Zoe Magesse has this report on how the people of Toulouse have come together to help their refugee community.
We started the Facebook page Soutien aux Réfugiés Syrians “Les Trois Cocus” Toulouse in September 2015 when we found out that a community of about 140 refugees had been living in the Les Izards area of Toulouse for several months.
My husband (who is half Lebanese and speaks Arabic) found out exactly where they were and went round to talk to them. He was horrified to find them living in local authority housing that had been authorised for demolition. The houses and flats were cold, damp, with bricked up windows and broken doors. Some of the balconies were unsafe and the children were running about night and day with no schooling or structured activities of any kind.
These people had arrived mostly in the March and April before. No one seems to know how exactly they found these empty properties, but they did have a roof over their heads and running water and electricity.
Most have had a precarious journey from Syria, taking them through Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and Spain before reaching France. Most had been registered as refugees in Spain, but they did not want to stay there because they were apparently housed in barracks-style buildings where the men were separated from the women and children for 20 hours a day and not allowed to live as families (presumably to reduce the birth rate).
None of the refugees spoke French and only a few spoke a little English. They had no idea how the system works, what assistance they were entitled to or how to access healthcare and schooling.
Shamefully, the local Mairie and associations (Secours Catholique, Secours Populaire and Croix Rouge) had been repeatedly informed of their presence yet no one had bothered to make any effort to evaluate their situation.
Realising that the refugees only had what they had been able to carry with them on their journey and that their clothes, shoes and bedding were not going to be suitable for winter in Toulouse, we created the Facebook page to mobilise assistance from the English-speaking community, providing a network to collect and distribute donations of food, winter clothing, shoes, coats, kitchen items, hotplates (many families had been eating cold food only), electric heaters, duvets, bedding, mattresses and washing machines to give these people the basics to be comfortable.
I have been absolutely blown away by the sheer generosity of people. We have had whole car loads of food, toiletries and household essentials dropped off. We have collected and distributed over 200 winter coats, more than 300 pairs of shoes and over 50 duvets/ sleeping bags, plus countless scarfs, hats, jumpers and blankets, in addition to many household items including fridges and washing machines.
For the El Haid festival (the main Muslim festival), we collected toys in good condition which were then cleaned, sorted and decorated with ribbons by volunteers so that we were able to give each child two or three nearly new things.
We met Bouzid and Morad from Association Solidarity Union (ASU) who were also doing their best to help these people. We linked our efforts with theirs so as to work in a more efficient manner.
Jennie Taylor and Kate Charalambous especially have been very active in organising events such as a Gouter Solidaire with children’s activities, a concert, food and drink to help draw attention to their case and to create a nice family day for them. ASU organised a “pot commun” via internet which raised enough money for each family to be given a voucher allowing them two kilograms of halal meat to celebrate El Haid with a good meal.
Another community of vulnerable migrants of various origins was found in Bourbaki in Minimes. They were also living in housing destined for demolition, and the authorities had turned off the water supply to force these people out.
A campaign was launched which our members fully supported to force the authorities to turn the water back on as it is actually now unconstitutional and therefore illegal to deprive someone of water in France. We continue to offer practical assistance to the people of Bourbaki.
As the majority of urgent needs have now been met, ASU is now focusing on the challenge of helping these people with the administrative side of living in France.
They succeeded in putting enough pressure on the local authorities to ensure the children were provided with access to specialist schooling (speaking no French and with most of them having missed several years of schooling, they were unable to go to the local school straight away).
ASU also launched a campaign which we were involved with to provide 60 school bags with supplies so that each child had what they needed to start on their first day.
The main need now is for Arabic-speaking volunteers to accompany refugees to medical visits to La Grave Hospital in St Cyprian, to appointments to the Croix Rouge to complete registrations and to other administrative appointments. If you would like to help with this (or if you know someone who can), please contact ASU directly through Facebook. You would need to pick people up, take them to appointments and take them back home afterwards. ASU also hopes to organise language lessons for the refugees in the future.
The families whose refugee status in France has been approved are being put on the list for housing. So far we have one family who has moved to the Ariège. Most of the families are resisting being moved because they want to stay together and the housing offers are spread out around the region. However finding somewhere permanent to live is the first step to integrating in France properly. Most of the older people hope to return to Syria as soon as it is safe for them to do so, but as the situation there is worse than ever and I don’t know if or when it might be possible for them to return.
Anyone who is interested in supporting our efforts, please join our Facebook page or that of the ASU.
If you wish to send donations, our most urgent ongoing requirement is food: rice, tinned fruit and veg, lentils, coffee, sugar, flour, sunflower oil and olive oil (all the basics that stock easily). Otherwise you can give funds directly via ASU.
Many thanks to everyone who has supported us so far.