The story of the refugee centre, set up with great haste at the beginning of September 2015, must start with the mention of a remarkable man – Bernard Devert – and the association (Habitat et Humanisme) that he set up ~ 30 years ago.
After a successful career in the real estate business, Bernard became ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church at the age of 40 and turned his professional skills to the benefit of people in difficulty.
He founded Habitat et Humanisme (H&H) with his own money to find and make habitable lodgings for the homeless. Over the years, H&H has raised significant funds via charitable donations for its projects.
H&H has become a flagship for a network (300+ employees + > 3,000 volunteers) of local associations around France and Belgium dedicated to finding a roof for the destitute. Bernard is the driving force behind the refugee centre at Bonnelles in Les Yvelines.
Prior to the refugee crisis exploding this summer, H&H had identified the Monastère des Orantès de l’Assomption Orantes at Bonnelles as a promising location to develop accommodation for the needy. The monastery housed nuns for a long time but was virtually empty and is in need of significant renovation.
The sudden influx of refugees fleeing the conflicts in the Middle East accelerated the project and H&H purchased the monastery only a couple of weeks before the first group of refugees arrived – at the behest of the French Government and, more specifically, the Préfet des Yvelines.
Everything happened in a rush at the beginning of September – with 79 refugees bused from Germany to Bonnelles. Only about half-a-dozen spoke English and all didn’t speak any French. Clearly, one of the priorities has been a crash course in French language and a volunteer team of French teachers from around Les Yvelines has been active most days – using the services of translators (Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, Farsi ….).
Since rapid integration into French communities around France is the goal for the refugees once they leave Bonnelles, there is a clear necessity for personal / professional profiles to be created for each person (a kind of CV). This is where some members of LCYH have been able to help – by making regular visits to Bonnelles to meet with individual refugees (at least 2-3 times) to win their confidence and help them – via the patient translators – to describe their academic and professional achievements and their aspirations for a new life France.
It has been a humbling experience to meet people in close quarter who have suffered a sudden rupture with those family members still alive, who have experienced a difficult and sometimes dangerous journey to Western Europe, and who have arrived in a country where they don’t speak a word of the language. Somewhat poignantly, the interviews have taken place in the small, empty cells that were allocated to the nuns in past years.
Here is a group of people in need of help who are now being sent from the Bonnelles reception centre to towns around France.
We are trying to help them integrate into their new communities with the personal / professional profiles translated and presented like a CV.
However, it is only a small piece of a much larger project of integration.
I hope that Lions Clubs in all the receiving towns can continue the support of the civic authorities to make the refugees feel welcome and wanted.
Life will not be easy for them – so Lions should want to look out for them
Media links below on the refugee story at Bonnelles
Le Parisien 11 September 2015
Les Nouvelles 9 September 2015
Le Parisien 9 September 2015