By Christine Haldemann
Thursday, April 27, 2017

I tried to convince our mayor to welcome a Syrian family. We live in a little village. I read somewhere that if every village would welcome 0.01 percent of its population, we could help our country do what it should do: welcome a few thousand immigrants. This meant three or four people for our village. But our town hall was not ready for this.

So I kept on asking myself, "What can I do?"

AEDE, a former French Mennonite Mission organization, based in Hautefeuille (on the east side of Paris), supports mentally and psychological handicapped people. It works within the French Protestant and Lutheran organization. AEDE is not specialized in emergency housing, so they asked the nearby churches and everyone who wanted to help.

We formed a group called "Collectif AAA77": AAA as Accueil (hospitality), Aide (help), Accompagnement (accompaniment); 77 stands for the French county where it takes place. AEDE offered an apartment they owned to allow Syrian refugees to have a home.

In September 2016, we welcomed our first family, a woman named Souzan, with her two boys, Zen (16) and Amor (11). Souzan is a homemaker and used to live in a big house, with several servants. Now, about half a year later, there are seven people living with her in the apartment in France.

In October, her sister, Soulafa, moved in. She had been living in a Salvation Army shelter in Paris. Soulafa is a journalist who has lived in France for three to four years, working in a Syrian radio station supported by UNESCO. Her husband, Nabih, came from Turkey at the end of October 2016. He had to stop law studies because of the war. In December 2016, a friend of the two women came, named Sana. She graduated in archaeology, worked as a photojournalist, and had to flee her country after her father was killed and she was threatened, too. At the end of December, Laith, Sana's husband, arrived. He was working for a British organization while waiting for his visa in Turkey. All seven of our guests are from Aleppo, and from a Muslim background, except for Nabih, who is a Syrian Orthodox Christian. In March, Nabih's family arrived and was welcomed into an apartment in eastern France.

Sometimes we get frustrated when things don't go as we, French people, think they should, when we don't understand one another because of culture differences. But most of the time, we are happy together. We are rejoicing for every document that is issued (health insurance, carte de sejour [green card], driving license, and so on); for new words learned; for Zen starting to open himself after being through a difficult time; for kind neighbors. We organize opportunities to get together with our Syrian friends as a supportive group to share food, games, and have fun.

Through this experience, we are learning how to listen to each other, trying to find out what real help is, learning kindness and respectful understanding toward people from different backgrounds (with the refugees and within our group). I did things that I never thought I could do, and encountered lots of kind and generous people.

Our new Syrian friends are so courageous. They lost every material thing they had. (Souzan came with almost nothing in an empty sports bag after a three-year journey through Lebanon, Egypt, Lebanon again, Turkey, Greece and Germany.) Some of their family members and friends died. They are struggling with little money, small apartments, a new language, a new form of writing, and to acquire new habits. Yet, they don't complain, and they trust in God. I'm learning from them. One of them said, "Maybe after I've lost many things through war, God wants to give me better things."

We hope that all seven of them will be able to live on their own and start to rebuild their lives in a country that will become a safe and friendly place for our new Syrian friends.


Christine and her husband, Joel, are members at a Mennonite church that partners with Mennonite Mission Network. Recently, Christine felt convicted to help refugees in her town of Hautefeuille, France. "I do it because I'm a child of God, suffering because my human brothers and sisters are suffering due to war and human wickedness." Several Mennonites from two churches in Paris joined together to ask themselves, "What can I do!?" Here's Haldemann's response. 



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