It wouldn't be France if food didn't enter the equation somewhere. For years I've agonised over whether I'd been a total hypocrite after publishing my book A Good Place To Hide. The book tells the story of Protestant villagers in the mountains of eastern France who hid some 5,000 refugees, mostly Jews, during World War II. If ever I give a talk about the book, I always conclude by asking the audience: do you approve of what those villagers did? The answer is invariably yes. Then how come people everywhere are voting to be as nasty as possible to refugees, I ask? I've never had a proper answer.
So where does the hypocrisy come in? I've always felt vulnerable to the question: if you're so smart, or so compassionate, or so noble, what are you doing yourself to help refugees? And I would have been stuck for an answer until a few years ago when, on our island of Oléron, people decided to stop wringing their hands and actually DO something. What they did was to sponsor refugee families, all Syrian, and take them in as guests while helping them to speak French, plus helping in other ways like taking them to hospital or helping to enrol their children in school. The whole idea was to integrate them into French society and the French economy quickly and effectively. We now have five Syrian families on the island, well spread out in different communes. The shining star is Mohammed Deeb and his family. After first learning French, he then trained as a chef, and gained a French government diploma in hygiene and security. Then, after months of diligent search, he managed to find and buy a food truck. So we can expect some pretty spectacular Middle Eastern take-aways from the back of his truck any day now.
July 17 extra
The food truck lives! The picture above was taken last evening in Domino market on the Île d'Oléron, a few kilometres from where I live. You can just about make out Mohamed Deeb inside the food truck with his right arm in the air. In the foreground is his son Mustafa, aged about 13, whose opening words to me were: "Do you speak English?" (He does, a bit. Just as he speaks French a bit, and Arabic a lot.) On the right is my wife Roslyn. Dinner for the two of us consisted of a huge tub of houmus (it lasted us two meals) followed by felafel and somosas then baklava for dessert. It cost a total of 15€, about US$17.71 at today's exchange rate. Try to buy a three-course dinner for two for that at McDonald's and see how you get on!
These families face no hostility on the island. They are generally popular and are made to feel welcome. They are supported by an organisation called Comité citoyen pour l’accueil de réfugiés en Pays Marennes Oléron ('Citizens committee for welcoming refugees in the Marennes/Oléron area'.) I had joined the organisation as soon as it was formed. And how is this worthy body funded? By us, that's who. Over 100 supporters pay an annual subscription of about 10 euros, which pays for all the admin. But most of the work - including teaching French, or escorting people to the doctor, or helping them to get a French driver's licence - is done by unpaid volunteers. We subscribers are then rewarded with picnics and parties ('fêtes') attended by the refugee families where everybody (including the refugees) brings a plate or a bottle or both. Last Saturday we all mingled and chatted. Some family members came to the picnic from as far away as Berlin in Germany. The picture at the top of this blog entry shows one of the communal tables ready to be attacked by enthusiastic local do-gooders and well-wishers, including your humble scribe.
The permanent population of Oléron is about 22,500 spread around nine communes or local government areas. There is no more than one Syrian family in each of five communes on the island. So there is no question of a Syrian ghetto forming. There are some 34,500 communes in France, so if half that number took in a family each, that would be 17,250 families rescued from misery and uncertainty, with no pain or grief, only benefit, delivered to their local French community.
And Marine Le Pen would have nothing to complain about. She might even disappear (or is that too much to hope for!)
Here are a couple more pics from Saturday's event. The top pic might easily be captioned Proud Boys, as a handful of younger islanders and refugees stand behind the desserts they prepared for Saturday's fête. The bottom pic shows a bit of interaction between an islander, glass in hand, and a refugee, plate in hand.