Taizé, France: community of hospitality

20 December 2016

(Taizé), 21 December 2016 – The Taizé community in France welcomed 11 refugees from Sudan and Afghanistan at the beginning of November 2015. Here is first-hand account by one of the residents, recalling their arrival and subsequent life in the village.

First encounters

Through the dark, thick fog two lights appeared. It was the bus. Through the windows we saw young men covered in their blankets with frightened, 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 had been 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 other’s eyes, we could greet each other and introduce ourselves, shake hands… The ice was broken. 

They were no longer the mass crowd seen on television, the nameless refugees on the road, but they became Ibrahim, Nasir, Ahmed, Murtada, Adam, Nemat, Mouhialdin, Hassan and AbdelKarim, AbouBakher, Sultan, Mohamed and Rafiol. 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. That first evening will stay in our memories forever. One of them tells us today that it was the sweet taste of hot chocolate, the first one of his life, that left a lasting impression on 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 felt respected and trusted. 

Refugee by trial

Later, we help them to prepare for their asylum interviews. After the trauma of their long journeys they have to go back once again to 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 papers. Since 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 were moving from one camp to another inside their countries so much in the last couple of years that it is very difficult to trace their journey in detail. But the authorities ask for exact dates, locations, and 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?

Right after their arrival we contacted an imam friend from Mâcon, a large city nearby . He and his local Muslim community welcomed our friends. This collaboration opened new horizons for all of us. 

After calling on members of the local community to take part and help, 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, people who would never have had the chance to meet and work together, people who had one thing in common, their humanity. Some volunteered to teach French, others for administrative or medical help. Some decided to do sports with the refugees (running, cycling, football); some wanted to show them the region or invite them for meals.

During the time when refugees have no official papers, they have no right to work in France. 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 with the welcome of young people in Taizé.

As soon as they had their papers, their plans for the future became more real.

Finding work

We managed to find local artisans, builders, painters, plumbers, farmers, and electricians who accepted to take them for a two-week-long practical internship. This project helps them to see more clearly the rhythm of a working day in Europe and what possible interests and talents they have that they can develop in the future. For the youngest ones who would like to study, we found a course that will help them to get closer to their dream of obtaining a diploma. 

Often people say to us: ‘The refugees in Taizé are lucky’. Somebody even told me once ‘They hit the jackpot!’ I was troubled and angry hearing this. I always answer to these remarks that we are the ones who 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 wire, when we closed our eyes at the flow of suffering people at our doors. 

One of our refugee friends 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.’

Overcoming fear

Recent terrorist attacks in Europe have led the media, politicians and ordinary citizens to make unthinking conclusions, mixing up the problems of terrorism and migration. The biggest fear of our refugee friends is that people will be afraid of them. They keep on repeating: we are Muslims, we seek peace, terrorism is not Islam. After the horrible murder of the 86-year-old priest, Father Jacques Hamel, our friends were weeping together with us. The next day one of them spoke in the church of Taizé in front of two 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."

About the author

Orsi Hardi was born and raised in Hungary, and since 1999 she lives in Taizé, France. Orsi is a trained psycho-pedagogue. She is an elected member of the village council. 

Background information

The Taizé Community is an ecumenical monastic community in Taizé, Burgundy, France. It is composed of about one hundred brothers, from Catholic and Protestant traditions, who originate from about thirty countries across the world. Young people from around the world make pilgrimages to Taizé each year.

This testimony was collected as part of the ‘I Get You’ campaign. A refugee testimony from Taizé can also be found here.

And then something happened. We could look at each other, look into each other’s eyes, we could greet each other and introduce ourselves, shake hands… The ice was broken.