This article was originally published in English
Immigrants “arrive and do not speak French; they have no friends, no money, no relationships… It is essential to help them integrate,” a Christian volunteer told Euronews.
“Migration must be a free choice.”
This will be Pope Francis’ message for the 109th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, on Sunday, September 24.
It comes at a delicate time, with the arrival of more than 12,000 migrants in one week to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Migration will be a prominent topic of the Pope’s visit to Marseille, France’s second largest city.
The Pontiff will visit the city on Saturday, September 23, on the occasion of the “Mediterranean Meetings”, an event organized by the Italian Episcopal Conference that aims to bring together some 70 bishops from all shores of the Mediterranean.
Two years ago, Pope Francis described the Mediterranean Sea as “Europe’s greatest cemetery”, sending a clear message to the European Union that more must be done to save lives in the Mediterranean.
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin is not on the same wavelength. This week he said that France “will not welcome immigrants coming from Lampedusa.”
A Marseille priest helps unaccompanied minors
In Marseille, parishes such as Saint-Ferréol, located on a busy corner of the southern city’s Vieux-Port, have committed to welcoming migrants.
Its rector was moved to act when young migrants occupied his sanctuary.
The priest was preparing for mass on November 21, 2017 when a group of young people gathered at the church.
“They wanted to spend the night here,” Steves Babooram tells Euronews. “We reached an agreement and they stayed. But then they didn’t want to leave.”
The group wanted to make themselves heard because their situation was not adequate, explains the priest.
The young people hoped to be granted the status of “unaccompanied minors,” he continued.
With this recognition they would have the right to receive care from the French State, regardless of their nationality or social situation. They will be housed, trained and helped to access in-demand jobs.
Fill the gaps
This experience led him to found Groupe Raphaël, an association of volunteers who help immigrants.
“We offer educational support, but above all human support,” Christian de Bénazé, coordinator of the Raphaël Group, explains to Euronews.
“We do not replace State services, we cannot accommodate them, but we can fill the gaps.”
The association takes care of around fifty minors, offering them recreational and cultural activities and helping with their integration.
Most of them are between 16 and 17 years old and are Muslims, which makes no difference to the Christian volunteers.
“The question is: how do we help them?” says Bénazé.
“They arrive and do not speak French. (They have no friends, no money, no relationships… It is essential to help them integrate.”
Regain confidence and pride
Another association, Actavista, has the same conviction. Employs people in precarious situations to work on restoration projects.
From Fort Entrecasteaux (Marseille) to Montmajour Abbey, passing through Chambord Castle, Actavista helps restore numerous protected monuments and employs 500 people a year.
More than a third of employees are immigrants.
“The more difficult their situation is, the more important it is to give them a good job. Restoring historic buildings helps them rebuild their lives,” Pâquerette Demotes, general director of Actavista, explains to Euronews.
“It’s a stepping stone to employment, but we don’t want to keep them for too long. Our role is… to help them get back into the habit of working.”
Trained in the restoration of heritage monuments, they can “stay for 9 to 10 months and leave as soon as they find work,” explains Demotes.
“Many go on to work in the construction sector, while others find other paths. The main objective is to help them find work,” he adds.
‘The Mediterranean is a link’
The bishops gathered in Marseille share the same sentiment: It is vital to welcome immigrants.
Cardinal Cristóbal López, archbishop of Rabat (Morocco), believes that “the Mediterranean is a link”, not a border.
“The role of the Church is not only to help immigrants, but also to reform mentalities,” says Rafic Nahra, archbishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
“Culture can only enrich people, but we have to take care of the natives who fear losing their identity and changing people’s attitudes,” he says.
“Europe cannot follow a purely repressive policy,” added López, “we cannot close everything. We need a way in, otherwise things will explode,” he concludes.
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