Choosing to live in Brussels

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Josh Pennell
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N.L. woman Keli Ryan says life in city means choosing to live in shadow of terror attacks

Less than a week after explosions ripped through parts of Brussels killing more than 30 people, a Newfoundlander living there says the city’s people are determined to not let the threat of terrorism rule their lives.

Keli Ryan has been living in Brussels for five years. The Southern Shore woman who lives in south Brussels wasn’t in the immediate vicinity of the bombings, but relative distances take on a much different meaning when you’re talking terror attacks.

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“To put it on a local scale, I’m downtown and it would have happened up by the Avalon Mall. Still fairly close,” she says.

The explosions, one of which hit the departure area of Zaventem airport and another at the Maelbeek subway station in central Brussels, have been claimed by the Islamic State group (ISIS).

“It was shocking and horrible,” says Ryan.

“Some people are still trying to find their family members.”

While the number killed has risen to more than 30 people, the number of wounded is well over 250. The Belgian capital has been inundated with police raids during the past week as authorities and military have made arrests in connection with the terror attacks. Immediately following the attacks — and in the days following — Ryan says the city has been making a stand against terrorism simply by returning to normal life.  

“People in Brussels went out immediately into the streets,” she says.

There was a gathering in the centre of the city promptly following the explosions.

“I think people felt the need to come together. To share their grief. To just go out and stand up to send a message to the terrorists that we’re not going to be frightened into staying in our homes or changing our way of life.”

Since the co-ordinated attacks in Paris that occurred November past, Ryan says there has been a noticeable increase in the number of police and military on the streets of Brussels. Following those bombings, which were claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), many European cities shut down for several days, including Brussels. Ryan says schools, businesses and government offices were closed.

“This time none of that has happened. In fact, a government official said we don’t want this to happen again. We’re not going to disrupt the entire city. We’re going to continue on.”

Ryan says Brussels is a multicultural city that attracts people from Spanish, Italian, Polish and of course Moroccan backgrounds  who both emigrate there and who are born there. There are also large numbers of Syrian and Iraqi and Afghani people.

She describes the city as friendly.

“It doesn’t feel like a big city. It feels like a small, spread-out city.”

Lending to this idea is that the city is made up of 19 different communes or municipalities.

“It is a very friendly place. People are friendly in general. Not just Belgians but everyone who lives here.”

With a large Muslim component, that compatibility could either be stressed by such attacks or made all the stronger. On the Tuesday night of the explosions, Ryan went to meet a friend. With the public transit system down she took a taxi both ways. During one run she had a driver who was Belgian and of Moroccan background.

“He felt the need to talk to us and tell us what he was feeling about it,” says Ryan.

I think people felt the need to come together. To share their grief. To just go out and stand up to send a message to the terrorists that we’re not going to be frightened into staying in our homes or changing our way of life. Keli Ryan

“He was horrified by what these people are doing because they’re tarnishing the name of Muslims everywhere. The Muslim community in Belgium is just has horrified as everyone else is.”

That solidarity can’t extinguish all tensions, however. A march for harmony that had been planned for Sunday in a city square was originally cancelled after government stressed that with police and military concentrating on finding those responsible for the attacks, there wasn’t the security to ensure the safety of the crowd. As of Sunday afternoon, though, media was reporting that protestors wearing black, carrying sogns containing expletives about ISIS and shouting slogans had clashed with quiet mourners. Police in riot gear broke up the scene.

“I guess the point is, yes, you never know what’s going to happen. You can’t let it frighten you into not doing things,” says Ryan.

She is due to fly out of Zaventem airport in two weeks. Choosing to still live as normally as possible and being carefree are two different things, though.

“It’s always there in the back of your mind,” says Ryan.

“I’m sure I will think about it. It’s on everybody’s minds now.”

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Geographic location: Brussels, Zaventem, Islamic Southern Shore Paris Iraq Belgium

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