Interview with Jean-Paul Judson on Hêbê’s 10th anniversary

“Brussels hosts the biggest and most varied European community in the world. Attracted by the opportunities generated by the many institutions and organizations, young professionals come to Brussels as trainees with the desire to experience a truly European way of life”

Those were the first words of Jean-Paul Judson,  the Secretary-General of Hêbê, an organization celebrating 10 years of life.

Jean-Paul Judson
Jean-Paul Judson


When was Hêbê set up and why?

Hêbê was set up back in 2008, so this year we are celebrating our 10th anniversary! The association was created by a group of interns of the European Commission. When the internship ended, and all the projects stopped, 5 individuals set up Hêbê as a way to maintain their leisure activities and social networks in Brussels. The main projects were football and theatre, but from the beginning, there was also a desire to create a bridge between the Expats and local Brusseleers. It is easier said than done, but by setting up our projects sustainably in Brussels, we were convinced that it would be the best way to show our local commitment to the city.

Which audience do you aim to gather? Where do the people come from?

The natural target audience for Hêbê is the European expat community, commonly known as the EU bubble. There is such a diversity of nationalities and backgrounds in Brussels; it’s fascinating to bring all these people together to projects of common interest. Take B United, one of the football teams of the Hêbê League. They have a group of 11 players from 10 countries: Turkey, Belgium, Spain, Germany, England, Canada; Palestine, Romania, Greece, Portugal. That’s just one of the countless examples. That’s the basic spirit of Hêbê. It’s also a big advantage of being in Brussels: everything is possible, and that is why we changed our mission statement two years ago from “The Expat Network in Brussels” to “Making Brussels Yours”. This symbolizes our attachment to Brussels and our open call to anyone with project ideas to come and join our team of organizers.

Is it just about sport or do you also aim to create a large community of people?

We don’t have a formal membership structure. Hêbê is an association of volunteers, so our projects depend on the goodwill and availability of people. And then we have people simply taking part in the projects we offer. For many years we had a theatre project, which carried out over ten plays (including an opera, written and directed by an expat!). We also had debating, partying, traveling projects and an established partnership with Brussels Greeters which organizes a monthly Greet in the streets of Brussels. But it’s all about the people, and it’s true that in the football project, we have been successful in creating a team of volunteers that drive the league forwards. Football brings people together and offers fun, emotion, passion, dedication and regularity. About 700 people take part in the competition every weekend, of which 150 are girls – as the Hêbê League is not a typical football league. It is unique as it’s a mixed indoors football league, with two original rules: every team has to have a person from both sexes on the pitch at all times, and if the girl scores it counts double. We often joke about the fact that we now have the “babies of the Hêbê League” as there are more and more prams around the pitches, and babies or young children who come to watch their parents play at the weekend. That shows the strong sense of community in the league.

Which sort of sports event do you take part?

I joined Hêbê because of the football league, back in 2009. A friend of mine asked me to join his team, the Treehuggers, and one of my teammates, David Garlot, was the founder of Hêbê and the Hêbê League. I could see all the efforts he was putting into the organization of the project, so I decided to get involved, initially only in the football project, but I soon joined the Hêbê Board and became Secretary General of the association in 2013. I am in charge of developing the organization, setting up partnerships, creating opportunities. I really enjoy the freedom of being a volunteer. My pet project now is Hêbê Cool Runnings. This is a new project I launched two years ago, and we now have a group of 20 runners who train every Tuesday evening (Saturday mornings in the winter) with two professional coaches. The project is open to all levels of fitness, and the aim is to enter races in Brussels, Belgium and beyond. Last year, we raised over 1000€ for the Red Cross when we ran the 20km de Bruxelles, and we will register a team again this year.

Mixed football team – Hêbê League

What are your main achievements so far and which projects do you plan to implement?

For Hêbê as a whole, the Hêbê League is clearly our biggest achievement. It now represents a community of 44 teams, spread across 4 Divisions, maintaining a high level of fair play and community spirit inside an ever-growing, competitive, mixed and multicultural football league. It has grown into a mature and stable football championship in Brussels, and unique in the world thanks to its special rules. Our biggest pride is that one of the players used to play for the Women’s National Football team in Belgium – Sara Yüceil used to be a player of the Hêbê League (of the Treehuggers, in fact!). That strong link with female football in Belgium is something we are very proud of and maybe the most striking example of our mission to connect the EU bubble with Brussels and Belgium.

For the future, the main message I would like to leave here is that we have the financial resources and experience to support new project ideas in Brussels. The focus so far has been on sports, but we are ready to support passionate people in any field. The main criteria we consider for a project is the potential for creating a community and the regularity of the project (weekly, monthly, yearly).