Refugees in Taizé. To restore human dignity
As Hungarian citizens living in France we try to follow as closely as possible the events of our country. Our families and friends stay very close to us. As everybody else we were deeply shocked by the images seen in the different media about the tens of thousands of refugees crossing the Mediteranean sea in terrible conditions, trying to enter Europe seeking peace, security and a better life. We were speechless when we saw the flow of refugees in the streets and squares of Budapest.
Families with children, women and men of all generations were stranded in Hungary, in the ‘Keleti’ railway station. We couldn’t sit still and watch. We tried to be present in Hungary where the people were at that time : At the Serbian border, at the railway stations or in parks. Giving out food and blankets was important but we realised that the most important thing we could give was above all our time and our attention. People were grateful for material aid but they were far more touched when somebody took time to sit down to talk and listen to them. The images of the flow of refugees became for us the flow of individual stories, faces, names, lives.
Ferenc grew up in Algeria, he had the chance to live in that very special country for eight years. It was always natural for us to have Muslim friends, friends from far away and from very different cultures and backgrounds. We had the chance of having the experience of deep and longterm relationships with people from Arabic countries or from the middle-East. We’ve learned already a long time ago some evident facts : that not all Arabs are Muslims, that not all Muslims are Arabs, that the biggest Muslim country in the world is Indonesia, that Islam has various faces just like Christianity and that we share a wonderful common treasure with the three monotheistic religions.
We were tourmented and questioned ourselves constantly about what we should do? What to do more? How to do it?
The answer came very fast… In autumn 2015 the French governement decided to close the unofficial refugee camp called ‘the Jungle’ in Calais. At that time about 6-7000 people were stranded there waiting to cross the Chanel and enter the UK. In October a call arrived to Taizé from the French authorities asking if the Community was ready to welcome refugees from Calais. The brothers said yes without hesitation. We felt immediately that if this welcome was becoming reality we’d like to be part of it. Since the 2nd World War the welcome of refugees in Taizé was a living reality, Jews, German war prisoners, orphans after the war, victims of wars and conflicts from Laos, from the Balkan and from Rwanda. More recently an Irakian Christian family who were refugees in Jordan found a new life with their little daughter in Taizé. One year ago a second Irakian Christian family with two little boys arrived directly from Mossul, Irak. The face of our little village was already exceptionally colorful.
But this time we felt that something new was beginning. The mayor of the village was informed and agreed to do his best to help for this welcome. Together with a few other members of the village council we went from house to house explaining to the inhabitants the arrival of 13 refugees from Calais, most probably men and most probably Muslims. We had no further information on who they were, where they were from, if they were going to be men, women or families. But seeing the situation at that time we knew that even those who were ready to welcome ‘prefer’ families or women, if possible Christians but it seemed more difficult to find places for welcoming young, single men. In Taizé it seemed evident that we should not choose, we will welcome those who are sent to us,no matter who they are.
.On November the 5th the evening was cold, foggy and humid. We were standing in the bus station waiting, struggling with our questions, fears and hopes. Through the dark, thick fog two lights appeared. That was the bus. Through the windows we saw young men covered in their blankets with frightend, tired eyes. The door of the bus opened and nobody wanted to get off… They had no idea where they were, who we were what this strange place was or where they were brought. According to our ‘traditional’ Taizé welcome we prepared tea, hot chocolate, cookies and biscuits. We all felt that we had to make the first step and get on the bus. And then something happened. We could look at each other, look into each others eyes, we could greet each other and introduce ourselves, shake hands… The ice was broken.
They were not anymore the mass crowd seen on televison, the faceless flow of refugees, the nameless migrants on the road but they became Ibrahim, Nasir, Ahmed, Murtada, Adam, Nemat, Mouhialdin and AbdelKarim, AbouBakher, Sultan, Mohamed, Rafiol from Sudan and Afghanistan. The youngest of them was 19 and the oldest was 38.
Slowly everybody got off the bus with empty hands, with a little plastic bag or a blanket. And at that very moment we all started a new page of our lives. This first evening will stay in our memories forever. One of them tells us today that it’s the sweet taste of hot chocolate, the first one of his life, that marked him. For others it was our smile. But later on all of them told us that above all the way we looked at them was the most important. They could feel our respect and trust.
The house that the community could offer to our new friends is located in the middle of the village, right in front of the little Roman church. It is not big but we tried to make it as welcoming as possible, with a common room for the meals, with simple two-beded rooms. We also prepared one of the rooms for the prayers, with carpets on the floor orientated towards Mecca and a Coran. We thought if they don’tnot need it we could still turn it into a bedroom. Entering their new home tears started to flow. They discovered that they were going to sleep on a bed with clean bedsheets, in a house with water and electricity, with tables and chairs for eating together, with decorations on the walls prepared specially for them and where there’s a little ‘mosque’ that was made for them. All of this was far beyond their expectations.
From the very first day we decided that we were going to eat together every day. Every midday our family and in the evenings a brother of the community. We thought that common meals could give a structure to their lives and days. During the next days we immediately started the French lessons. Thanks to our friends from the region we found enough volunteer teachers to offer them 4 lessons a week. The first few days gave them the opportunity to rest, to eat, to wash clothes. A friend of us who is a doctor accepted to come and see those who needed a check up. And slowly, very slowly we started to get to know each other. Day by day we learned more and more from each other. And there was, and still is, so much to learn. After some time we felt that there was not only respect between us but that trust and friendship got more and more space in our lives.
The time had arrived very quickly to start all the administrative procedures together with the local authorities that were instructed by the state to take care of the refugees arriving from Calais. At that point we didn’t know yet that we were entering a new, unknown jungle. After 10 months now we start to see more clearly in that frightening jungle and we see better how to fight ourselves through it. But beside the complicated laws and rules the most difficult part of the last months was to get to know in details the painful stories of our friends. All asylum seekers should write and tell their stories in details. The difficulties of the task are beyond imagination . After the traumatism of their long journey they have to dig themselves again into the most difficult details of their stories: the loss of their loved ones, violence, torture, prison, hunger, constant fear, slavery, humiliation…. At the same time they all know that this story is the way to get asylum in Europe. We spent hours and hours together listening, writing, asking questions and trying to understand. Most of our friends had no date of birth or any official paper. As there is no functioning state in Darfur, Sudan there are no papers to be delivered to their citizens. Most of them came from small villages that are not even on a map. They’ve been moving from one camp to the other inside their countries so much in the last couple of years that it’s very difficult to trace their journey in details. But the authorities ask for exact dates, locations, names. How to convince young men to tell the horrors of physical humiliation, torture and abuse to us, their new friends and to the social workers and officers of the migration office ?
We were trying to listen with respect and compassion. To respect their dignity I as a woman stayed out from this part of the process and let Ferenc and brother David, brother Hervé, listen to the stories and write them down.
.One by one they were called for their most crucial ‘rendez-vous’ in Paris. We decided to accompany them every time. According to the statistics 1 or 2 out of the group should have been accepted as a refugee and the others deported with a refusal. We are still waiting for a response for two of them but all the others received a positive answer.
Many people are asking around us ‘And what now ?’ We are not naive, we know that the future is not going to be easy. But we are trying to develop some elements and projects that seem to work:
– We contacted right after their arrival an imam friend from the next big city. He and his local muslim community welcomed our friends. Our collaboration opened new horizons for all of us. We discovered a peaceful, open community of muslim belivers and we often visit each other.
– We make the learning of French a priority in their daily lives. We never stop repeating and explaining the importance of knowing the language. We managed to set up a system of French lessons four times a week.
– We rely on our friends in the region. We were astonished by the number of people from different backgrounds who showed up. We organised several meetings to coordinate the actions of all the volunteers. We led meetings where there were over 60 people. I saw sitting next to each other young anarchists with old ladies from the Caritas, Christians with atheists, people from all kinds of backgrounds. People who would never have had the chance to meet and work together, people who had one thing in common, their humanity. Some volunteered for teaching French, others for adimistrative or medical help, some decided to do sports with them (running, cycling, football), some wanted to show them the region or invite them for meals, others said ‘we don’t know what to do but we want to do something’.
All these meetings and this new collaboration reassured me in my faith in humanity. I refuse to accept the massive negative image that the media are showing. We had the chance to see a different face of humanity.
– From the begining we were trying to make our new friends responsible for their environement. We set up a ‘working list’ for the housework. I was a bit worried how young men living together from Sudan and Afghanistan will be able to keep the house clean, to respect the European hygenic rules. My worries were useless. The house is cleaned twice a day, the washing up is propely done, clothes are washed and ironed with a very special care.
– We decided to find for each of our refugee friend a local family who can be a closer relationship for them outside of Taizé. In our daily life they started to consider us very warmly as their new family. Brother David, Mama Orsi, Oncle Ferenc has a special meaning for them. But we have to be present equally for the whole group. We became a very big family. As every human being they need privileged human relationships. The families we found respond to this desire to be considered important, to be looked at as a unique individual. They visit their tutor family once a week for a meal, for a walk or for any occasion that the family would like to share with them.
– During the time when they had no official papers, they had no right to work. But very quickly they expressed their desire to do something, to be useful, not to stay inactive. So for all of them, we found some voluntary work in the village or around the welcome of young people in Taizé. It was a wonderful experience for them and for all those working with them. As soon as they had their papers the plans for the future became more real. As their stories and previous lives are very different their future will be very different too. Many of them were shepherds or farmers, only a few of them had the chance to go to school and have any knid of training. How to deal with all that in a European context? How to help them to see what their possibilities are? How to adjust their dreams to the reality in a pragmatical way without killing their dreams? We managed to find local artisans, builders, painters, plumbers, farmers, electricians who accepted to take them for a two week long stage (practical internship). This project helps them to see more clearly the rythm of a working day in Europe and what possible interests and talents they have for the future. For the youngest who would like to study we found a course that will help him to get closer to their dream of obtaining a diploma. A few of them are working already on a local farm picking fruits. An other one started a working experience in a factory. The challenge is big but we have hope that slowly their integration through work will be possible.
.Often people say to us : ‘The refugees in Taizé are lucky’. Somebody even told me once ‘They got the jackpot !’ I was troubled and angry hearing this. They are everything but lucky. They would have been lucky if there would not have been war in their country, if they would not have lost their parents, brothers and sisters, if they could have stayed in their country, if they didn’t know slavery, if they would not have had to cross the Mediterranean sea in a plastic boat, if they would not have seen their friends drowning in the sea … if they would have been born in a better world.
I always answer to these ramarks that we are lucky to be able to welcome them. They give us the chance to find our humanity that we lost when our countries closed their borders with barbed wires, when we closed our eyes in front of the flow of suffering people at our doors. They allow us to give life to the words of the Gospel (Mt 25,35-36) : ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
We have let our fear overcome our humanity. I was only 4 years old in 1978 October 22 when John Paul II was elected pope and we heard him speak for the first time. Later in my life I listen to this speech often. How many times did he repeat in his speech ‘Non abbiate paura !’ ‘Don’t be afraid !’?
One of our refugee friend told us : ‘In Sudan they didn’t treat us well, we had no choice, we had to leave. During our journey and in Calais we were treated like animals, so we became like animals. Here we are treated as human beings so we became human beings again. You gave us back our dignity.’
.Recent events of terrorist attacks pushed the media, politicians and ordinary citizens to make unreflected conclusions mixing up the problems of terrorism and migration. The biggest fear of our refugees is that people would be afraid of them. They keep on repeating we are muslims, we are seeking peace, terrorism is not Islam. After the recent horrible murder of an 86 years old father Jacques Hamel our friends were crying together with us. The next day one of them spoke in the church of Taizé in front 2 thousand young people:
‘My name is Ibrahim, I’m 27 and I come from Darfur, Sudan. At home there has been an armed conflict since 2003, which continues to cause many victims. I saw my grandfather killed, and my older brother. During a rebel attack, my father and five of my sisters disappeared. With my mother, I was able to run away to a refugee camp.
In 2013 the rebels looked for me and I had to leave for Libya. I tried to settle there, but life was impossible. So last year, I took a boat and came to Europe. I crossed Italy, went through Calais, and I was welcomed at Taizé.
In Europe many people are afraid of the refugees. Sometimes for economic reasons, sometimes because of fears that terrorists are hiding among them. I too am afraid of terrorists; I suffered a lot because of the violence in my country. But as a Muslim, I believe we must build peace. The prophet asks us to be merciful to the world; he sends us to live together and not to kill people. That is not religion!
In Sudan I did not know any Christians. But at Taizé a Christian community has made me feel very welcome. I see that we pray in different ways, but all of us believe that God wants peace. I trust that we can live together in peace and thus give a message to the world. The world needs our witness.’