Today on the blog I have Colette Victor, As part of the blog tour or her new novel Head Over Heart she is writing about her experiences and how they shaped her and her novel.
Working in a poor community
I’ve been working as a community worker in an underprivileged ex-mining community in Belgium for ten years. We have a lot of migrants living here (I’m a migrant myself, I come from South Africa.) First, second, third, even fourth generation migrants who came here well over fifty years ago to work in the coal mines.
Polish people, Greeks, Italians, Turkish people and Moroccans. At the same time, there are also a lot of Belgians living here, Belgians who have some or other history with the mines too. A neighbourhood, a community, where a whole bunch of people live together under difficult conditions since the mines closed over twenty-five years ago.
As a community worker I have a wide and varied range of tasks to do. I could be called on to arbitrate between two irate neighbours, or offer support and advice to a family crippled under a load of debt. I’m expected to stimulate and organise community gatherings with my eye on the goal of social cohesion, or I could facilitate a group of residents who get together to deal with the problem of fly-tipping on their street.
The best and the worst of humanity
It’s a job where I get to see the very best of humanity, where I meet people every day who inspire me in their dedication to make this a better world through the huge or tiny things they do. It’s also a job where I see the absolute worst of humanity. I’m confronted with racism and intolerance, I hear tales of incest and domestic abuse, I sit at the kitchen table with parents sobbing into their coffee because they can’t afford to feed their children – children who don’t have the right profile to be eligible for state help.
Some nights I go home thinking, This is the best job in the world! Other nights I sit in my car and resolve, I’m going to look for another job, I can’t do this anymore. It’s a job of extremes – extreme hope, extreme despair and quite a lot in between.
The inside of poverty
We work with a steady stream of work experience students from the local colleges. (One of these students was an emancipated Muslim woman named Zehra who was the inspiration for the character by the same name in my teen novel, Head over heart.) At some point, each and every one of these students who’ve spent years learning about the theory of poverty, will make the same observation, “Every person in this country should be forced to do this job for a week.”
And it’s true. They’re quite right. Poverty is something you can only understand from the inside. It’s a great equaliser. When you’re poor you’re poor, no matter what your origins are. When you’re hungry, you’re hungry, regardless of whether your parents are Turkish immigrants or you’ve got a mental illness or you didn’t go to school long enough to get a job. But, at the same time, on rare occasions, it can also be a vehicle that inspires us to change the world we live in.
Head Over Heart by Colette Victor out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House)