Refugees in Brussels: when Ukrainians take their life in their own hands

When Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022, Alina Kokhanko had no idea that she would end up in Belgium a month later. This young mother, then 32, used to live and work as a marketing advisor in Kyiv, where she was born.

She recalls, “I realised the situation was very dangerous when all the bridges around Kyiv were blocked and could be destroyed. I decided to move away with my family. My father, mother, daughter, uncle, and aunt—six people packed into my car, and I drove to the border of Romania”. 

They stayed in a small village for ten days, which wasn’t a safe place. They decided to “go to Europe”. But where exactly? Alina Kokhanko reached out to her friends and acquaintances through the Internet on social networks and asked for tips. She wanted to organise a stay that would only last, she thought then, a month or two. One Ukrainian lady she met only once in 2014 advised her to come to Belgium. 

Landing in Brussels 

Like most Ukrainian refugees, the Kokhanko family landed in Brussels by sheer improvisation. It took Alina six months to find a flat “by chance” in Etterbeek, as landlords were not keen on welcoming them. 

Alina Kokhanko started volunteering at Brussels South railway station very quickly, assisting Ukrainians arriving by train. “The government was not there; everybody was a little frozen,” she recalls. Many Belgian citizens, Ukrainians, Romanians, and others offered volunteer work in a surge of solidarity. 

At the station, she provided hot meals and guidance to families—mainly women and children—on how to obtain temporary protection as refugees. “There were lots of Belgian families offering shelter to refugees at Brussels South”. As chaotic as the situation seemed, prompt organisation from the ground was needed. 

A whole building for a new Ukrainian Refugees Center in Brussels

Not long after, in June 2022, Alina became the President of the Ukrainian Voices Refugee Committee (UVRC), created with the support of the UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees. As part of a larger citywide initiative to involve refugees in decision-making and problem-solving, she works under a public servant contract as a liaison between the Brussels-Capital Region administration and her community.

That’s how, on 9 February 2024, Alina participated in opening a new Ukrainian refugees’ centre on rue de la Loi, an 8-floor building in the European Quarter. 

On the opening day, Rue de la Loi, an orchestra played, leaflets were written in Ukrainian, speeches were given, and translations into Ukrainian were given. Lots of children played and ran around. 

At the centre’s entrance, designed to be, first and foremost, a “safe place”, some Ukrainian dolls with flowers in their hair have been installed behind glass windows. The building, a former property of the Flemish Christian Democrat (CD&V) party, has become a focal point where some 200 to 250 refugees of all ages gather daily to exchange, talk, bring their children, take language classes and access various forms of support. 

Different floors for women, children, classes and health support

Each floor has a precise function. On the ground floor, a “women’s space” is located, with a hairdresser, coaching sessions, and mental health support—“especially for the women who have been on their own and have not seen their husband for two years”, underlines Alina. 

The 3d floor is dedicated to children, with art classes and playing spaces. The 4th floor is for information sessions provided by several NGOs working on integration, such as Actiris or the Public Employment Service of Flanders (VDAB).

The 5th and 6th floors are organised into classrooms for language lessons, the 7th floor is occupied by health, social protection and orientation services, and the 8th floor by the centre’s offices. Private consultations on mental health for children and adults are possible, and groups are organised for parents on how to integrate and rebuild one’s life in a different country. 

Furthermore, the Dutch Language HouseProforal and 12 retirees of the European Commission teach French, English and Dutch language courses. These 19 classes attract an average of 12-15 people per session daily. Each month, the centre hosts 3 to 4 different information sessions attended by 80-100 people.

The latter are mostly newcomers, among the 66,332 Ukrainian refugees and 695 asylum seekers recorded for Belgium by UNHCR in 2023. Ukrainians have since 2022 the largest community of refugees in Belgium, before 20,800 Syrians, around 15,600 Afghans, and other nationalities, including Palestine (8,900), Eritrea, Türkiye, Burundi and Guinea.  

Brussels and the UNHCR working for refugees with refugees 

“The centre is not just a building; it’s a symbol of our unity and pride as Ukrainians living in Brussels,” says Alina Kokhanko. With support from the Brussels-Capital Region and the UNHCR, this project is paving the way for a new vision and method for working with refugees in Europe. 

“Alina has a knack for pushing the project forward while also adapting to the needs of all refugee communities,” says Alphonse Munyaneza, UNHCR’s Senior Community-Based Protection Officer.

She’s one of seven Ukrainian refugee Single Point of Contact (SPOC) who work as an information bridge between the Belgian administration, NGOs, and the community on health, social protection, housing, jobs, education, and information.

No Ukrainian sleeping in the streets of Brussels

“No decision on refugees without refugees in the room” is the motto and policy followed by the region and UNHCR. “Refugees are not handicapped people; they can take responsibility for their lives, with the UNHCR to guide us on legal matters and NGOs as partners”, adds Alina Kokhanko. 

When the Ukraine crisis began, UNHCR provided massive input. Up to nine hotels and four “big buildings” in Auderghem, Anderlecht, Molenbeek, and Schaerbeek, were rented out and managed by the community to provide shelter. 

Integration, instead of victimisation, is key. “In the Brussels region, over 1500 Ukrainians have already decided to launch their own business, mostly bakeries, beauty salons and logistics services”, points out Alina Kokhanko. 

Today, no Ukrainians are on the streets of Brussels despite a lingering “asylum crisis”. 

The “community-based protection” approach of the UNHCR 

At the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, the regional government worked closely with UNHCR and agreed to implement its community-based protection (CBP). “This pragmatic vision is included in UNHCR’s global mandate and mainly applied in Subsaharian Africa and Latin America”, explains Alphonse Munyaneza. “It has been implemented in Brussels for the first time in Europe at this scale”. 

The partnership between the UN, the local government, and the refugees could become a “cas d’école”. Indeed, in November 2023, UNHCR stated that “the speed with which Belgium and its people managed to provide shelter for more than 70,000 refugees from Ukraine shows what can be done with such great and heart-warming decisiveness. UNHCR is hopeful that the unprecedented solidarity and good practice in this context can lead to positive change for all refugees”.

Latest news