Located in the heart of Europe, Belgium is one of the most complex, yet fascinating, European nations; a nation that seamlessly combines history with modernity. Famous for its high-quality chocolate and beer-making history dating back centuries, Belgium boasts 60 UNESCO World Heritage sites. A highly underrated country, Belgium is much more than a great location for a weekend trip. Instead, with its can-do spirit, Belgium is the perfect setting for driving change, combatting prejudice, and establishing sustainable, measurable improvements as a volunteer abroad.
Belgium is divided into three regions, each of which has multiple different languages: in the Flander region, situated in the North of the country, locals speak Dutch (colloquially referred to as Flemish); in Wallonia, situated in the South, the most common language spoken is French; and in Brussels, the nation’s capital and home of the European Union headquarters, multiple languages are spoken on any given day, in any given place.
When choosing where to volunteer in Belgium, keep the language factor in mind. However, don’t panic if you don’t speak French or Dutch; English is widely spoken throughout the country, so a smoooooth transition awaits those who speak it! Here are some of the most popular cities for volunteering in Belgium:
Brussels. Belgium’s dazzling capital, often called Europe’s capital, is many cities in one. Volunteer work in Brussels will allow you to explore a highly bureaucratic town, home to both the EU and NATO headquarters, but also a culturally rich, charming city. The streets of Brussels host magnificent UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Grand Place (one of the most unforgettable squares in all of Europe). During the nineteenth century, Brussels went through a period of modernization and expansion, making it a more multinational destination. Volunteers will find that Brussels is home to a very diverse crowd of people, as well as volunteer opportunities.
Liege. Though it may not be the most visited in Belgium, Wallonia’s largest city, and the birthplace of emperor Charlemagne and writer George Simenon, has a rich artistic and architectural heritage. After undergoing many battles and rebellions throughout history, Liege is now home to several museums and to one of the biggest breweries in Belgium. The friendly Liegois will surely show you how to enjoy Belgium when you aren’t busy with volunteer work.
Antwerp. Despite its relatively small dimensions, Antwerp has all the advantages of a big city. As Belgium’s second most populated city, Antwerp is famous for being home to several fashion designers and art galleries. Those who decide to volunteer abroad in Antwerp will be able to soak up the incredible architecture, ranging from Gothic to postmodern. Volunteer projects in Antwerp often revolve around community development efforts to support refugees and other marginalized populations.
Volunteer Programs in Belgium
Volunteer work in Belgium typically lasts from three to 12 months. Volunteer programs in Belgium range from supporting local teachers to tutoring to social service assistants and arts and culture placements.
Teaching. Choosing to teach English in Belgium will not only give you the opportunity to gain valuable teaching experience, but also to learn more about your native language (and just how pesky those “exceptions” to the rules can be!). English teachers do more than differentiate between nouns and verbs; they invest in a student’s hireability in the future and serve as cultural ambassadors for their home country. Use your power wisely!
Social Service. Start planning your volunteer work in Belgium in a way that can positively impact social issues! Taking time to serve less privileged populations isn’t for the faint of heart. Social work volunteers in Belgium will likely support urban programming, after-school tutoring, education, and much more in needy communities. Social service volunteering in Belgium can be a bucket full of project options; you’ll never know which card you’ll be dealt.
Art & Culture. Not all children have immediate access to the arts, and you can do your part to share the magic with them! Whether you are teaching a painting class, helping students practice monologues, or volunteering backstage at one of many music and film festivals, becoming a volunteer in Belgium will be unforgettable.
Costs & Affordability
If you still have doubts about choosing to volunteer in Belgium, know that the cost of living is lower in Belgium than in many other European countries. Also, many volunteer programs in Belgium are inclusive of food and housing. You can always crowdsource fundraise for your trip (and budget a little extra to make an in-kind donation to the NGO or organization of your choosing!) too.
To help cut back on the overall costs of volunteering in Belgium, don’t be scared to try local delicacies! The culinary offerings in Belgium are extensive, delicious, and quite affordable. Walking on the street you can easily find frietkot (a little shop usually that sells fries and other fried savory treats) or street vendors specializing in waffles. Belgium is one of Europe’s most bike-friendly countries; cycling is an excellent way of exploring the city and moving around instead of wasting time (and money!) waiting for the bus to arrive.
Accommodation & Visas
Most volunteer organizations in Belgium place volunteers in homestays during their stay. Host families are matched with volunteers based on common interests, academic goals, and personalities. Homestays can be the most genuine way to fully immerse in and understand Belgian culture while volunteering in Belgium.
If you decide to find accommodation on your own, keep in mind that it is very likely that the accommodation agreements will be different from those that you are used to; misunderstandings and miscommunication will therefore occur, but don’t give up, this is all part of the personal growth that comes with volunteering abroad!
It is not necessary to obtain a visa for short term volunteer work in Belgium, as a visa is not required for stays of up to three months. If you plan on volunteering in Belgium for longer, have no fear; a Working Holiday Visa is available for foreigners intending to stay in Belgium for over three months. Remember to register with local authorities within eight days of arrival if you are planning to stay for an extended period though. More info regarding visa requirements can be found on GoAbroad’s Embassy Directory.
Benefits & Challenges
While Belgium may be best known for Jean Claude Van Damme (a.k.a. the Muscles from Brussels), fine chocolates, and delicious brews, this small country packs a punch. Its influence reaches far and wide, thanks in large part to its strong, global, political presence.
Even for the bravest ones, it is always difficult to leave family, friends, and the culture you are used to for an unknown country. In the end, you will realize that in this unknown country you can live the most humanly rich and intense experience.
Stop wondering if this is just a waste of time and sail away from the safe harbor! Volunteering abroad is one of the highest forms of education, as you will discover, explore, and learn about a new world. Only by being open and active in accepting Belgian culture will you manage to feel less “foreign” and have a more fulfilling experience as a volunteer in Belgium.