Working with Syrian Dom families in Brussels

21 November 2023

In conversation with Firas, mediator at the Roma and Travellers Service

Since 2015, a new ethnic group has become clearly visible on the streets of Brussels. They came along with the exodus from Syria and are known as ‘Dom’. Syrians also call them ‘Nawar’, but they themselves prefer to avoid these designations. “I am always looking for the right words,” says Firas, who comes from Syria and is working with Foyer’s Roma service for this target group. His job takes him to schools and various social services, but above all, he makes a lot of home visits. Building a relationship of trust is crucial if you want to work well with this community.

Many Dom are low-skilled and they do not have a very positive image among Brussels Syrians, but also among other ethnic groups – a phenomenon that also affects the Roma, who incidentally share common Indian roots with the Doms 

In Syria, they practise a number of typical professions that we also find among certain Roma communities: musician, fortune-teller, blacksmith and so on, but one activity that characterises the Dom is informal dentistry. They treat teeth and make dentures, a craft they pass on from father to son.

Since the 1970s, Syrian Dom people have also been active as informal dentists in Western Europe, particularly in France and Belgium. Since there was already a historical link to Brussels, this city was thus a logical choice for many Dom families when they were forced to leave Syria.

Syrian Dom are mainly present today in the communes of Schaerbeek, Saint-Josse, Molenbeek and Anderlecht. “Meanwhile, I can easily recognise them by their clothing,” says Firas. Dom families tend to dress more traditionally than other Syrians. Most Dom in Brussels are recognised refugees. 

Firas began his career as a mediator in the humanitarian sector during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. He worked for Médecins Sans Frontières in Brussels, as well as in northern Greece, on Lesbos and in Libya. He experiences the work at Foyer as different from the humanitarian sector, where there is often a need to act quickly, people are in transit and as a mediator you feel more like a ‘tool’.

Foyer generally works with people who are already in the system. This allows more vision to be developed in mediation. “Moreover, as a mediator here, I am part of a team, and my opinion also matters.”

Those who want to get to know the Doms more closely in an original way can read the graphic novel ‘Hayat, d’Alep à Bruxelles’, by Anaële Hermans and Manal Halil. Published by La Boîte à Bulles.