The war in Syria has ravaged people’s lives for the last five years, bringing with it an exodus of millions of people who are fleeing, most of whom are now either stuck in overcrowded and under-served refugee camps in neighbouring countries or displaced inside Syria. Many have seen the tragic images of families risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean or walk into Europe. Some local readers may not know that there are Syrian families living right here in the Languedoc. A group of more than 40 Syrian refugees, including 14 children, have made their way to Béziers over the past few months. They have travelled from Syria overland, over the space of many months (in some cases years), crossing Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Spain by land, and then on to southern France.
In a unique crossing of cultures and languages, they recently have come into contact with another group of “foreigners” to the region, members of the English speaking community seeking to lend a hand.
Languedoc: Solidarité avec les Réfugiés/Solidarity with Refugees (LSR) was launched as the result of a small group of individuals’ frustration and dismay with the on-going refugee crisis across Europe. In mid-September of this year Natasha Freidus, an American living in Roujan, posted in an English speaking Facebook group. “Like many of you I’ve been deeply saddened about the intensifying refugee crisis. I’m interested to learn about solidarity efforts that you know of, both online or locally”. 39 comments and a few days later, a group of 10 concerned individuals came together in a sunny courtyard in in Nezignan L’Eveque to consider how they might best make a contribution.
At the time, the group’s attention was concentrated on the broader refugee/immigrant crisis across Europe and on the “Jungle” at Calais. Yet, its focus soon became much closer to home as members learned of the families in Béziers, from a woman in Roujan who attends the local mosque.
On learning that there was very limited support for the refugees from local associations, the newly formed group scrambled to launch its own campaign to support these refugee neighbours. Members quickly realised that these families were on their own until they are eligible for some government assistance. The group tapped into English-speaking networks and French friends to form a food and financial assistance program, responding to the new arrivals’ specific immediate needs.
From the outset, LSR’s members were determined that they would be bilingual and bicultural. This proved challenging, but it was agreed that it would be essential to long-term sustainability. Ms. Freidus explained, “We knew from the outset we wanted to be thinking broader than immediate humanitarian aid. We are currently looking at ways to mentor and support refugees as they resettle in the area as well as how to increase awareness of the crisis.”
While many similar groups have formed throughout Europe, a unique aspect of LSR is the group’s direct contact with the Syrian families. Group leaders met Naima El Fallal early on in their formation. Naima is a Moroccan immigrant who had been helping the families extensively over the past few months. On the 7th of October, LSR hosted a meeting for concerned individuals to meet Naima, who brought two carloads of members of the Syrian families to the Salle du Peuple in Roujan.
Naima explained how the families arrived here without resources and without prospects for improving their situation. Several were sleeping rough in the train station for days before they were able to “squat” in several abandoned apartments. But they still lacked heat, food, clothing, health care, access to schools, and the legal right to any benefits from the French government. Throughout the evening, attendees from over ten countries had a chance to hear directly from the Syrians, and they collectively brainstormed ways to offer support.
Participants were particularly moved when one gentleman asked the Syrian representatives directly, “What would you like? How can we help?” And one young man, a dentistry student before he fled his home town of Homs responded, “We are very grateful for the food, but we would love to have a little pocket money if we want to take a bus into the centre or buy a coffee.” This simple request was clearly difficult for the man to make, but it drove home for many the extent of dependence these families are facing.
Volunteers from all walks of life have accomplished much for these refugees in a short space of time. Beyond providing for the immediate food, clothing and basic furnishings requirements, they have also helped organise necessary vaccinations, and begun to work on school enrolment for the children, and French lessons for the adults. They have arranged for emergency dental care for one of the children and helped to facilitate the processing of their asylum applications with the local authorities. Two of the group’s volunteers even accompanied the first family up to Alés after they were granted government housing when their application was officially accepted into the system.
All of this has been accomplished by volunteers who came together through a Facebook group and with direct contact with other networks. Gary Kilmer, one of the original members of the group, notes that, “The Facebook group has been an effective way of expanding the group’s network throughout the region, and recruiting more people to take part in its activities. More than 300 group members are now able to track the activities of the group and find the areas in which they would most like to participate.”
As well as a very substantial amount of food, clothing and household goods that have been donated by members of the community, the group has raised more than € 3,500 through local donations and a crowd-funding account.
But there is much more work to be done. Each week more refugee families are arriving in Beziers and other parts of Languedoc. These new arrivals, and those who are already here need continuing support while their asylum applications work their way through the system.
Here’s how you can help:
● Contribute food, or serve as a food collection centre: LSR is currently the only group consistently delivering food and assistance to these families. Volunteers are needed to provide basic food supplies through collection centres that have been established around the region.
● Contribute financially: Cash donations are also needed to provide funding for items that are not easily donated (for example meat, medications) and to cover the cost of other necessities. A new crowd-funding site (Syrian Refugees in France) has also been established to make it easy to receive donations.
● Contribute time: Specialist volunteers in several fields can also be very helpful in meeting the immediate needs of these families (French/English translators, writers, lawyers, Arabic speakers/translators, dentists, doctors, etc.).