Redefining Humanitarianism

In many ways, Parc des Olieux redefined what it means to be a ‘refugee camp.’ Rather than being separated from society, fenced off out of sight and out of mind, this place developed just outside the windows of a community, and because of that, the ways in which the community got involved were also unique. The Collectif des Olieux, created in 2015, was basically developed as a response to the problems that these young migrants were facing without any support from the government. It was formed by ten different community associations integrated with the minors themselves, volunteers, and members of the neighborhood, all concerned about the well-being of these youth.

For most of the people involved, it all started with the disruption of their lives. Suddenly, just going to the park became a direct confrontation with people who were different and in need. While the divide between these suburban French and homeless youth was wide, the fact remained that these ‘strangers’ were children, in some ways not so different from the children living in the neighborhood, and they needed help, so people stepped up. At first, many of the volunteers may have acted with the fantasy of being the hero, the mediator that selflessly saves the undocumented foreigners who were desperately begging for help, but one thing is sure—throughout the last two years, those involved in the Collectif des Olieux found more than the satisfaction of shallow humanitarianism offered to strangers. They found new understanding, new friends, and a new perspective.

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“In this place for the last four months, minors have been forced to sleep outside because the public authorities are ignoring them. For lack of someone to take official responsibility, we, the residents, are standing in solidarity. Join us!” (Our translation)

As mentioned briefly in our first post, the aid offered by the Collectif fell into a few different categories:

  • Practical aid

The Collectif collected clothes, food, and hygiene products to help meet the daily needs of those living in the Park. Group meetings often included cooked meals, and various other measures were adopted to help with basic needs.

  • Languages courses

Volunteers give academic assistance and support to the minors in Math, French, English, and any other subjects they needed. These classes were open to the public, offering a service to the community and large and a chance for the migrants to build relationships with those around them. At the same time, these classes offered volunteers a chance to get to know the youth and better understand their needs, allowing for more appropriate and efficient aid.

  • Official documentation

The local university of Lille 3, in cooperation with other NGOs, created a program through which certain migrants with the necessary academic background could attend language classes at the university and receive a certificate from the university. This was especially useful for those nearing the age of majority as it provided an official proof of their ‘willingness to integrate into the society’ which could be used in seeking official status.

  • Social Activities (with political punch)

Sports games and group activities were planned to create a feeling of community in the park. Artistic workshops offered another fun activity and mode of cultural expression, but also played a key role at a political level. While artistic expression was good for the youths’ psychological stability, their productions—photography, portraits, painting, stone rubbing, etc.—were used with permission in public exhibits to help raise awareness.

  • Advocacy

Whether it was public awareness or accompanying individuals to hearings or to fill out paperwork, a lot of attention was given to seeking legal recognition and status for the minors.

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A timeline documenting the involvement of the Collectif des Olieux.

Despite this impressive list of accomplishments, the work of the Collectif was not always smooth sailing. For many of those involved, this was their first foray into ‘humanitarian’ kinds of work, and it didn’t take long to learn the painful truth: political hierarchical systems are inefficient and do not work well together. In fact, the government often seemed to be fighting directly against the efforts to help the youth of Olieux. As the former president of one member association put it, the official attitude seemed to be: ‘Organizations are creating a need in Lille, so that’s why people are coming, we need to stop this migration wave before we cannot control it anymore’ (Amy Stapleton, Mitrajectoires).

Often in these kinds of situations, disillusionment with the system can rapidly discourage solidarity, and altruistic values disappear as initiatives get blocked by red tape and political games. Thankfully in the case of the Collectif, that was not enough to stop them. Even as they struggled to overcome the challenges, it wasn’t possible to lose the faith when surrounded by so many people pursuing one same goal.   

“One day you are notified that the prefecture is going to dismantle the park without assuring shelter to everybody sleeping there. Then, you ask yourself where the values of people who have seen these people suffering throughout years are, how people can be still ignoring this situation, you go to the park for a last time to fight and then they are more 200 people there who stayed more than 24 hours in order to block any movement from the government. Then you see even if this sometimes seems to go three steps back and after three forward, there is still a sort of mutual solidarity, a big boat where we are all willing to keep floating.“ (Leidy, Mitrajectoires)

The truth is that despite, or perhaps even because of the constant struggle, the Collectif des Olieux became more than an aggregate of associations and volunteers looking for someone to help. Instead, those associations and volunteers formed a community that included the youth in the park. The more they got to know the kids as people, the more frustrated they were by the official discourses that treated these teens as either menaces to society or pitiful objects of charity without agency, and the more they fought side by side for the respect their friends deserved.

Something very important happens when help is offered in this way—not as a gift of charity to a helpless recipient, but as an act of mediation and friendship between two groups, in this case between the youth and public institutions. It turns upside down the misconception of ‘humanitarianism’ which so often refers to organizations giving time, energy, and items, and yet only adding to the pain and humiliation of those they want to help. By creating the Collectif, those involved in the Parc des Olieux created a way to listen to the minors’ voices and integrate them in decisions and actions for their own benefit and needs.  This allows them to help in ways that are actually helpful, not just ways that make them feel helpful.

The Collectif provides us with a model of how to stop seeing people as subjects of charity and sources of warm fuzzy feelings, and instead give those who need help an equal role in the fight for their recognition, first, as human beings, and second, as egalitarian citizens. In the Parc des Olieux, the fight belongs to the migrants themselves. The Collectif is there to make sure their voices are heard, and that they know there are others committed to standing with them.

Sources:

http://clap33.over-blog.com/2015/12/zapzalap-au-parc-des-olieux.html

Interview transcripts with Amy Stapleton and Leidy Barrios.

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