Among Catholics, some voices are raised and bear witness to a mistrust in Pope Francis’ repeated appeal to welcome migrants. Instead, during this season of Lent, let us open our hearts to the many people experiencing the tragedy of being forced to leave their country and allow this testimony to disturb us and discover an authentic encounter.
Catholic by birth and family tradition, then a committed Catholic by personal conviction, I lived a chaotic childhood in Paris with a father who was a police officer and an education that was deeply racist. At Mass, when I heard the words “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” I knew that it did not concern me; personally I have been animating the singing of the assembly for 30 years, I take care of teenagers, and I visit people who live alone; others can look after strangers. Each to one’s own charism!
I live in the Landes and a little over a year ago 52 migrants arrived, all men whose age ranged between 22 and 39, all Oromos, a politically persecuted ethnic group in Ethiopia. As a matter of conscience, I prayed for them at Mass that weekend.
One day, one of them approached me in the street; he will later admit that he found me friendly. He started talking to me in simple English and I answered shyly; he invited me to sit down then told me his story. I listened politely. Redwan asked me to come back the next day and I did. I went home that day and I remembered crying and sleeping poorly. I was grappling with the tragic story he shared with me and with the Gospel lessons my father left me when he died 10 years ago. When I saw Redwan again, I knew that my life was going to change. I found a new meaning in life. The next day, I started giving French lessons in their apartment; I admit having felt fear but at the end of the first class, I was reassured. Saying hello straight in the eyes with hand outstretched and firm, does not lie. From January to the end of May, classes were in the living room, one after the other, up to 8 hours per week. First, a group of 12 youth, then a second made up of 10, and a third of 8 persons. These were young people who waited impatiently for me, notebooks open, pens in hand, and who competed to prepare for me a cup of tea, srambled egg, green salad with lemon. These were the youth who accompanied me down the stairs and who, each day, confided a little bit more to me. I became a sister, a mother, a friend. By March, I began to invite my students to my house on Sunday after Mass. Since I live 4 kms from the reception center, I made several round trips in my little Twingo. Together we played bowling, “pétanque”, darts, and cards. At 1pm we shared lunch, a simple buffet of bread, tomatoes, salad, chicken, and fruit. They brought coca-cola and fanta. They prepared and cleared the table. Towards 2pm of the first Sunday, one told me that they wanted to pray and I felt uncomfortable. Acting like it was not a problem, I stacked chairs and tables in my classroom, laid out three blankets and told them: make yourself at home! From then on, each Sunday, each one took turns to pray and everyone was happy. At the start of June, with the observance of Ramadan, Sundays in the house ended.
Ramadan was a great discovery for me! What discipline! What willpower! All are Muslims except Aubushee who is an Orthodox, who once accompanied me to Mass and with whom we watched videos about Jesus. Thanks to my faith, I could understand theirs. When they prayed in my presence, I prayed by their side. Mary has been my confidante since the beginning, an unfailing support.
I often think of my car as a decompression chamber: when I arrive at the Center, I leave in its recesses the material anxieties of a little French lady, worries about my family, friends and even those of the Church, and all persons who do not understand my commitment. God knows there are many! I close the door, I take my best smile and I am ready to meet my friends. Leaving the center, my car welcomes all the conversations, all this suffering. A prayer, some songs and I set off again, serene.
I have a deep respect for these young people, I have created real bonds of friendship with some and I am pleased to say that I spent one of the best summers of my life with them. There is only a shadow in this scene: the lack of understanding of my family and relatives. No doubt it may be the fear of the other for I have lived with it for so long, but I thought the months that pass would change their view, in vain.
Thank you, Lord, for sending these young people along my route! Thank you, my friends! Galatoma hiriyoota kiyya ! May peace and freedom dwell in Oromo and in countries like it!