is bearable. In 2011, I got a job at an engineering firm. I like my work environment and my colleagues. However, if you ask me about my career, I will tell you that I don’t have one. I passed the best years of my life fighting to find a job in Flanders.

I sit with my brush and try to draw freedom on the canvas! What should the color of my freedom be? Which color I should choose? White doesn’t even count as a color itself! It has to be mixed with yellow, red, green, blue, brown or other colors to shine! Will I one day find the exact color of my life and paint its real picture? Can I one day show that painting of my freedom to others, especially to my two precious daughters?

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