E very Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, you will find a tall man with dark hair and curious eyes unloading a van filled to capacity with food and clothing. Parked amongst a line of cars on the street alongside Gare du Nord in Brussel’s Schaerbeek neighborhood, the contents of this van will help feed and clothe a lively group of refugees. Our friend unloading the van, Nino Ostojic, would argue with the term ‘refugee.’ He would encourage you to use the word ‘friend’ instead. Nino can say this because this is how he lives. He is the project leader for Food4Friends, the oldest weekly project at Serve the City, Brussels (STC). Each week, Nino is front and center, distributing food and clothing to those in need. Though this aspect of the project is important, it is a distant second to its main goal. Nino and his steady group of volunteers don’t simply want to help their friends at the station- friends coming from far and wide- but want to create a nurturing, safe space for them to come each week. He wants to provide a platform for love, understanding, and positivity. Food4Friends offers an opportunity to socialize, to listen, and to connect with others, at a time when it is needed most.
Nino began Food4Friends back in 2011, a few years after he began working with STC. He moved to Brussels from Bosnia in 2006 to pursue a Master’s degree. He found STC as he searched for a place to volunteer in the city. Helping others has always come very naturally for Nino. Before starting his weekly project, Nino noticed people were gathered around Gare du Nord, sleeping on the streets, and struggling daily to survive. He began to talk to them, to listen to them, and to determine their needs. It was important for Nino to see each individual and learn their story. After spending some time with the group of people living near the station, they came to trust him and to expect his weekly visits. He would bring food and coffee, soon becoming a trusted face in the area.
In the beginning, Nino used STC Focus Days as an opportunity to go around to all of the stations with a group of volunteers. They would serve a meal and coffee, while socializing with the people living there.
“There is a negative opinion of those on the street and that causes fear. My focus is to overcome this fear by loving people. We are not judging, just being there, giving them consistency. We become a temporary family for these people.”
F ood4Friends can not solve all of the problems the refugees are facing. But while they are here in Brussels, Nino is certain we can call upon our natural instinct to help by offering love and compassion. It isn’t enough to give clothes, shoes, and food. Those at the station need our friendship, our commitment, and willingness to see them as individuals. Over the five years Nino has been serving, he has seen love and encouragement be transformative. He has seen people pull themselves out of terrible situations and overcome their obstacles. He attributes this to the simple act of encouraging one another and giving people a space to feel accepted and nurtured.
Volunteers with Food4Friends have an opportunity to exercise humility, to break down barriers, and make a real difference in the lives of others. Nino explains that though it feels nice to help someone, it isn’t only about what your give, but what you receive. He says he has learned so much from his experiences at the station and from the people he is serving. Hearing stories from and interacting with people that are largely ignored, provides a chance to grow and learn. We all have something to share. Nino is at Gare du Nord each Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday at 18:30 without fail. We invite you to come and make some new friends. Though the idea is very simple, it has the power to make a very real difference. It starts with a smile and a conversation.