“I learn resilience and the joy of living from refugees”



“The people were waiting,” says the Gospel of this third Sunday in Advent (read page 17). How do you live this period?

Véronique Albanel: It is a time of waiting and of hope. Waiting for men’s pain to decrease, as Albert Camus says (read box on page 13) ; hope that the Lord wipes away tears from all faces, as Isaiah prophesies (25: 8). If we take the issue of migration globally, it is hopeless. The only solution I see is to get involved with the most vulnerable. The next one is the one I’m approaching. Even though my action is small and looks like a drop of water, it gives meaning, energy, shared joy. And it has concrete effects.

What expectations do you see from the refugees you are accompanying?

GOES : They are waiting for a little peace and humanity. They were forced to leave their homes. To get here, they took a tragic and formidable path. They fear being rejected again because they encounter immense difficulties with us, and sometimes contempt or hatred. At JRS France we see people who are eager to integrate and who go to great lengths to learn our language. In 2020, we provided an average of three hours of French lessons per week to 181 students. Their desire for integration always impresses me.

And what expectation do you feel among the French?

GOES : How can we not understand the need of the French to be reassured in the face of the various crises we are going through (health, climate, migration, etc.)? Some feel very insecure or feel threatened in their identity. But can we live by closing ourselves off from others?

Does the theme of the “great replacement” express this fear?

GOES : Yes. It seems important to me to remember that this expression, used by the writer Renaud Camus, is based on the observation of a “change of people”, wanted and orchestrated by so-called “replacists”: the UN and the European Union. By playing on the fear of the so-called “native” French and by making outrageous amalgamations, the myth of the “great replacement” feeds a confrontation deemed fatal between “good” Europeans, whites and Christians, and “bad” foreigners, of color and Muslims. But can we really subscribe to such a caricature? It is absolutely not the one, in any case, that we experience in our reception.

What are the consequences of this vision?

GOES : The temptation is to fantasize about a reality that pushes you to isolate yourself, to confine your heart and your mind. This posture of withdrawal and rejection can only engender sadness, depression, unhappiness and, ultimately, new violence, thus fueling an infernal cycle. We therefore see two opposing visions of identity. One is closed on itself: ” I amFrench “, I have nothing to learn, nor to discover from anyone. The second, which I will call open identity, supposes meeting the other, trust. This identity is not given straight away, it has to be built together.

Taking a first step abroad is not easy …

GOES : Neither for some, nor for others for that matter. Foreigners fear that they will not be able to adapt to our rules of life (meals, culture) necessary to integrate. Within the framework of JRS Welcome, the families who welcome an asylum seeker or a refugee in their homes (in 2020, 854 families, at least once) also face the fears of foreigners that circulate in our society: that I risk being robbed, assaulted? What will my neighbors say? But they go beyond them to experience the simple and fruitful joy of the encounter.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, a question comes up three times: “What must we do?” How does it resonate with you?

GOES : First of all, I’m not sure that many people think of it in these terms… Faced with the issue of migration, I should beware of two extremes. I recognize, on the one hand, that I am not all-powerful and that it is only within the framework of an association that I can find the right path; and, faced with the magnitude of the task, I also realize that I am not totally helpless. Because I am convinced: acting with others moves the lines. But behind the ” what do we have to do ? “, I also see looming another question: “Who can we follow? “, in other words in whom can we place our trust?

What answer do you provide?

GOES : We need someone who is credible, reliable, who shows us the way, who makes his words consistent with his actions. I deeply believe that Christ accompanies us in our meetings, he who went out to meet everyone, without prejudging the condition, the environment, the profession, the faith of his interlocutors. To come back to John the Baptist, I like his answer which adapts to each group that comes to see him. He offers them very concrete actions. To tax collectors, do not steal; to the soldiers, be satisfied with their pay without abusing the situation, etc. God does not ask us for the impossible, he invites us to do something within our reach.

What type of gesture is it?

GOES : The one that seems most affordable to us. At JRS, you can give French lessons or participate in conversation workshops; support asylum seekers in their administrative and legal procedures towards employment; participate in cultural activities together. During this meeting, we learn to receive from the other. There is reciprocity. We are not trying to play nice souls. We live the joy of the meeting, being well aware of our limits.

Our limits?

GOES : Yes. What, for me, is adjusted? What is not? How far to go in reception? At first, I didn’t really know how to welcome; over time I learned to feel free and say what was important to me, such as respecting the evening hours to come home. It is from the different reception experiences that JRS Welcome has developed a thoughtful and reasonable framework, which we offer to exiles and families. This allows everyone to be both confident and vigilant.

What does this framework provide?

GOES : Prepare this welcome well upstream by asking, for example, families for the approval of their children. From the outset, we remind everyone of this framework: the predefined and limited duration of four to six weeks, the nature and conditions of a benevolent and reciprocal commitment. We also anticipate possible abuses, whether relational, religious or ideological.

What is most difficult about this reception?

GOES : Families and those accompanying them necessarily attach themselves to the person they meet. When the latter obtains refugee status, it is joy and celebration, but when she is rejected, it is sadness and dismay. And it is dramatic for the exiled person who has started to put down his bags, to forge links, to envision a new life … Some families would like to do more, even if it means stepping outside the box. Here again, we must remember the limits of our action.

And you, what difficulty did you encounter?

GOES : At first, I took a long time to give my keys to the person I was hosting, then I grew in confidence. More recently, my desire to welcome came up against painful circumstances. The reception of the foreigner, we lived it for more than ten years, in family, with my husband. He died a little over two years ago. It was a collapse. It seemed unthinkable to me to welcome again: the joy, I thought, came from our family happiness and I could no longer assume alone the strength to open my door. I ended up going through the torpor that had seized me. In June, I hosted Shadi, an Iranian refugee. I am still in touch with her. With her, I rediscovered the joy of meeting. I learn from refugees simplicity, joie de vivre and resilience.

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