Photo: Mehdi Chebil
Photo: Mehdi Chebil

A group of residents in Montpellier, France, has created an organisation that matches migrants with volunteer mentors. The organization is called Migrants Bienvenue 34, and the goal is to create links between the migrant community and Montpellier residents, as well as to help the recent arrivals integrate in their new home.

“The aid that the state offers migrants is pretty half-hearted,” Nathalie, a member of the group, told InfoMigrants. “We wanted to do more.”

Migrants Bienvenue 34 was founded at the end of February in order to connect migrants with citizens who could mentor them and help them find their way in this city in the south of France.

“We live in the same city. Let’s help them come out in the open instead of hiding them,” Nathalie said.

Creating links

The initiative started with a call for mentors on Facebook. About a hundred Montpellier residents responded, along with a handful of migrants. The group included people of all ages: women, men, couples, young people and retirees.

“All of them had trouble relating to the divisive rhetoric that we’ve been seeing every day,” said Nathalie. “We realised that there were many of us who wanted to do something for asylum seekers, but we didn’t know how.”

The idea they came up with was simple: mentoring would create bonds between citizens and migrants, and help the recent arrivals who may still be struggling with the effects of a dangerous journey and life in a foreign country.

“It’s great to house people in state-run welcome centres, but we have to do more. These people have nothing to do all day, so they just pace around in their rooms,” says Nathalie.

Once the group decided on the idea of mentoring, groups started to come together quickly. Each migrant would be matched with three or four residents. For example Nathalie, 53,  is pairedwith a 25-year-old man from Ethiopia. Today, 17 migrants are being mentored, and 16 groups of mentors remain available for new candidates.

Each group organises its own activities: picnics, bowling, walks on the beach and hiking. “It’s really up to the mentors,” Nathalie said. “Some couples open their doors and invite their protégés to come cook dinner with them.”

‘It takes time for people to understand one another’

Nathalie admits that at first “it wasn’t simple”. Migrants can be apprehensive, but links formed quickly.

“They didn’t know us, and we didn’t know them, either. It takes time for people to understand one another, but that’s natural,” Nathalie said. The situation isn’t helped by the fact that residents and migrants usually don’t have a common language do communicate in. They have to do their best with gestures and simple words.

“I’ve been bugging my mentee to take French classes,” Nathalie said. “In the meantime I taught him the word rendez-vous (meeting).”

But the instruction goes both ways. “I learned how to dance Sudanese salsa the other day,” Nathalie said cheerfully.

For Nathalie, the true character of a society is revealed by the way it treats the needy. “By that measure, France is not doing great at the moment,” she said. “It’s our duty as citizens to oppose the stigmatizing atmosphere that we have at the moment.”

By Leslie Carretero

Translation from French by Avner Davis


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