A brighter future for refugee youth at Park Inn by Radisson Leuven

The refugee crisis has had an impact all across Europe with thousands of young people suddenly finding themselves in new place. All of them with their own hopes and dreams of a better life. Here we take a closer look at the stories of Hasan, Ajmal and Zia, three young Park Inn team members that each have a powerful story to tell.

After arriving in Belgium as refugees, social workers placed the boys in Don Bosco, a vocational school which admits youngsters without papers and gives them specialized support and follow-up. In the refugee centers they all learnt and took Dutch classes. All three have since taken jobs at Park Inn by Radisson Leuven where they continue to develop and build a brighter future.

This is the story of how Hassan, Ajmal and Zia found not only a job in Belgium, but a path to a brighter future with the opportunity to learn & develop where everyone benefits.

Park Inn by Radisson Leuven refugee youth Ajmal, Zia and Hassan

The “Adding Color to Lives” project at Park Inn by Radisson connects hotels with their local communities. One of the main goals of the project is to give young people from difficult backgrounds, the chance to express themselves. As part of the project, Park Inn by Radisson Leuven works closely together with local youth organizations and schools like Minor N’Dako and Don Bosco in hopes of making an impact in people’s lives.

Meet Ajmal

  • – 20 years old
  • – 6 years in Belgium
  • – 2 years with Park Inn by Radisson Leuven
  • – Currently attending a vocational college to be an assistant cook (Combining working and learning)

Ajmal is originally from the northern Afghanistan. His story begins with some difficulties. Both Ajmal’s parents died when he was young. He became responsible for raising his younger brother by himself while living in various places like Iran. In search of a better future, he traveled from Iran by foot into Turkey. Once he got there, he paid a smuggler 1000 USD for a spot on a boat that would take him to Greece. Unfortunately, the smuggler ran off with the money he was forced to hitch a ride on a passing truck. That mean, quite literally by latching on to the spare wheel of an Italian truck. At that time, Ajmal was just 13 years old. Once in Italy, he walked on the train tracks to Nice where he was apprehended by the police and put on a train to Paris.  From Paris, he traveled on his own to Belgium where he was placed with Minor Ndako, a center for unaccompanied under aged refugees.

Park Inn by Radisson Leuven assistant cook Ajmal

What truly makes Ajmal happy is cooking. Currently, Ajmal attending a vocational college to be an assistant cook while working at Park Inn by Radisson Leuven. Ajmal loves cooking & being in the service shift at the hotel.

He wants to be a chef and already helps with à la carte preparations, meetings, events and lunchtime service. Doing the Mise en place is his favorite task.

Ajmal really wants to continue in the service industry – he loves engaging with guests and always wears a smile since, as he says,  “smiling is free.”

Every year for the past two years, Ajmal has participated in the 20 km run for World Childhood Foundation. This year he set a personal best time with 1:43 h – without even training!

His favorite dish is pasta with scampi and lots of garlic.

There are a lot of differences Ajmal discover in Belgium. One of the biggest differences with Afghanistan is that Belgians often eat steamed or boiled vegetables. Ajmal was used to eating lots of fried food, and in the beginning found Belgian food to be pretty bland. But the differences continue, for example in Afghanistan, it’s OK for men to hug. It’s quite normal. Although in Belgium you do not see that as much….

One thing Ajmal would like Belgians to know about Afghans is that they are very welcoming and true hosts. As a visitor, you would be welcomed into an Afghan home and served tea, made with real tea leaves.

Ajmal also has some advice for other young refugees, or any other young person in a difficult situation: “Keep focusing on the future. You can reach high and far. It is possible to have a better future. Look at me and my brother. I came here at the age of 13 and can now take care of my kid brother.”

Ajmal says, “I dream of having a beautiful wife, beautiful in the heart, and of having a small family – although in Afghan terms that may mean many kids…”

At Park Inn, during the Adding Color to Life training, everyone gets a color. Ajmal’s Park Inn Color is GREEN and he proudly wears the recycled paper bracelet for the World Childhood Foundation. For Ajmal, GREEN is the color of hope. It reminds him of his younger brother who after a similarly perilous journey. He also made it to Belgium and is now also in a youth refugee center.

Meet Zia

  • – 20 years old
  • – 6 years in Belgium
  • – 3.5 years with Park Inn by Radisson Leuven
  • – Currently attending a vocational education to be an assistant cook (Combining working and learning)

Zia came to Belgium on his own after his parents fled to Pakistan and it was quite a hard journey. First, he made the crossed into Turkey, and from there, traveled by boat to Greece. The open boat set out for Greece in wintertime, crammed with 250 people. During the voyage the boat ran into a storm; Sadly, over 30 people drowned. When a Dutch ship arrived, Zia and the other refugees were rescued. At that time, Zia was only 13 years old.  When he arrived in Greece he landed in a Greek hospital for three days. Directly after that, the police arrested him and he was jailed for two weeks. Once he was released, he continued his journey further to Italy in a truck, where he was locked in the cargo hold, together with 19 other refugees. Unfortunately along the way, the police discovered all the refugees and sent them back to Greece. After six months of trying to leave, Zia made it into Italy from where he traveled to France and then on to Brussels. Upon arrival, he was placed in the Steenokkerzeel refugee center. His parents had paid 14,000 USD to smugglers to make the first leg of the crossing.

Park Inn by Radisson Leuven assistant cook Zia

Today, Zia is studying at Don Bosco, a vocational education to be an assistant cook while also working as part of the team at Park Inn by Radisson Leuven. Zia wants to finish his education as a chef and then study some more. He loves the fact that Park Inn Leuven is a real team, where everyone helps each other. “The team is great, we joke a lot,” he says. During on-the-job training, Zia tried various tasks and has even helped out the housekeeping and would love to try his hand at front office.

His favorite dish is the Afghan rice specialty Kabele Palaw.

Zia showed pictures of himself wearing the white or colorful traditional attire on his recent back home to visit Kabul. The city is very green and surrounded by mountains, where unfortunately violence and suicide bombs are part of daily life. Home is still very important to him. Around Kabul, Zia says one can find the best fruit in the world: nuts, grapes, watermelon, you name it.

In the future, Zia would like a small family and a good job, with an extra diploma and some more on-the job training. He is setting himself up for a bright future.

He pointed out that in his 3,5 years with Park Inn he has never been off sick for even a day or has never arrived late for work. His advice to fellow youth at risk is: study, go to school every day and try not to smoke or drink. Show respect to each other.

Meet Hassan

  • – 25 years old
  • – 6 years in Belgium
  • – 9 months with Park Inn by Radisson Leuven
  • – Currently in a vocational education to be an assistant cook (Combining working and learning)

Hasan’s story begins before he was born. His parents fled to Iran (30 y ago) during the Russian occupation, so Hasan grew up in Tehran. There he had refugee status and no rights in Iran. As refugees, the family was not allowed to travel to other cities and Hasan could not attend school. Since then, his mother and sisters have fled Iran and now live in Belgium. His father was apprehended without papers in Iran a few months ago and the family has no news of him. Hassan had to flee Iran after the police took his ‘refugee card’. He made it to Italy from Greece by clinging on to the bottom a driving truck for 24 hours. The journey took it’s toll on Hasan and after this ordeal, for a while he could not longer stretch his arms or legs. From Italy, he traveled by train to France and Belgium.

Park Inn by Radisson Leuven assistant cook Hassan

He has worked previously in another restaurant, where he picked up the recipe for his favorite dish, and a Belgian classic: carbonades (and has developed his own variation).

He loves the freedom of having choices and also of being able to move around freely, which he could not do in Iran. When in Iran, he saw the beautiful city of Isaphan on TV. Maybe in the future, now that he has official papers from Belgium, he will be able to visit the city one day.

Because Hasan’s passed the age limit for secondary education, he can no longer stay at his current school. But, he’s committed to earn his diploma through evening classes, with the support of the Park Inn General Manager and team.

When Hasan is asked about the future, he says he wants to become a cook, stay here, marry and have a family of his own.

Hassan’s advice to youngsters: stay positive at all times. Hassan loves the team spirit at Park Inn. We don’t say NO, we say Yes I Can!