The community’s welcome of refugees in rural areas: an incredible human adventure


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Interview with Yannick Lechevallier

General Director Agence du Monde Commun

 

Oléron is the largest French island on the Atlantic coast near La Rochelle but remains a small rural territory with 22,000 year-round inhabitants (6 communes). Famous for its beaches, landscapes and oysters, many people are unaware of the solidarity shown by some of its inhabitants, who have been involved in giving refugees a citizen’s welcome since 2015. The citizens committee in Marennes Oléron already has around a hundred members who have accommodated and supported 9 refugee families (representing 34 people), including 3 families under the resettlement programme, 3 under the humanitarian corridors, 2 arriving with visas under an ad hoc family reunification scheme, and 2 families leaving CADA (Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers) - one refugee family and one regularised family.  

 

This illustrates the activism of the local people who, despite not being able to sign a contract with the government due to the voluntary nature of the group, still managed to establish several partnerships with different organisations and find alternative ways to mobilise in support of the refugees.

Volunteers of the sponsor group "pays Marennes Oléron" 

Courtesy of Yannick Lechevallier

The SHARE network wanted to know more about the reality on the ground and was able to speak with Yannick Lechevallier, a professional involved in international cooperation at the level of local authorities, elected in Oleron from 2015 to 2020 and president of the citizens committee. He began by telling us the story of the group' s creation, the result of an unexpected local mobilisation in response to the current migration situation in 2015. A mobilisation that even the mayor, responsible for assigning a municipal hall to facilitate citizens’ discussion on the subject, did not expect. “It was incredible", says Yannick, "more than 70 people showed up and by the end of the meeting we had already formed the core of the group”.

 

The committee is composed of a "board" of 6-7 people, including Yannick, responsible for the administration and for coordinating the other volunteers. It was necessary to organise the desire of these volunteers to act, given that they sometimes had little intercultural or support experience. But everyone was able to find their place, with a contact person for each refugee family accommodated. Everyone involved contributes their time, expertise and resources as and when they are available, while also committing to contribute monthly to the budget needed to cover the rent for the accommodation (one of which is provided by the Dolus town hall and the others by private individuals) and any other essential expenses that the beneficiaries have to deal with (in particular, initial health care).  

 

The volunteers give FLE lessons (French as a Foreign Language), provide administrative and medical support, and arrange car sharing. They collaborate with local solidarity associations to meet any needs (for example, in terms of clothing or equipment) and they also participate in activities with the families. This represents around 3 to 4 full-time equivalents. But beyond the solidarity expressed for the refugees, it is also a local outreach component for the rural area in contrast to its political reputation.

However, there was no shortage of challenges, including the coordination of volunteers by a team itself composed of volunteers. According to Yannick, the support of a permanent staff member on this management/organisation issue could have made a difference, especially in terms of the workload that volunteers currently bear and which sometimes discourages them from taking on new families. 

 

“One of the objectives of our committee is to highlight the administrative complexity unique to refugee reception that can discourage citizens from participating on the front line”.

 

In addition, collaboration with other organisations that have signed reception contracts with the government has not been easy, particularly because of budgets designed primarily for urban rather than rural areas, lack of co-management in the implementation of projects, and different funding priorities. One of the few exceptions is the partnership established with the FEP (partner in the SHARE QSN project) with which the committee has ongoing dialogue on the administrative and psychological follow-up of refugees, as well as the relationship with local town halls and ANVITA (National Association of Welcoming Cities and Territories), of which Yannick is an individual member.

 

In spite of the challenges, the committee has had some very rewarding human experiences and successes. For example, the signing of a permanent contract in home automation after one of the beneficiaries obtained a degree in engineering, and the publication of the book "Une enfance syrienne" (now in its third edition) by Moustafa Mohammad-Deeb, a young Syrian refugee who has resettled with his family in Oléron.

 

“I'd do it all over again,” says Yannick, smiling and confirming the added value of this experience as a member of a citizen's group supporting a cause. 

 

 


For more information please contact Yannick:

Email : contact@monde-commun.org / contact@coopdec.org

Web :  www.monde-commun.org