Serving Breakfast for Asylum-Seekers

Contributed by a grade 11 student

On June 06, 2017, at 5:45 on a cold, rainy morning, I met up with Mr.Ambrozy, the supervisor of this experience along with 3 other volunteers out of the total 8 that signed up.

This shows that only 50% of us were able to make the small personal sacrifice in order to provide such a valuable and beneficial service to the refugees as I had learned, providing them not only with a simple caloric intake but with a smile and the acknowledgement that they have supporters and are not alone in their life and goal of simply finding a safe place to live.

The drive to the World Trade Center in Brussels was about 20-30 mins and when we got there there was only a small line in front of the building. I learned that this is the first step once they reach Belgium, as proven by some of these families lining up with all their suitcases. Once they get inside the office they are interviewed before being sent to a refugee center such as the one in Alsemberg. Therefore, this is essentially the step before reaching an asylum center, which created a connection between my two refugee service experiences. This has developed my knowledge on the refugees conditions throughout, ranging from waiting in line to somehow finding their way from this world trade center all the way to the Alsemberg refugee center, where as I learned they are idle and in a stressful environment for a relatively long time.

The refugees, even though they were in a stressful situation, were very polite and always had a smile. However, others denied food due to the cold weather and actually requested blankets.

As the morning progressed the line had grown vastly and as the temperature dropped many refugees that had denied coffee or tea had come to get some, we then found out there were typically around 300 people that show up on these days, which just shows me the vastness of this refugee crisis.

This experience has given me not only more sympathy for those at the Alsemberg refugee center, but also a larger empathy for refugees as a whole a global issue of great magnitude. Relative to the situation that they are in and the things they have had to experience, it was but a small sacrifice to wake up at an early hour and serve them breakfast.


Why I Volunteer…

Contributed by a grade 11 student

For a long time now, I have been troubled by the normalization of xenophobia in our society. I am an avid reader of news. The media’s negative coverage of the refugee “crisis” in Europe was something I never quite understood. What strikes me as most distressing is the notion that to many people, the refugees fleeing war-torn countries are nothing more than a number, a statistic they see in the newspapers.

So when Mr. Ambrozy asked if I wanted to volunteer at the Alsemberg red cross center for refugees, I did not hesitate. We were tasked with entertaining the children at the center and as I am not the most athletic, I chose to be a part of the group that did arts & crafts.

I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that it was probably one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life. To get the privilege of laughing, drawing and making bracelets with these children, I am extremely thankful for, and perhaps we were able to give them a sense of normalcy, a sense of carefree fun, in what must be an extremely stressful situation for them, being a refugee in a foreign country. During our visit we also got to meet briefly with some of the adults living at the center, and their resilience really made an impression on me, it was obvious that they were making the best out of the situation.

With society as we know it having taken a turn for the worse during the past few years, I think a display of compassion and understanding will go a long way.



Inter-Generational Volunteering Project in Waterloo

This past week we had 26 St. John’s students volunteer at three different local organizations. In total, each of them volunteered 2-3 hours of their time, providing service and learning about two different causes. Two groups were assisting the elderly in senior homes (Brussels, Waterloo), and one returned to organize activities for children of asylum-seeking families (Alsemberg).

Below are the reflections of Marysia, the student leader of the St. John’s Friendly Companions group, who plan to visit the senior home Parc de la Cense in Waterloo on a regular basis next year.

Last week, we went with a group of seven students, for the first trial run of “STJ Friendly Companions”. I organised everything along with Mr. Ambrozy’s help and it proved to be a total success. The planning was a bit stressful especially as I am not fluent in French (and the woman in charge at Parc de la Cense only speaks french and so do the residents) but we ended up pulling everything together.

I brought boxes, and pretty, decorative napkins to cover the boxes with. We borrowed cutting knives and glue from the Art studio and some of the other group members brought in boxes as well. On the day of the project (Wednesday 17 May, 2017) we went to the home to set up the materials for the afternoon.

When we got to Parc de la Cense after school, Caroline had already started working with the residents. When we came, we all sat down with a few residents and were there to help them work either on their boxes or their mandalas. Carlota and I worked with two ladies who had started gluing napkins onto boxes. I worked with a very nice Belgian woman named Cecile. We worked together to first apply glue, then the napkin and then more glue over it to make sure that it stuck to the box properly. Working with Cecile proved to be a bit challenging as I had to communicate in French and she often forgot the steps which she had to take (hence I had to constantly remind her what to do). However it was an extremely eye-opening and amazing experience. At the end of the session, I didn’t want to leave. I had a lot of fun, I had some nice conversations with Cecile and Chantale (the other woman working at our table).

I think we often take our lives for granted and don’t stop to think about other people. During this project I felt very immersed in someone else’s life for once and I was grateful that I had a chance to contribute to something seemingly so small but so big at the same time. I was also very pleased with the fact that I mainly helped organise the activity and managed to pull everything off.

The next day after the project I asked around some of the other students who participated about their takeaways and feelings from Wednesday. Everyone responded in very positive ways, even those who did not speak French at all. They all had a good time and enjoyed working with the residents at Parc de la Cense.

Contributed by Marysia, Grade 11

Students Initiate Regular Visits to Work with Children in Alsemberg

This past week we had 26 St. John’s students volunteer at three different local organizations. In total, each of them volunteered 2-3 hours of their time, providing service and learning about two different causes. Two groups were assisting the elderly in senior homes (Brussels, Waterloo), and one returned to organize activities for children of asylum-seeking families (Alsemberg).

Thanks to the commitment and leadership of grade 11 students Namira, Anton, Jacob, Karolina, Maria and Megan, St. John’s is now committed to serving the community of asylum-seekers once every month during the academic year 2017-2018.

Below you can read the immediate reflection of a student who joined us for the first time last weekend.

Today, May 20th, I went with a group of students from St.Johns to the Alsemberg Asylum Home. Once we got there we first took a tour of some places in the center.

It was a lot different than what I was expecting; it felt like a hospital since all the rooms were very bare. The whole experience of getting to see how some people have to live for a year or so was really shocking since I did not expect that it would be as it was and also just thinking about if you were in that situation.

I think that actually getting to have this experience made me a lot more aware of what some people have to go through and it was a lot different than just hearing about it.

Seeing that there was not a lot to do there made me want to help more. After we took the tour we set up in the play room and then some of the kids came to play with us. At first I felt a little uncomfortable because I can be shy and also it was hard to communicate because not everyone spoke a lot of English; it was fine though. We did face paint, colouring, painting and other activities with the kids.

It was really nice seeing that we made them happy and all of them were so nice. A lot of the kids were asking when we would come back and it was nice knowing that they actually wanted us to come back and that they actually enjoyed having us there.

It was so difficult to leave because they were all so nice and at the end a bunch of kids were asking me to paint their faces but we had to leave since we were already late so I tried to do as much as I could quickly.

I definitely want to go back soon because I think that if we go there frequently it will be better since you could tell that the kids were at first shy since they did not really know us. I think that we really should try to go back often so that we can form better connections and be more helpful.


I believe it was a great experience since it really allowed us to see what others have to go through. While we were in the center something that really had an impact on me was a painting done by someone from the center where it talked about the difficulties she and many others have faced. I definitely want to find more ways to help. I think next time we should go back with different toys and supplies though because a lot of the kids fought over taking the toys back so we either should not let them take any back and keep them only in the play room or get toys where each kid gets their own.

We could have a really great impact if we plan a little more.

Contributed by Chelsea, Grade 11

Serving Our Elderly – Students Volunteer in Brussels

This past week we had 26 St. John’s students volunteer at three different local organizations. In total, each of them volunteered 2-3 hours of their time, providing service and learning about two different causes. Two groups were assisting the elderly in senior homes (Brussels, Waterloo), and one returned to organize activities for children of asylum-seeking families (Alsemberg).

Below you can read the reflection of our regular CAS blogger, Eva, Grade 11:

Along with five other 11th grade students, and Mme Froidcoeur, we volunteered on Wednesday to help out at the Little Sisters of the Poor in Brussels by serving food to an elderly people’s home. Little Sisters of the Poor are an international group of nuns, also based in Belgium who care with respect and dignity for 100 elderly people in the Marolles, one of the most deprived and poorest communities in Brussels. Their activity is also promoted by Serve the City. Once we arrived we were asked to divide into two different groups, one group (Lara, Olivier, Jessica and José) assisting the elderly residents on the first level, considered as the most independent residents, whilst I along with Natalia and Mme Froidcoeur helped out on the fourth level, in which the most vulnerable and frail resided.

Being assigned to the more vulnerable residents, with mental and physical difficulties and often an inability to communicate to each other as well as ourselves, was upsetting, as their lives appeared so restricted. We were very conscious to communicate as best we could and not offend anyone unnecessarily by not being able to hear or understand them. However, I was aware that perhaps some of the residents with mental and physical fragilities might be very uncertain of their future and perhaps not receive many visitors during the week. Therefore I believe these visits and small acts of kindness are worthwhile. 

Once we had finished serving dinner, we were allocated to serve on the first level. The atmosphere was much more animated and we felt we could provide a more personal approach by being able to approach and speak to them more openly.

We met an elderly lady called Bernadine, who goes by the name Nadine who really made my day. Little did we know that Nadine had been a basketball player for over 40 years and like many of us at St. John’s, had traveled and considered herself as international rather than Belgian. This contact with Nadine really made me understand how much we have to learn from our elders. Although we had only spent a very little portion of our evening talking to Nadine, it was so wonderful to hear how positive and proud she was of her life when reflecting on it with us. She even admitted that she found it hard to make friends in the home as people can be so unpredictable, mental care issues can result that her companions can be completely lucid one day and unable to connect or function the next day. I hope that this visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor was as worthwhile for the elderly people of the as it was for us.

After this experience, I have reflected on the fact that we all live in a cycle of life, and that old age, mental health issues and loneliness can happen to anyone. When many of the elderly in this home are perhaps at their most vulnerable and lonely, any visits and kind words may matter to them. I have also reflected that we cannot make assumptions on people and their previous lives, nor assume that people with mental difficulties are unable to respond to a kind word. Although we may think their lives are difficult, we cannot underestimate how much impact we have made with a visit and we can all learn from their knowledge and principles. The elderly are the most vulnerable in any community and this opportunity to serve dinner, have a chat with people and listen and learn from their life experiences will make our society more enriched and stronger. It is the key to humanity to take responsibility for vulnerable communities and reach out to our elderly community as best we can. I can genuinely say that it was a really eye opening experience and I would be very inclined to go back and visit again.

St. John’s students organize workshops for children in Alsemberg (Red Cross)

A group of 6 students, myself included, visited the Alsemberg Red Cross asylum centre in Brabant in April, along with the CAS coordinators and Ms. Doyle.

I found it to be a very effective visit. Arriving at the centre, one of the men in charge gave us a short tour of building and gave us some information on how the centre works. There were a variety of different cultures in the centre which made it hard at times for everyone to get along.

Namira, Anton and I worked with the very small children, probably from the ages 1 – 6. It was very interesting to see how the different kids interacted with one another. At times I found it rather hard to know how to handle the situation. You could see that the children were very protective of anything they considered to be theirs, probably due to the fact some of them had nothing with them there.

When it came to colouring the smallest kids, especially a little girl I stayed with most of the time, would have a tantrum anytime another child took a marker from the colouring pot. There was also more aggression between the kids than I had expected there to be at that age. The leader explained to us that fights are not uncommon, because of the stressful life situation these families are in.

I never took into consideration the connections the people make while staying at centres like this. From the group of children I was working with, you could see who was friends with who. One of the things I learned during my visit was that it’s not just the poor who end up at these kind of centres. Some of the families had lots of money, and some had none at all. A lot of the people who fled their countries had to sell everything just to make it to Belgium where they are still seeking asylum. Those who have been in the centre for a long time tend to have priorities when it comes to the bedrooms. They would fit up to 6 or 8 people in one room.

After having seen the rooms for myself, I concluded it’s not a position I would ever want to have to be in. My friend Namira and I met a woman there who was drawing with her 1 year old son. Her husband who is still living in Pakistan sold everything they had, including her own clothing shops, in order for his wife and his wife’s sister to be able to travel to Belgium with both their very young children. This woman was a perfect example of someone who had everything and then soon not much at all. She told us that back in Pakistan she and her family were very rich; being a fashion designer and owning many of her own shops. It was a sad experience in my opinion and definitely made me think of how lucky we are and how much we take for granted. It felt really good to go and play with these kids even if it was just to give them and hour or two of entertainment. I think they genuinely enjoyed our company and seeing this really makes me want to go back to volunteer again.

Contributed by Megan, Grade 11

Job Shadowing Visit at the International School of Brussels

February 2017

As a step towards strengthening our service learning programme at St. John’s, we organized a job shadowing visit with the CAS coordinator of ISB, Michelle Brown. Here is a comparative overview of CAS at these two schools:

Structure of CAS at ISB (2016-2017) Structure of CAS at St. John’s (2016-2017)
  • +/- 500 students
  • 34 advisories
  • mixed grade levels 10/11/12
  • +/- 125 students
  • 7-8 advisories
  • Separate grade levels
  • Each student obliged to participate once per year in their affiliated project, they are given free choice for their remaining service opportunities
  • 11th graders can choose to lead the affiliated local service projects, which thus become their CAS projects or they can select their own project
  • Focus on commitment to one project rather than a wide spectrum of different ones
  • 40-80 students actively participating in projects each weekend during the year
  • Students are given free choice in service projects, only emergency cases are directed to specific volunteering opportunities
  • 11th graders choose their CAS projects, service related projects are supervised by a skilled adult among staff
  • Focus is on learning through ongoing reflection, reflection is taught in CAS Core classes (bi-weekly)

Michelle is a dynamic, dedicated and cheerful person who warmly welcomed me with the following statistics:

The data seems to be telling its own story. It seems ISB has managed to transform the concept of CAS to highlight service learning as its core. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this transformation has meant some conflicts of interest for students trying to balance their sports commitments with their service requirements. The transformation required a firm hand and many years of hard work, resulting in the following model:

The service learning placements are coordinated by the CAS coordinator. Partnerships with local NGOs have been built over the years, creating ample amounts of trust and reliability on both sides. There’s a strong commitment to direct service, which means that students experience solidarity through their own actions. Students are usually engaged with the same organisation for their three years of CAS, as the programme is introduced in grade 10.

One crucial difference is in the policy of CAS/Service Learning: ISB maintains a minimum expectation of hours, so that clear requirements can be established for the students around the advisory affiliated community projects and so that ISB are able to meet the expectations of the affiliated community projects. At ISB service is a requirement for the ISB diploma and not just the IB diploma. To graduate, students are required to do 50 hours of service, out of which 25 hours must be carried out locally by volunteering in Belgium and Brussels. (30 hours of Activity and 30 hours of Creativity are expected.) The community projects are coordinated by Michelle, who arranges a supervisor for each placement, relying on staff and parents to sign off the list at attendees and the reflections on students.

The placements are organized on the weekends. Transport is not organized by the school, it is expected that students take responsibility for their logistics arrangements. Parents are made aware of the need to support them in this respect. Student leaders are in charge of sending reminders, communicating with chaperones, planning the activity, and taking attendance. Google spreadsheets are used to manage the system of placements.

Fundraising is also structured around the coordinator’s office: permission has to be granted from the coordinator and the head of school for any fundraising activity. The beneficiaries of the funds, the time and form of the event are to be communicated in advance. The funds raised are transferred to the Business Office and then on to the organisations. Food based fundraisers must return the funds to projects that feed people. New fundraising initiatives must be presented at an Assembly to check the integrity and relevance of the initiative.

On a personal note, the system at ISB has particularly touched me because of the clear commitment to local volunteering in social projects. Michelle and the school fully acknowledge their role in the social-economic reality of the Brussels region by giving back to the communities that host school’s community. Great amounts of determination and consistency were needed to build up the system around this vision. This has not prevented the coordinator from accepting with a smile that not everybody will like her ideas. Yet, the programme and the data above speak for themselves: this is a school that takes its mission to give back to the community seriously.

We are thankful for Michelle Brown for openly and whole-heartedly collaborating with us.

Miki Ambrozy


The Green Arrows Take Flight

New Dreams for the Future – The Hague International Model United Nations

Contributed by Eva, Grade 11

After a rigorous, demanding, and at times intense week, I can assuredly say that it was all worthwhile. This week at THIMUN (The Hague International Model United Nations) has opened up so many doors. I have also expanded new circles of friends and it is a great feeling being surrounded by like-minded people who share an interest in debating  current world issues and interested in how our world is shaped. As we are living in challenging times, it was nice to have an insight into world politics and a great opportunity to learn from others. 

After debating each day, we had some down-time to relax and update each other about the ups and downs of our day. Although this was only a minor part of our busy schedules each day, it allowed us to open up and gave us all a chance to speak about our THIMUN experience. One of my highlights was actually towards the very beginning of the week, when we went to the beach after dinner and just relaxed before the long week ahead. 

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The beauty of THIMUN is that there is a combination of the social interaction as well as acquiring debating skills. Everyone is there for the same reason, to contribute with ideas and work together to create successful and promising resolutions. Although we are all fully aware that the hundreds of resolutions, passed and failed, have stayed within the conference, the fact that they were created is much more symbolic and a testament of our passion. I really did try to push myself to raise my placard representing Sierra Leone, and personally engage in stimulating resolutions because the more involved you are, the better the experience. Rather than returning with regrets, I came home feeling as though I contributed in small but significant ways with new dreams for the future. 

To face the world’s toughest challenges…

Contributed by Justin, Grade 12

THIMUN 2017 was an amazing experience. The most interesting part was probably the first day. As you join your commission, you find yourself suddenly surrounded by about 150 other students from around the world. You are at once very different from them as you they come from different countries, have had different experiences or are of different ages yet at the same time you feel bonded with them as you are all international students brought together by a love of debating and an interest in world politics. Despite the first moments feeling slightly daunting, you are quickly reassured as you present yourself to another student, learn his name and make a friend. In my personal case I was also happily surprised to see that friend whom I had met at a previous conference was also in my committee and debating the same topic as me, proving yet again what a small world it is that we live in.  Meeting so many new people from all over the world shows to you that in every culture there will be youths like you and that you can relate to people from all over the world.

During the first day you create or join a group with other students in order to write a resolution. This is often one of the most fun moments as you meet so many different people and then start working together to try and create the best resolution as possible. When discussing the topic of the Western Sahara I remember one of the students telling us he was actually from Morocco and talking of the importance many people from his country place on that topic. Moments such as these show us that the topics we debate are not just some vague theoretical challenge that we have to solve but are actually real-world problems which affect people’s lives and on which people place have very strong opinions.

Being the group’s ambassador meant that I had more responsibility yet it also meant that I approached the whole event in a slightly different way. The fact that you are representing the school makes you feel proud and gives you that extra urge to be as good as possible. Participating in the opening and closing ceremony was a real honour as you feel that you are playing an important part in this great event. Several times I was awestruck by just how big THIMUN was. At most times you are in your commission of around 150 people so it is only at events such as the opening ceremony that you see a significant proportion of the 3500 students attending this conference.

Although I am slightly sad that this was my last THIMUN, I am also happy to have been able to participate in it a second time and to have met so many interesting people. The debates we had not only showed the vast amount of problems in the world, but also that the fact that with discussion and collaboration with people from many backgrounds, we are capable of finding solutions to even the toughest challenges.