Volunteers step up for refugees

British volunteers have transformed the lives of eight refugee families sent to Mont­bron in Charente from the Calais camp just before it was dismantled. They had felt lost as they spoke English but did not understand French.

20 January 2017
Smiles all round for the refugees who arrived from Calais. Pictured are Mustafa (12) and Sarah (15) with their mother Nora, their grandmother Loma, and Ros Petherick
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Ros Petherick, who runs a group collecting clothes and other items to send to the camps, was contacted by Médecins Sans Frontières of Calais to see if she could help.
She said: “I didn’t know what to expect, but, they are ordinary people, facing the same problems as everyone else.
“They worry about making ends meet, they want to work and be independent, they have strong family values and they just want to settle down and lead a normal life.”

Mayor Gwenhaël François found them accommodation, but they needed to be able to talk to someone in English to explain their needs. Quickly, via social media, a group of 24 volunteers, calling themselves Making a Differ­ence in Mont­bron, was set up and soon each family had someone working with them to help with trips to hospitals and doctors, shopping, informal translations, emotional support and working alongside French people from the commune. 

One woman gave French lessons and the group used social media to find needed items such as bicycles for transport and pressure cookers so the families could make the kind of one-pot meals they were used to cooking.

Ms Petherick said: “I could not have done this without social media and it just shows how strong and amazing the collective will is.
“It’s the most rewarding thing I have done in my life and we felt it was the least we could do for the families.
“A really good time was when we took them to the Brantôme sanctuary for UK Police Horses and it was the first normal day for them for years, a family day out which they could enjoy.”

The group also took the chance to tell the families, who were from Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq, that life was good in France: “They had wanted to go to the UK and were very disappointed they couldn’t cross the Channel.
“But we tell them how wonderful French life is and how much more family-friendly the French are. We must be succeeding as all our families are now learning French and really want to integrate here.”

Most of the families will have been moved on to other centres by the beginning of this month, but Ms Petherick says many of the volunteers will keep in touch.
She adds that if you have refugees moving to your area you can help by going to visit: “Having visitors is part of the culture of many of these people and they are very generous and want to make contact and not become isolated.”

Mrs Petherick and others will continue collecting items to send to refugees and you can join the group by emailing omnisasso@gmail.com
Omnis (franceandbeyond.fr) is part of a network helping pass items on to refugees.

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