With afghans in Nimes

From September 2009 to November 2010 : A year later… Testimony of a group of volunteers in Nîmes.

In September 2009, following the "clean-up" in Calais, 42 young Afghans were "transported" by night, handcuffed, to the Administrative Holding Centre in Nîmes. They were quickly freed following the intervention of the Juge des Libertés (judge who rules on the detention of persons) and the hearing of the case in Court. Some left the town and about twenty remained. 
Initially, they were accommodated in a parish hall in our area and had their meals at the Fraternité Protestante. Then they were sent to different places: some to the Protestant Fraternity church, sleeping on blankets on the floor, others to a house that had been given to the Diocese for the reception of women and children who had left the Holding Centre, still others spent a month in a Catholic Hostel and some in the cramped quarters of the CIMADE (an NGO that defends refugees). For a year they had their meals in the premises of the Protestant Fraternity. 
We felt challenged by this event which took place in our neighbourhood (the holding centre is near us), and this distress quickly heightened our awareness of the situation. Volunteers from various associations and charities offered their services one day a week: Secours Populaire, the food bank, Pain Partagé, Restos du Cœur, Aide Protestante Alimentaire, Protestant and Catholic volunteers – all this was to ensure there was a warm welcome and presence, see to the cleaning of the premises, do the shopping, accompany people to the doctor etc. The bread and other foodstuffs were provided by the various associations mentioned above and, very soon, the Afghans set up a rota to prepare the meals themselves. This accompaniment was quite difficult at first because of difficulties in understanding one another. A few words of English facilitated the dialogue and also the desire to help them without just doing things for them. The places for accommodation were quickly organised: the diocesan house, the Fraternity and the CIMADE; the meals were provided at the Fraternity and the diocesan house. 
An association of Afghans in Montpellier, "A.D.A.M.", composed of Afghans who had been in the town for many years, gave valuable psychological support, relaxation, translation, help in learning French. The network Education sans Frontières also provided considerable collaboration. The CIMADE, helped by a interpreter, accompanied them in their official request to the authorities for asylum. At the moment, they all have a residence permit for three months and this can be renewed, as well as an allowance of €300 per month (temporary food aid). Nevertheless, their future is still very uncertain – they have no activity "we eat, we sleep…". 
This action with the Afghans was co-ordinated by the Pastor of the Protestant Fraternity and the CIMADE for the practical organisation, the rota for the volunteers’ presence, the supervision of the arrival and distribution of foodstuffs in the premises – several details had to be clarified – and also required great availability on the part of the volunteers. In June, the volunteer teachers organised a period of evaluation of what had been learned (at the level of the initial diploma in French: DILF) so as to build up their file. 
Before the holidays a meal was organised in the courtyard of the Fraternity, bringing together all those who had accompanied the Afghans, each person bringing some food. There were 80 of us, whereas only 40 had been expected. It was a beautiful friendly evening with oriental background music and, in the course of the celebration, those who had taken the DILF exam received their diplomas and the Afghans, in their national costume, helped us to appreciate the dances of their country. It was a very important occasion for us, but also for them. 
Likewise, at the end of Ramadan, the Afghans invited all those who had accompanied them over the months to a meal; the Afghan dances brought extra colour to the afternoon. 
Before the summer, some orientations were adopted with a view to encouraging greater autonomy on the part of the Afghans: this was because of the fact that they have temporary residence papers, an allowance, and the fact that the Fraternity premises would be closed during August, the holiday period. The availability of various people meant that all went well during those summer months. 
At the beginning of September specific guidelines were outlined: the Protestant Fraternity needed to regain the use of its premises which had been made available for a year. Women and children leaving the Holding Centre needed to be received in the house which had initially been intended for such use, and also many persons without documents needed help. Some proposals were made to the Afghans: 5 of them could be received in the Cévennes region – a Protestant friend had made an apartment available for a year, the utility charges to be paid by the occupants; 5 others were received under the same conditions in Montpellier and the others will go to two apartments in Nîmes – they will have a housing allowance. They will need accompaniment for managing their budget and organising themselves. Some persons have volunteered to accompany these different groups. 
There had to be negotiation about the various destinations and before everybody was dispersed there was a big celebration for all, in the Protestant church because of the bad weather. During this gathering, three Afghans told us of their experience that the past year and were happy to tell us of the journey they had made during the year they had spent in Nîmes, this with considerable emotion and warm thanks. There was great joy in being together, all of us, in the very warm friendly atmosphere, with dishes from the different countries, oriental music and also some slides on a big screen that recalled their journey: Calais, the departure from there, the arrival at the Holding Centre etc. 
At the end of this action, which is not yet over, the Pastor proposed – to those who so wished – to participate in a group that would review this experience, which was not always easy, a group where people could express themselves and say in what way they felt changed, unsettled or perhaps enriched ! 
We appreciated this friendly ecumenical exchange: from it we learned to know the Protestants, to appreciate the Muslims and to discover real friends. Also, it made us more aware of the suffering linked to immigration and living in an illegal situation, of the painful and complex situation in Afghanistan; it led us to the service of Muslims who had been uprooted and to the discovery of their richness and their particularities. These numerous encounters enrich and unsettle us, leading us beyond our frontiers – not only geographic but also cultural, religious and personal ones by leading us to look at the reality of immigration and illegality. 
Sister Bernadette, with Jean-Pierre and Françoise, friends of the community
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