French village opens its doors and its heart to African refugees
On a winter’s day, a group of refugees newly arrived from Africa walks through the falling snow in a village in eastern France.
Some of the 800 residents of the peaceful Alsatian commune of Thal-Marmoutier, moved by their ordeal, gather to welcome them and help them take their first steps towards a new life.
For the next four months the 56 women, men and children will be hosted by Franciscan nuns in their convent as a French non-profit organization, France Horizon, helps them put down roots.
Twenty-five – from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan – had been stranded and detained in Libya, and were evacuated to Niger by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. There they joined others from the Central African Republic, Mali and Nigeria and all were flown to France for resettlement.
The mayor of Thal-Marmoutier, Jean-Claude Distel, said the operation had gone smoothly. “The refugees have appreciated the welcome they received from the residents and, for our part, we are glad we were able to make a small contribution to their resettlement and provide them with all they need to integrate into the life of the nation.”
Here are the stories of some of those involved.
Abel rushes from one part of the convent to the other all day long, taking care of everything from arranging medical appointments and providing soap to driving people to sports training.
He is the France Horizon official in charge of the refugees’ reception and accommodation in the village.
Abdel lives temporarily in the convent. “It's very important for me to live here to make sure everything goes well in the convent and in the village, and to help with acceptance,” he says.
A clinical psychologist, he is passionate about assisting people in difficult circumstances, including asylum-seekers. “Over time, we realize that the people we welcome are people who have experienced atrocities," he says.
When the group arrived in Thal-Marmoutier, Abdel and his team of seven organized activities, such as cooking workshops and yoga classes, with other local government organizations.
Today, a medical team working with Strasbourg University Hospital provides health checks for the refugees, under Abdel’s supervision. The new residents take it in turns to see the doctor and make sure they are fit and well.
Abdel works on raising residents’ awareness of the refugees’ circumstances. “I am satisfied and proud to welcome and reassure the refugees and the villagers and explain to them that we shouldn’t have prejudices or stigmatize people we don’t know,” he says.
The primary school teacher
Outside the convent’s schoolroom, the strains of the traditional song “Alouette” can be heard. For most of the pupils, the words are the first they have ever sung in French.
The children sit on the floor while the teacher stand in the middle and mouths the words. This class is a springboard to enrolment in a public class.
“These are just delightful students,” says the teacher, Sylviane. “They are motivated students who really want to learn. They give their all to learn.
“I realize that I myself would have a lot of trouble reproducing a sound in their language or remembering it. I’m actually quite impressed.”
The French teacher
The adult refugees spend most of their day in intensive French classes organized by the French Office of Immigration and Integration. The convent's refectory is used as a classroom after meals.
Mohammed, the French teacher, is preparing them for life in France. He teaches them how to introduce themselves, talk about where they come from and their family circumstances and tells them how to find their way around and read street signs.
“We introduce them to life in France, public transport, how to read a map at a bus stop... the small things of everyday life,” says Mohammed.
The French classes also teach the newcomers about cultural differences, how life works in France, how elections are organized, the separation of powers and the diversity of French society.
“Some were hesitant at first, but it was fine in the end when things were properly explained to them,” he says.
The cultural coordinator
No one understands the refugees’ circumstances better than Nicolas, a refugee himself, and a social and educational coordinator with France Horizon.
He has been a devoted humanitarian since he helped distributed food to Rwandan refugees seeking refuge in his home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“It gives me great pleasure to help others to make progress,” he says. “That’s what I enjoy most in life.”
Nicolas fled the DRC because of the instability there and sought political asylum in France, where his brother lives. He became a French citizen in 2009.
“Leaving Africa and ending up here is like moving from one planet to the other,” he says. “These refugees have never seen snow and have never lived in Europe.”
Nicolas is studying for a doctorate in education. “For refugees like us ... training and education is the only way to move forward.”
Pierre and Denise live across the road from the convent and, at first, they were unsure about the arrival of the refugees. However, experience quickly proved that their fears were unfounded and now they want to show that the residents can play a part in welcoming and integrating the refugees.
The first time they met their new neighbours, they said hello and gave the children sweets. “Everything has gone well since then,” says Pierre.
“We should take them shopping, take them on a tour of the country,” says Denise, his wife.
For Pierre, the children are the key to integration, and it would better if the youngest refugee children were put in nursery with the children of the village.
Now, the couple are sorry the refugees will be leaving soon. “They are neighbors to me,” says Pierre. “I think the time they get to spend here isn’t long enough.”.
Twice a week, Farida, a 23-year-old Ethiopian, trains in the stadium at Saverne, some 10 kilometres from Thal-Marmoutier. Undeterred by rain or snow, she is committed to achieving her dream of becoming an athletics champion.
"When I was younger, I would run to school,” she says, as she does stretching exercises on the running track. “Then I went walking to the big city to escape my village's problems, and I finally got here."
A former gym teacher spotted her as she was running and decided to offer her a hand. They meet on Tuesday afternoons and, although they cannot speak each other’s language, their passion for sport has brought them together.
"We once trained after it snowed,” she says. “It was not a problem, we did not feel the cold because we had warmed up properly.
"In the future I want to be a great athlete and move forward. I want to succeed in this new country and in my country too.”