Getting to the root of cultural understanding in Brussels

In multicultural areas of the Belgian capital, an education project is drawing on family history to foster understanding and integration. Veronique Mistiaen investigates

“For me the most moving moment is when children turn their [family] trees upside down and the roots become branches – branches that will help them grow and blossom,” says Racines founder Vinciane Hanquet.

Racines (or Roots) is a Belgium-based multicultural school programme that helps pupils trace their family history. Through activities such as building a genealogical tree, drawing migration maps and collecting stories and mementos from family members, they discover and learn to value their identity.

A teacher with 40 years of experience, Hanquet wanted a tool that would both help children feel more comfortable with who they are and be more understanding of people from different backgrounds.

This work is particularly important in a country with a high rate of migration, she says. Belgium has an estimated migration rate of 5.9 migrants per 1,000 people – the 21st highest in the world. “We discover that if our own trees blossom under the Belgian sun, or rain, our roots extend under all continents. If a child is proud of himself, his family and his culture, he is more likely to accept other children. And if a child discovers other children’s history, she will respect them more and get to see differences as richness.”

One of the first schools involved in the project was St Ursule in Molenbeek – the low-socioeconomic Brussels district recently depicted by the media as a breeding ground for terrorism.

“Considering the heavy current events, it seems very important that this type of project takes place in our schools. Let’s get to know and understand one another!” says St Ursule’s teacher Anne Van Laer, who completed the project with one year six class. Most of Van Laer’s students are from migrant backgrounds.

We believe that it will lead to a better knowledge of oneself, a cultural openness and a better understanding between people from different backgrounds

“I remember the pride with which some students composed their family portrait, showing all the trips there had been – the departure from Morocco, the arrival in Belgium, finding work and only then bringing the family in,” says Véronique Guévar. She ran the project with her year five class in a Brabant Wallon school last year. “Even if there was no migration, everyone has a story. We learn things about each other, and this breaks the ice. We feel no longer alone.”

Hanquet has introduced Racines to more than 20 primary schools in Brussels and the Wallonia region, and some 1,000 children were involved in the programme in 2015 alone.

The project links easily to many curriculum topics, including history, geography, writing, public speaking and languages. Teachers can adapt it according to their needs, but they all begin with an ascending tree, starting with the child, then branching out to their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents – spanning about 100 years of history.

Over two to four months, the pupils interview family members and collect documents including ID cards, birth certificates, letters and photos. They gather evocative objects such as jewellery, pieces of clothing, recipes and musical instruments. They also anchor their roots in time, charting their family history in relation to major historical events. In the process, they explore the evolution of communication, transport, leisure, fashion, food and culture across the generations.

“This project has sparked communication in families who don’t usually talk about themselves and who keep their life journeys more or less taboo,” says Van Laer.

“I think it’s important to know my roots,” says Yen, a student who has participated in the programme. “For me, from Cambodia, I have learned to know my grandparents who still live there… I communicated with them on the internet.”

Racines is generating interest in Belgium and abroad, but so far it is surviving on short-term grants and Hanquet’s and other teachers’ passion and energy. There has not yet been any formal evaluation of the programme, and it is difficult to assess its long-term impact as students have moved to secondary school. But many teachers, families and pupils recognise it can foster self-esteem and integration.

“We are confident that this project will have a positive impact not only on children, but also on adults,” says Ilir Strazimiri, director of St Dominique primary school in Schaerbeek, another multicultural district of Brussels. His team is so enthusiastic about the project that they have decided to run it across all their primary school year groups this year. He says: “We believe that it will lead to a better knowledge of oneself, a cultural openness and a better understanding between people from different backgrounds.”

Photo: Molenbeek district, Brussels. Credit:REUTERS/Francois Lenoir