For four months, residents and volunteers in Pessat-Villeneuve in central France have been helping 60 evacuees from Africa build new lives.
By Céline Schmitt and Joséphine Lebas-Joly in Pessat-Villeneuve, France
It is nearly 5 pm on a cold January evening in Pessat-Villeneuve and the first snow of the year is falling. The atmosphere is quiet as a group of African refugees take a break from French classes.
It is an important day. In keeping with tradition, the mayor, Gérard Dubois will present his New Year wishes to villagers and their refugee guests at a reception in the evening.
Besides its 653 inhabitants, the village, in the Puy de Dôme region in central France, hosts 60 refugees resettled from Niger and Chad. They arrived four months ago and are accommodated in the village’s château.
Sudanese refugee Alfatih, 25, is one. He jokes outside the school, where he has been learning French for nearly four months.
“The first thing I noticed in Pessat-Villeneuve is that there are many good people here,” Alfatih says. “They help us a lot. Pessat-Villeneuve is nice.”
“When I arrived there, I was very, very tired of running.”
Just four months earlier, Alfatih was in Goz Beïda, in eastern Chad. He has never seen snow before and wonders how it feels.
In 2018, France undertook to resettle 3,000 refugees from Chad and Niger by the end of 2019, including some of those evacuated from Libya.
The refugees are accommodated in the château under the care of a local non-governmental organization, CeCler.
The NGO’s social workers and educators help them navigate administrative procedures, and find housing and work, while volunteers guide them through daily life, such as shopping and sports activities.
Alfatih fled Sudan when he was a child. He was 10 when the Janjawid militia attacked his village and killed his father in front of him.
“My father was at the mosque on a Friday,” he recalls. “My mother told me to run and to tell my father that the village was being attacked. In the panic, everyone ran in another direction and I couldn’t find anyone. When I returned home, I saw my father killed in front of me.”
Mayor of Pessat-Villeneuve Gerard Dubois, with resettled refugees Ibrahim and Alfatih. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
Mayor Gerard Dubois meets with refugees at City Hall. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
Refugees and locals celebrate the new year at a buffet in Pessat-Villeneuve. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
Resettled Sudanese refugee Alfatih (second on the left) attends French class. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
Refugees and members of the Cécler Association gather in front of the City Hall. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
Refugee children play in the park behind Pessat-Villeneuve City Hall. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
During the attack, Alfatih was separated from his mother, brothers and sisters.
The group took him to the forest, where the beat him then abandoned him. “I cried a lot. I didn’t know what I could do.”
For months, he searched for his family from village to village without success. He found an uncle who took him under his wing and together they fled to Chad. There, they were taken to Goz Amer refugee camp by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
“When I arrived there, I was very, very tired of running,” he says. “I was very sad until I found my mother, my sisters and my brothers.”
Alfatih resumed his education and passed the Sudanese baccalaureate in Chad. He also took a course in agriculture.
More than once he thought of taking the dangerous road to Libya and discussed it with his friends, but stayed behind in Chad.
“My mother had an operation in Goz Beïda,” he says. “Her health is not good. Her heart is bad. Sometimes, she could be happy, sometimes, she could be ill. We don’t have a dad who can support us, who could help us, and we need to study.”
Alfatih was the only member of the family who had any vocational training but his prospects were poor and life was difficult.
“We could not return to Sudan. We said to each other that our only choice was to go to Libya and after that to try anything. We needed to study. We were in the camp for a long time.
“A lot of my friends went to Libya. I don’t know where they are now.”
The French government resettled Alfatih’s mother, his two younger brothers and sister in Dijon. Alfatih, another brother and sister were taken to Pessat-Villeneuve.
Resettlement is a way to protect the most vulnerable refugees and shield them from dangerous journeys.
In its latest report, (to be published on Jan 30), on the routes refugees are taking to find safety, UNHCR notes that numbers may be falling in some places but that the perils of such journeys remain undimmed.
In particular, the report, entitled Desperate Journeys, details how the death rate has increased for people crossing the Mediterranean and stresses how people like Alfatih have had to face increased dangers of kidnapping and torture for ransom, and the threat from traffickers even before facing the deadliest sea crossing in the world.
“A lot of my friends went to Libya. I don’t know where they are now.”
However, the report found that patterns of movement changed in 2018. More people crossed the sea to Spain from May onwards, making it the main entry point to Europe for the first time since 2008.
Smugglers made the journey more accessible at a time when it had become harder to cross via Libya,
Spain, France, and Germany undertook to relocate the largest numbers of people after their arrival in Europe, it said.
Among its recommendations, the report called for a coordinated response to rescue at sea, greater support for the countries where most refugees and migrants arrive and further steps to hold perpetrators of crimes against refugees and migrants, including traffickers, accountable.
Ibrahim, a 30-year-old refugee from Eritrea, also lives in the Pessat-Villeneuve reception centre. He was resettled from Niger to France after being evacuated from Libya by UNHCR.
Previously, he made five unsuccessful attempts to undertake the dangerous sea voyage from Libya to Europe. During one of the attempts, he was among the few who survived when their boat capsized.
“Out of 148 people, only 20 people survived,” he says. He and six others clung to a wooden section of the boat and managed to stay afloat.
Now that they are safe, Alfatih and Ibrahim want to resume their studies.
Alfatih has ambitions to be become a doctor or a social worker so he can help others. Ibrahim wants to work in the food industry.
“I believe you can do anything if you really want to”, Alfatih says.
“In what I learn from life in France, what strikes me too, is that here, I live in a democracy.”
In his speech at the reception, Mayor Dubois reviews the highlights of the year. With pride he mentions the opening of the refugee reception in the château.
“I will always be here to defend our village, its interests, its residents, its employees, its officials, its values,” he says. “I will be the shield against hared, xenophobia, populism and mediocrity.
“Friends, we are on Gallic soil. Before you enjoy the dishes made for you, I will pass on a secret recipe, the one for Pessat-Villeneuve’s magic potion. Although it’s a secret, I give you permission to share it with the whole world.
“You take one quarter liberty, one quarter equality and one quarter brotherhood. And you need a pinch of secularism. Mix in a good dose of optimism. Don’t forget to water it generously with mutual support.
“And there, before your eyes, is a commune like Pessat-Villeneuve, a place full of humanity and the qualities that together define us: free, fraternal, supportive and, quite simply, human.”
Originally published by UNHCR on 28, January 2019