Graffiti covered walls, broken windows, trash littered hallways. This is Gesu, a squatter building located in the centre of Brussels, Belgium. It houses almost 300 people, the majority of them immigrants from countries like Morocco, Algeria, Slovakia, and Bulgaria. And they are living there illegally, unregistered, and practically invisible.
The sad reality is that the majority of the people living in Gesu are kids. Not only are they living in poor conditions, but at times very violent as well. Litter is scattered where they play and to them that is normal.
What looks like bodies scattered in abandoned rooms is actually discarded clothes.
No one is in charge of Gesu and this makes it very difficult to organize and take care of a building of 300 inhabitants.
Hedviga Krokova is one of many Roma residents in Gesu. Hedviga, her daughter Melisa Krokova, 23, and her one-month old granddaughter are sharing one small room.
Despite the harsh reality the residents of Gesu face, they have built a very strong community among themselves. This is a silver-lining because outside of Gesu they are nearly invisible. “There is no help. They don’t care, we don’t exist,” Melisa says.
A large number of residents that live in Gesu are children of school age. Independence comes early for them. They’ve adapted to an environment no child should live in. Many of them are Roma. Luckily the majority of them, if not all, attend school. Most likely that would not be the case if they were living in an Eastern European country.
The future is uncertain for the kids living in Gesu. The building houses generations of families that have no control over their fate. “One day here and tomorrow out there,” says Melisa.
Nassar Kheli, 40, is one of the squatters living in Gesu. He doesn’t have a job, but he is the unofficial security person for Gesu. He has surveillance installed in his room where he keeps an eye on the front door.
Nassar is originally from Morocco and has been living in Brussels for 18 years, yet still has no papers and can’t get a job as a result.
“Here is Guantanamo,” Nassar says. The residents, including him feel trapped and hopeless living in Gesu because they are invisible to the outside world and there is no help for them.
“No family, never married and no kinders. Easy without family,” says Nassar. Living on his own for a very long time now Nassar is used to it.
For two years now Nassar has been living in a cramped room. Like majority of rooms in Gesu there is no fridge and no running water. “It is very hard, very cold in the winter, but if I have family it would be harder,” Nassar says.
“This is not a home it’s a squat.” The uncertainty of life in Gesu is a constant reminder if you’re living without papers in a city that offers no help to the ones that need it most, your future looks grim, Nassar says.
THIS PHOTO-SERIES WAS CREATED DURING MY TRIP TO BRUSSELS WHILE I WAS ON AN ASSIGNMENT INVESTIGATING THE SEGREGATION AND LIVING CONDITIONS OF ROMA PEOPLE WITHIN THE EU. THIS PHOTO-SERIES IS A SEPARATE PROJECT FROM THAT ASSIGNMENT. I WAS VERY INTERESTED IN DOING THIS PHOTO-SERIES BECAUSE I WANTED TO CAPTURE A DIFFERENT SIDE OF EUROPE AND A GLIMPSE INTO THE LIVES OF THE MINORITY POPULATION LIVING IN BRUSSELS.
I FOUND MYSELF IN A VERY CHALLENGING ENVIRONMENT, A PLACE WHERE I WAS NOT WELCOMED IN THE BEGINNING BUT CHARACTERIZED AS A THREAT BECAUSE OF MY CAMERA. ALL THIS BECAUSE THE PEOPLE IN GESU HAVE HAD BAD EXPERIENCES WITH JOURNALISTS. BUT, ONCE I GAINED THEIR TRUST I WAS ABLE TO CAPTURE THEIR RAW, OPEN, AND REAL SIDE.