I heard about an association in France that helps refugees by “inserting” them into society. They would organize activities and parties to teach them about the French culture, language, and national principles. I thought it could be a great opportunity for me to share my knowledge and experience as an immigrant in France; however, I have to admit, I was mostly driven by the curiosity of meeting real refugees. I had indeed heard about them on the news; their struggle is one of the principal matters of the presidential election in 2017 and always a hot topic of discussion. I wanted to meet them in order to see above the simple statistics and basic conversations.
On my way to the museum where we were supposed to meet the group, I imagined many things, they were mostly horrible things I must confess. I thought I would meet shattered families, crying babies, sad faces, and heartbreaking stories. I wanted to hear about the atrocities they lived, because I was madly curious and, now that I think about it, I think I was completely stupid. Once I arrived on the site with my sister, the first thing I told her was “they are super normal, no?” She smiled. In front of me, no more statistics, “job stealers”, “future terrorists”, nor “Western haters.” I could not catch the pain on their faces, but actually just a huge smile. One of them talked to me first. I told him I liked his shirt and he responded, “Yes, I knew I was coming to the museum, therefore I wanted to look good.” His answer made me think of my younger brother, who would always “dress good” anytime we would go to a place he liked.
As the afternoon went, I realized with pain as well as hope, that these people were completely lost, but mostly strong. Alone, completely alone, far away from their countries, their families and friends, they have tried to find a way to live again. For most of them, it was their first time in a museum, so they had a lot of questions. They questioned me about the purpose of a museum, and why people would care so much about art to the point of paying 15 euros. They interrogated me about the nudity on the painting, and the link with the French culture. Later in the afternoon, we took some pictures, and even a video of the “Mannequin Challenge” style. Though most of them were young adults, they actually acted like children the entire day, being happy and enthusiastic about everything and anything.
I stopped and thought, “Lucky them.”
Nothing ironic in my thoughts, I obviously did not reflect on the situation that brought them here, or the devastating reasons that would put them in their shoes. But I sincerely envied them in a quick moment for their naivety, their enthusiasm, and genuine happiness. Like big kids, they were growing, learning about the culture, their rights, and their ambitions. Most of them were speaking about going back to school, while others were mentioning, “becoming someone important.” They did not put any obstacles in their mind; they have dreams, and do not care if they can achieve them or not.
This day was more educative for me than it was for them. I thought I would be able to help them drastically, but they were the one changing my perception. We often think of sadness and misery while thinking of refugees, while the reality is different. For sure, they come from the hardest backgrounds, but they decided (or had to) leave. They decided to make a change in their life, try again, fall, and try again, go back to school, rebuild now as previous lives have been destroyed, and move on. They are real examples of hope, bravery, and courage.
This article is written by Abla Benyahia