Nathalie Goethals on her work as ICORN coordinator

Nathalie ICORN Network Meeting

In an interview with the ICORN Secretariat, Nathalie Goethals shared her experiences of being the ICORN coordinator in Belgium’s capital, Brussels.

Nathalie Goethals has worked as the ICORN coordinator in Brussels since the arrival of the city’s first ICORN resident Dejan Anastasijevic in 2008. Having worked with all of Brussels’ ICORN residents so far, Nathalie is one of the most experienced coordinators in the ICORN network. She tells us more about the set up of Brussels ICORN City of Refuge, the role of Passa Porta International House in hosting ICORN residents, and her hopes for the future of ICORN in Belgium.

ICORN: You have worked with all of Brussels’s ICORN residents so far- what are the best and most challenging aspects of coordinating people of diverse and different professional backgrounds?

Nathalie Goethals: What is rewarding is that you get to know so many new people, from so many cultures, other ways of looking at the world. Your own horizons really become much broader as a result, both in terms of your work and personally.

You also learn to see your own environment, your city, your own organization, through different eyes each time. Things that you have begun to see as very normal can seem very strange to others. You can learn a lot from that.

The biggest challenge is that every time you invite a new resident, you start from almost scratch. You do build up a certain amount of general expertise, and the framework that you offer remains the same, but because you work with very different persons, in various circumstances, with different needs, talents and backgrounds, you have to open up and question everything. Often you don't know how to help the residents with their specific questions, but the network that you built up can hopefully help with that. The following up sometimes requires a lot of time and energy, especially in the beginning and at the end of the residency period.

ICORN: From your experience, what makes a successful ICORN residency for both the resident and the city?

Nathalie Goethals: It is very important to create a calm and, above all, safe environment for the resident. This is both in terms of housing and the human environment. If the resident feels safe and knows where to go with all questions, practical but also sometimes very personal, this can really be beneficial for the well-being of the resident. When the resident feels well, and is ready, we can see what cooperation there can be and what Passa Porta, the City and the resident can do for each other. If that all works out it can become a great story.

What is also very important is to look from the very beginning at what it will be like after the ICORN residency od 2 years. Time flies, and the guidance to independence after the residency is of crucial importance so that no major uncertainties arise.

If all these conditions are met for the resident, it can also turn out to be a success for the city. If the resident can develop, he/she will also be able to give a lot in return.

ICORN: The ICORN residency in Brussels is a cooperation between the International House of Literature Passa Porta and the City of Brussels. What does being connected to Passa Porta and its Festival mean for the ICORN residency?

Nathalie Goethals: Since Passa Porta is a house of literature, including a biannual literary festival, this can become a natural environment for an ICORN writer in residence. Passa Porta's programmers can examine together with the author what his/her role could be in the programing in the house of literature, or conversely, what the house of literature can do for the author, e.g. by putting him/her in contact with a network.

The City of Brussels provides an apartment for an ICORN resident and supports the festival financially. It is Passa Porta that realizes and coordinates the residency on a daily basis. The City of Brussels provides moral support and offers its services in case of specific questions.

ICORN: The ICORN residencies in Belgium are facilitated by some of the local universities. What opportunities do such cooperations provide for the ICORN resident and in your own work?

Nathalie Goethals: VUB University helps ICORN residents by enrolling them in their program. This allows them to meet the conditions for obtaining a visa. Meeting professors and other students can broaden the network of the resident and it allows them to use the academic facilities for their own research. It allows the VUB University to take up a social role in combination with their academic role.

ICORN: What advice would you give to upcoming ICORN coordinators in Belgium and what do they need to know about the job?

Nathalie Goethals: I sincerely hope that more Belgian cities join the ICORN network. The more we are, the better we can create a network, both for the residents, as for us Cities, to share local information and practices, and to advocate for a better visa regulation.

The minimum conditions to receive a resident are housing, living expenses. But a solid and above all warm and regular presence of a coordinator or a contact person is very important. Each organization, each coordinator, does that in his/her own way, but the human contact is primordial.

It is very important to realize that the resident will stay for 2 years. And that in a life, during that period, a lot can happen, a lot can change. So having to many expectations is not a good starting point, but keeping a close eye on the evolution is primordial. And if, at the end of the stay, the resident decides to stay in the country, there will still be a path to follow. One must realize that it is a long-term project.

Also good to know for these new Belgian cities is that Passa Porta, with its many years of experience, is available to the new coordinators to navigate questions and challenges in relation to this new engagement.

Nathalie Goethals is currently the coordinator for journalist, human rights activist, and schola Vafa Mehrareen, who is the current ICORN resident in Brussels. In Belgium, Leuven became the latest city to join ICORN, signing the membership agreement in March 2023 during the ICORN Network Meeting in Brussels.