With the onset of the health crisis related to the COVID-19 pandemic, coordinating the citizen collective of the United Protestant Church of Le Vésinet and assisting the sponsored refugee families residing in Montesson and Le Vésinet required a lot of creativity.
Patrick, a member of the citizen collective of the Protestant parish of Le Vésinet, in the Paris region, has followed the refugee families since their arrival in France at the end of 2018 and even before, when he worked with the other members of the collective to implement all the steps that made this welcome initiative possible. He has been part of the group since its creation in spring 2016. "We, the members of the parish, were moved by the exile of the Iraqi people and the news that was coming from Iraq at that time", says Patrick, "that is why we agreed on an extraordinary general meeting and we took the joint mutual aid - parish decision to get involved to show our solidarity".
Already conscious of these issues (in the 1980s, the parish had already welcomed 6 families, so 35 people, from Cambodia who were refugees in Thailand), the community of Le Vésinet immediately got organised, being able to count on about thirty active members and on the support and coordination of the Protestant Mutual Aid Federation (Fédération de l’Entraide Protestante - FEP) – a partner of the SHARE QSN project - via its pole for the humanitarian corridors in the Paris region.
The Montesson town hall played a key role in identifying suitable accommodation, which is often a real challenge for citizen groups hosting refugee families. This also demonstrated the importance of cooperation between volunteer groups and local authorities, and the commitment of the latter, for the full success of citizen sponsorship initiatives.
"There is no standard procedure," says Patrick, "each group manages on its own. We offer our time and resources, dividing the tasks according to the expertise and availability of each person." While this organisation was particularly important at the beginning of the reception process, it continues to be so now, as the hosted family and young man begin to be more independent and the pandemic continues to prevent physical contact.
Although there was a lot of resilience in both families, linked to the hardships they had been through, the volunteer group was committed to not leaving them alone. "During the initial lockdown, we held drinks on Zoom on Friday evenings to check in on Abdul and Khalil, Yomna and their children, and in general we stepped up our phone calls and support," says Patrick. For example, a retired teacher who is a member of the collective provided online tutoring (two hours a day) to Khalil and Yomna’s children so that their education was not interrupted. This also gave the parents the opportunity to focus on their language and vocational training via Zoom. (
While the health crisis has increased physical distances, it has also provided an opportunity for the different groups of volunteers involved in citizen sponsorship to network, through the FEP, and share their experiences to learn from each other. "We used to meet on Zoom two Wednesdays a month with about thirty other French collectives," says Patrick, "which enabled us to get to know each other better and to exchange views on very practical aspects of our work supporting families”.
"These calls also gave us the opportunity to meet people (virtually) and to feel less alone", he says, adding that the FEP initiative will continue with one meeting per month due to its success.
It is thanks to digital technology (and the digital expertise of the volunteers and families) (link to Khalil’s story) that new connections have been created and regular contacts have been maintained and even developed between different citizen committees in France as well as between different refugee families who have arrived in France via the humanitarian corridors.
"We volunteers feel a bit like parents," says Patrick. "We are close to these families, we are there for them, to help them gain independence in their new lives" he concludes.