A Syrian mother and grandmother in Maaseik: How Blanche gives refugees a warm home (Maaseik)

We are invited to the Blanche apartment in Maaseik. There is a gentle clamor: eight Syrian refugees are sitting at the table, in the middle is a large, Syrian cake, baked by Ranga (60) from Aleppo. Nelly Ferheen is also present. She has heeded our call to highlight people who are doing a good job. Her friend Blanche has been caring for refugees who have been ending up in Masek for years. “She’s an exceptional person, with an exceptional heart,” says Nelly. But Blanche waves the praises away. “I don’t think about it much,” says the retired teacher. “We were raised this way. My mother didn’t have many things of her own, but she was always there for everyone. It’s not what she thought overnight: Now I’m going to help refugees. It happened spontaneously.”Like Khalifa from Sudan. Cliff was thirty years old when he came to live beside me thirteen years ago. He was alone and had nothing or money. Then I made sure he got a decent apartment and that he could get food from Sint-Vincentius. I also took Caliph everywhere – Partying, my family, … – so it fits in quickly. Kleifah was allowed to take a computer course and worked steadily for a while now. He still visits regularly. And if there’s something wrong with my computer, he’ll fix it.”

First row from left to right: Nelly, Niven, baby Ayla, Blanche, Ranga and Basimah. The second row: Kamel, Walid, Ramez, and Lumaan. © Dick Demi

When Blanche met Syrian Lumaan (50) five years ago, it was the beginning of a close friendship. Blanche: “I was running Wereldwinkel at the time and Mann was allowed to help there as part of the merger. Then I heard all those horrific stories about Syria first hand.” Blanche helped Laman speak Dutch, among other things. “And when my daughter was having difficulty with math and French, Blanche arranged free private lessons. Van Goss, who is also a former teacher, is a very nice guy. My daughter now speaks six languages ​​and gets very good grades in high school.”


Everyone at the table has a story to tell, about the horror in Syria, and especially about Blanche’s “White Heart,” the Syrian version of the Golden Heart. Herring (60) and Walid (61), for example. Their son, Anas, had already fled Turkey alone on a rickety boat when he was 16. “Anas stayed here in an asylum center,” says Laaan. “I told Blanche about his situation and that he was a very smart boy. Since then we have gone to get him every weekend and he has stayed with me or Blanche. He also gave Blanche’s son a laptop for Lance to study. He is now in his third year in dentistry.” Many Syrian refugees end up in Turkey, but children in particular have few prospects for the future. They have to work together to make money. Therefore, Anas’ parents were assured that their son was in safe hands. Two years later they also came to our country. “Blanche made sure we got an apartment, too,” Walid says.

Driving lessons

Examples of generosity blanche are endless. Basmah (53): I had to eat and sleep on the floor. But Blanche provided furniture, towels, sheets, a chair and even a microwave.” Kamel, 43, took driving lessons from Blanche. “Mama Blanche was my boss,” Kamel laughs. “But she also helped us with the paperwork for OCMW and VDAB.” When his wife, Nevin ( 33 years pregnant with Ayla, Blanche drives her to the hospital every month.Neven: “We got everything from Blanche: clothes, toys, bikes,…she helps my 11-year-old daughter Meral with her homework. At first Meral did not want to help Blanche, but now she begs to go to Grandma Blanche.”

Blanche furnished a room in her apartment with various things for her guests. © Dick Demi

Blanche explains, “I don’t have much of myself, but I have a large circle of family and friends who know I do. So if they have something useful, they call me. There are also five stores in the area that help me really well with clothes, shoes, furniture, … Or if I’m looking for something specific, I hear from my bridge club friends. I also know some well-to-do Dutch women who are generous in donations.” Blanche furnished a room in her apartment with various things for her guests.

“Ramez has been on the road for nearly a month, the first three weeks walking from Turkey to the Czech Republic, and then hiking to Belgium.”

Blanche Michaels

However, most of the attention today is on Ramez. The 19-year-old boy from Idlib, where fierce battles are still taking place, recently arrived in Maaseik. “It’s our main concern right now,” Blanche says. “Ramez has been on the road for nearly a month, the first three weeks walking from Turkey to the Czech Republic and then commuting long distances to Belgium, what he only has are the clothes he was wearing.” Ramez looked a little confused, his legs constantly trembling. “He’s still traumatized, like everyone else who’s made it here.” Ramez now lives in social housing with three other boys. He cautiously speaks his first words in Dutch. “I think it’s very important that they learn Dutch, only that way can they integrate,” Blanche says.


Everyone at the table is happy to blanche. “I’ve been gone for a month and a half. Belgium is not beautiful without Blanche. Without Blanche, we know nothing,” Lamann laughs. Nevin and Kamel: “We don’t have a family here, Blanche is our family, and she is the grandmother of our children.”

Blanche interjects, “but they also give me a lot in return.” “They cook for me – Syrian cuisine is very tasty – and if something happens, there is always someone to help me. In addition, I restore a lot of friendship. And if they achieve something, I am a proud mother or grandmother.”

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