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Photo: UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
Primary school teacher Sylviane Zins with a class of refugee children. “They are motivated students who really want to learn,” she says. The tiny village of Thal-Marmoutier, France, has set a welcoming example for all.

There are now an estimated 258 million people living in a country other than their country of birth — an increase of 49% since 2000 — according to figures released by UN DESA on December 18, 2017. Violence and famine are often the reasons migrants try to get their children to someplace safer.

Fortunately, even in countries whose governments are hostile to migrants, some citizens follow their hearts and provide comfort. Others are following religious traditions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which exhort believers to welcome the stranger.

Céline Schmitt and Kamilia Lahrichi filed a report in April from Thal-Marmoutier, France, for the UN Refugee Agency.

“On a winter’s day, a group of refugees newly arrived from Africa walks through the falling snow in a village in eastern France. Some of the 800 residents of the peaceful Alsatian commune of Thal-Marmoutier, moved by their ordeal, gather to welcome them and help them take their first steps towards a new life.

“For the next four months the 56 women, men and children will be hosted by Franciscan nuns in their convent as a French non-profit organization, France Horizon, helps them put down roots. …

“The mayor of Thal-Marmoutier, Jean-Claude Distel, said the operation had gone smoothly. ‘The refugees have appreciated the welcome they received from the residents and, for our part, we are glad we were able to make a small contribution to their resettlement and provide them with all they need to integrate into the life of the nation.’

“Here are the stories of some of those involved.

“Abdel … is the France Horizon official in charge of the refugees’ reception and accommodation in the village. Abdel lives temporarily in the convent. … A clinical psychologist, he is passionate about assisting people in difficult circumstances, including asylum-seekers. ‘Over time, we realize that the people we welcome are people who have experienced atrocities,’ he says.

“When the group arrived in Thal-Marmoutier, Abdel and his team of seven organized activities, such as cooking workshops and yoga classes, with other local government organizations.

“Today, a medical team working with Strasbourg University Hospital provides health checks for the refugees, under Abdel’s supervision. The new residents take it in turns to see the doctor and make sure they are fit and well.

“Abdel works on raising residents’ awareness of the refugees’ circumstances. ‘I am satisfied and proud to welcome and reassure the refugees and the villagers and explain to them that we shouldn’t have prejudices or stigmatize people we don’t know,’ he says.”

Meanwhile, outside the convent’s schoolroom, “The strains of the traditional song ‘Alouette’ can be heard. … The children sit on the floor while the teacher stands in the middle and mouths the words. This class is a springboard to enrollment in a public class.

“ ‘These are just delightful students,’ says the teacher, Sylviane. ‘They are motivated students who really want to learn. They give their all to learn.’ ”

Then there is Nicolas, social and educational coordinator with France Horizon. “No one understands the refugees’ circumstances better than Nicolas, a refugee himself. … He has been a devoted humanitarian since he helped distributed food to Rwandan refugees seeking refuge in his home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

‘It gives me great pleasure to help others to make progress,’ he says. ‘That’s what I enjoy most in life.’

“Nicolas fled the DRC because of the instability there and sought political asylum in France, where his brother lives. He became a French citizen in 2009.

“ ‘Leaving Africa and ending up here is like moving from one planet to the other,’ he says. ‘These refugees have never seen snow and have never lived in Europe.’

“Nicolas is studying for a doctorate in education. ‘For refugees like us … training and education is the only way to move forward.’ ”

More.

Sign at Families Belong Together rally, June 30, 2018, Rhode Island State House.

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More here.

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Photo: Vince Talotta / Toronto Star
Tom McKeon’s flight was diverted to Canada on 9/11. He says the warm welcome he received made him lose his cynicism. The musical
Come From Away recounts that many lives were changed in Canada that day.

The kindness of strangers is the never-ending story that provides reassurance about the world when it’s needed. In this instance, the thousands of people whose airplane flights were diverted to Canada on 9/11, were welcomed by Canadians in a life-changing moment. The musical Come From Away lets audiences experience what those travelers experienced.

Bruce DeMara writes at the Toronto Star, “Beverley Bass was the pilot of an American Airlines plane, the 36th of 38 flights diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, on Sept. 11, 2001. Hers is one of numerous stories dramatized in the hit musical Come From Away.

“Bass had seen the show 97 times. Sunday’s red-carpet premiere at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, with a new, all-Canadian cast was her 98th. ‘Honestly, there are still times when I’ll tear up.’ …

“Many of the 7,000 who unexpectedly landed in Newfoundland that day had their lives altered by the generosity of their hosts, but Come From Away has given a certain celebrity status to those whose stories are told by the musical.

“ ‘I receive messages and emails every day from people all over and now I’ve even gotten involved in school projects because . . . I can’t say no to the kids,’ Bass says. …

“Bass has also become involved in volunteering, including taking part in relief efforts last summer when Hurricane Harvey hit south Texas. …

“Tom McKeon, whose character in the show is a cynical New Yorker named Bob, said he’s pleased with how he’s portrayed. …

“Kevin Tuerff, who owned an environmental marketing company in Austin, Texas, said he decided to ‘pay it forward’ a year later on the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, and subsequent ones, giving his employees $100 to go out and perform random acts of kindness. … He has most recently become involved in helping refugees and immigrants.

“Being an American refugee — it’s taken me (many) years to reflect on this — but it’s now opened my eyes to the global refugee crisis. So now I’m personally very heavily involved in advocating through my church in helping immigrants and refugees,’ Tuerff said. …

“Hannah O’Rourke lost her eldest child, Kevin, a Brooklyn firefighter trained in rescue operations, on Sept. 11. His body was recovered almost two weeks later in the rubble of the twin towers.

“But O’Rourke made a friend for life in Beulah Davis, whom she met at the Royal Canadian Legion, where O’Rourke stayed and where Davis still volunteers. Davis is also a character in the show and the two women, who call each other every two weeks or so, have been reunited in Toronto in recent days. …

“The loss of her son has taken a heavy toll, O’Rourke added.

“ ‘I (used to be) more outgoing and full of the devil and that. Ah, there’s not a minute of the day that you don’t think, “now he would be enjoying his children and his grandchildren,” ‘ O’Rourke said.

” ‘But I will never forget Gander.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
“When you see their desire to learn, it gives you a boost of energy,” says Brigitte Dubosclard, who volunteers with refugees.

I can never get enough of stories about people helping people. A good example is seen in this article on a French village welcoming refugees.

Céline Schmitt wrote for the refugee agency UNHCR, “In November 2015, Pessat-Villeneuve, which has a population of 550, opened the doors of the château as a reception and guidance centre for refugees from Calais and Paris. [As of April 2017], it has hosted 136 refugees. …

“[Mayor] Gerard Dubois strongly believes in solidarity, in mutual support, and while it was an easy decision for him to open a reception centre for refugees in Pessat-Villeneuve, he had to persuade residents that it was the right thing to do. It was not as easy task. At a public meeting, organized in November 2015 when the centre was opened, he says he felt like a ‘bull in the ring.’ In the weeks afterwards, he even received death threats, but solidarity was stronger.

“Hatred is noisy,’ he says. ‘Solidarity is quiet, but inspiring and effective.’ …

“Dubois believes that initial fears stemmed from the fact that locals did not know the new arrivals. Any apprehension, he says, disappeared once they had met them. ‘Meeting and getting to know each other changes everything. It’s as simple as that. I don’t call them refugees, but guests.’ …

“Brigitte Dubosclard is a volunteer at the reception centre in Pessat-Villeneuve. A retired teacher, she gives French lessons to the refugees and also runs a clothing store. She was the first to volunteer to help during the public meeting organized by the mayor when the centre opened.

“ ‘When I realized that there was a general feeling of fear, I immediately said that we are here to help, that France is a country that has always welcomed refugees for many years,’ she says. ‘I asked just one question: What do they need?’

“Brigitte opened the clothing store with help from non-profit organizations Secours Populaire Français and Secours Catholique, as well as donations from the public and local shops. …

“Sandrine Menuge has been the head of Pessat-Villeneuve primary school since 2000 and saw the arrival of refugees as an opportunity to talk about diversity with the children in her class. She tasked them to find faces of 100 children throughout the world in 100 days.

“ ‘We searched for photos to see where they come from, what they look like, how they live,’ says Sandrine. …

“One afternoon, she invited two refugees, Mary from Eritrea and Ali from Sudan, to come to the school. The local children asked them about their journey. ‘We looked on the map to see all the countries they had to go through to come to France. They found them very brave.’

“The children also understood why the refugees had to leave their homes. ‘They realized that in some countries, children are afraid that bombs will fall on their heads. It was a wonderful shared moment.’ …

“[Amir, a 27-year-old from Afghanistan,] travelled on foot, by truck and boat, by any means possible, to reach safety.

“ ‘I feel better now,’ he says, from the reception centre in Pessat-Villeneuve. ‘I have accommodation. I have friends. There are good people here. It is important that people understand why we are here. We are refugees. I don’t want to take benefits from the government. I want to start my life for myself.’ ”

More at UNHCR, here. And thanks to my twitter friend Jane for passing this story along.

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Photo: Isabelle de Pommereau
Anja Reefschläger has taken Ahmad Madarati and other refugees under her wing since they arrived near her Berlin home last year.

The Christian Science Monitor always has great stories about good works around the globe, and this one on ordinary Germans who are volunteering to help refugees get settled is no exception.

Isabelle de Pommereau writes, “ ‘Frau Anja.’ Hearing this name for a Berlin volunteer who teaches refugees German – and has become a second mother to many of them – brings a smile to Ahmad Madarati’s long, sad face.

“Mr. Madarati, who fled war-torn Aleppo, Syria, and Anja Reefschläger met on a freezing November morning last year. …

“Today, Madarati works practically gratis at a youth center in Berlin, helping young people build furniture. And in a few weeks, he is set to move out of the so-called Treskowallee camp into a house. The house is next to Reefschläger’s, and she is the one who persuaded the owner to rent it out to Syrians.”

Ordinary Americans are also showing kindness and warm hearts, even when state government refuses to participate.

In Texas, for example, when the governor refused to sign on to the federal effort to resettle Syrians, ordinary Texans and nonprofits stepped up to the plate.

Jim Malewitz writes at the Texas Tribune, “Texas’ top elected officials have not exactly welcomed refugees over the past year. [In September] Gov. Greg Abbott followed through on his threat to end cooperation with the nation’s refugee resettlement program because federal officials refused to ‘unconditionally approve’ a Texas plan requiring extra vetting of applicants. Such a move will not keep refugees from coming here, but it eliminates the state government’s role.

“But everyday Texans seem to be more willing to help refugees from Syria and elsewhere start new lives in the Lone Star State. Nonprofits that resettle refugees say volunteer turnout has increased — in some cases dramatically — since Texas Republicans first suggested they threatened security.” More. See also an article in the Nonprofit Quarterly, here, for details on the critical role of nonprofits and volunteers in Texas at this point in time.

I have personal knowledge of the many volunteers reaching out to refugees in Providence via the Providence Granola Project (how about giving their yummy products as holiday gifts?), the Refugee Dream Center, Genesis Center, and Dorcas International. The Diocese of Providence is also at the forefront of service as an official resettlement agency, like Dorcas.

You know what else? I just heard of a woman in my town who is selling her house and moving to “wherever she’s needed.” She wants to use her years of language-teaching skills to help refugees.

[10/15/16 Update: Read about the outpouring of support for refugees in Lowell, Mass., here.]

Photo: Marjorie Kamys Cotera
A group gathered at Wooldridge Park in Austin on Nov. 22, 2015, to show support for refugees.

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Refugees continue to be on my mind, and I can’t resist any story about ordinary, kind-hearted people who recognize that no one would leave their homeland on a dangerous, uncertain journey unless they were desperate.

Sam Warner at Huck magazine (“Huck celebrates independent culture – people and movements that paddle against the flow”) has examples of kindness from the past year.

“Where European governments have largely failed, individuals across the continent have stepped up to help the plight of  refugees in any way they can. Here are some of them.

“Two Dresden writers showed solidarity with the refugees by painting ‘welcome’ in Arabic on the side of a train carriage in the city. …

“As migrants arrived in Munich, they were greeted with applause from Germans waiting for them at the train station. On top of that, they were given food, water and toys for the children and people also held up signs that said ‘welcome.’

“While refugees were stuck in Hungary, a convoy of Austrian volunteers called ‘refugeeconvoy’ crossed the border to distribute aid and help refugees cross through Western Europe.  …

“Numerous Icelandic residents have joined an initiative to help the refugees, started by writer Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir. Her Facebook page Syria is Calling already has over 17,000 likes, using the slogan: ‘Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.’

“It encourages the government to take in more refugees, whose numbers have been officially capped at 50. It has also inspired American initiative Open Homes, Open Hearts US – with Syrian refugees, which aims to raise awareness across the Atlantic and lobby the US government to accept more refugees. …

“Outside Budapest’s main railway station, a group of volunteers set up a projector and screened Tom and Jerry for refugee children to watch. They had been barricaded outside the station by authorities for 48 hours … .

“Refugee Phrasebook is an online collaborative project that aims to give important vocabulary for orientation that can be distributed to refugees. Its collaborative aspect means that experts can improve and update the material as it goes along. The project has phrases in 28 languages.”

More here.

Photo: Thomas Rassloff on Flickr

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A New York Times article that was widely shared yesterday detailed how eager many Canadians are to welcome refugees. Enthusiastic, sometimes a bit bossy, they are volunteering in droves to make a difference in the lives of anxious families who have been through the mill.

It reminded me of other welcome stories I’ve been collecting. Small towns, in particular, seem to feel they could benefit from welcoming refugees.

On Nagu, a remote island on the southwest tip of Finland, migrants have found open arms.

Giles Duley writes in the Guardian, “From the start, the people of Nagu made their guests feel welcome. A Facebook group was set up, activities suggested, volunteers came forward. ‘It was exciting,’ says Mona Hemmer, a bastion of Nagu life and one of the organisers of activities for the refugees. …

“Of course, for the refugees, being busy does not erase their past or the uncertainty of their future. … Many still find it hard to sleep, aware that until their asylum applications have been processed, they have not reached the end of their journey.

“However, the warm welcome of the Nagu people has made a difference. And despite their initial reservations, the islanders now feel that it is the refugees who have brought them something.”  More.

In this Al Jazeera story by Thomas Bruckner, refugees are reviving faded Italian villages.

“The village of Riace had seen its population drop from 2,500 to 400 since the 1990s, when people moved to northern Italy for better economic opportunities.

“Domenico Lucano, Mayor of Riace, saw the flow of refugees in Italy as an opportunity. ‘We have been welcoming refugees with open arms for the past 15 years. [They have] saved our village,’ Lucano explained.

“The resourceful mayor first acted on this opportunity in 1998, when a boat with 218 Kurdish refugees on their way to Greece got stranded on a beach in Riace. This is when Lucano first proposed that the refugees should stay in the village and take over the homes and apartments that had been left vacant by the migrating former residents of the town.

“The mayor helped to facilitate the integration by establishing a ‘refugees welcome’ project, which is now spreading through neighbouring towns.”

Here’s a PBS story by Jason M. Breslow about a small town in Germany that wants more population. “With Goslar’s population shrinking by around 2,000 people per year as young people flee to bigger cities and older residents die, [Mayor Oliver] Junk sees refugees as key to the town’s future.

“ ‘Europeans must welcome and integrate refugees, accepting that they are not a burden but a great opportunity,’ Junk wrote in an op-ed published last month in the policy journal Europe’s World.”

The mayor has also said, “Anyone who tells me Germany is full up, or that we can’t afford them, I say think of our past, and of the future. Of course we can afford them – we’re a rich country, and we have a duty to help those in need.’ ” More from PBS.

And here’s a story closer to home. Brian MacQuarrie writes at the Boston Globe about Rutland, Vermont, and its interest in refugees.

“Mayor Christopher Louras has unveiled a plan, developed in near-secrecy, to resettle 100 Syrian refugees who fled the onslaught of the Islamic State and are exiled in sprawling Jordanian camps. …

“Most residents appear ready to welcome the refugees, mindful of the harrowing images of Syrians desperately seeking refuge outside their ravaged country….

“ ‘The benefits, economically and culturally, that we will recognize is exactly what the community needs at this time,’ said Louras, the grandson of a Greek immigrant who fled the Ottoman Turks a century ago. ‘As much as I want to say it’s for compassionate reasons, I realize that there is not a vibrant, growing, successful community in the country right now that is not embracing new Americans.’ ” More at the Globe.

Photo: Giles Duley/UNCHR
Volunteers from Nagu, a small island in Finland, laugh with refugees during a New Year’s Eve concert put on by local musicians.

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