Maggy Donaldson

French Catholics take in refugee family seeking a ‘normal life’

The Salvis are among dozens in Besançon who have taken in homeless refugees, pending rulings on asylum

BESANÇON, France — Between the smoked Morteau sausage and runny cancoillotte cheese sat a plate of sliced turkey, an oddity in a meal otherwise traditional to Franche-Comté, a mountainous region in eastern France.

Bernadette Salvi is getting used to offering halal options at dinner, now that she and her husband, Frédéric Salvi, have welcomed a young family of Muslim asylum seekers from Kosovo into their home. The Salvis are one of dozens of households in the sleepy French city of Besançon offering shelter to refugees who have fled their countries in search of safe haven in Europe. Arta Adami and Irfan Adami, both 25, arrived last month with their 1-year-old daughter, Elsira, at the doorstep of the Salvis’ wooden chalet — the third family they have stayed with since May.

The local effort is part of a national Catholic network that connects homeless asylum seekers with families willing to take them in — an example of efforts already answering Pope Francis’ recent call for Europe’s religious communities to help lodge the hundreds of thousands of people escaping war, repression and poverty. Grass-roots initiatives like this one, religious and otherwise, are galvanizing private citizens throughout the continent to take small yet concrete actions as Europe faces the greatest refugee crisis it has seen since World War II.

French President François Hollande announced earlier this month that the country would welcome 24,000 more refugees over the next two years. France started busing in an additional 1,000 new arrivals from neighboring Germany, where officials say upward of a million refugees could arrive by the end of the year. The relocation from Germany to France will continue throughout the fall.

In a communiqué released earlier this month, the bishops of France urged “all Catholics and those willing” to “open their hearts” to refugees. “We must stop considering these people as aggressors who we should be scared of.” 

The Salvis have offered their homestay as part of an initiative run by Jacques Jouët, a local friar working to find housing for asylum seekers living in the city’s parks — a situation he called “intolerable.”

Jouët said Arta Adami and Irfan Adami arrived at his chapel, cradling Elsira, to ask for help at a meeting of refugee advocates.

Speaking in nearly fluent French at the Salvi dinner table, Arta Adami described how two years ago the couple boarded a minibus in Kosovo after paying a smuggler 4,000 euros (approximately $4,460) to escape familial, political and ethnic rivalries that threatened their lives. “There were so many problems. My parents worked for one political party, and Irfa — he worked for another,” she said.

Contrary to popular impressions of Kosovar asylum seekers, the Adamis weren’t fleeing poverty — both studied law and had jobs. Irfa Adami, though, is Ashkali, an oft-persecuted minority. Arta's family threatened to kill the two over the political party rivalry. At one point, her father attacked Irfa with a baseball bat.

The Adamis found themselves in Besançon, a city of nearly 120,000 people near the France-Switzerland border. They were in and out of shelters intended for asylum seekers for more than a year, but when Elsira was 7 months old, they received a negative asylum decision from the local prefecture, which said it denied them because a document in their dossier was not translated, according to the couple.

After receiving that notification, the Adamis became homeless. They have a lawyer appealing the decision at the local level and in Paris at the national asylum court. The Adamis have the right to housing because they filed an appeal, but a lack of availability left them on the streets for five months. This spring they turned to Jouët, who tapped his network to find them shelter with a local family.

The homestays are temporary, stretching from two weeks to several months, Jouët said, because “it’s not necessarily easy to bring immigrants into your home, into your private life” and most families can’t commit to an indefinite open door. The Adamis will stay with the Salvis, a retired couple in their 60s, at least until the end of September.

Frédéric Salvi said his experiences as the child of an Italian father who immigrated to France in the interwar years allow him to easily sympathize with the challenges faced by the Adamis. “I remain persuaded that there’s a place for everybody,” he said. “We have different lives, but we’re all human. No one has more of a right to live than another.”

Jouët emphasized that while these actions seem small as hundreds of thousands of refugees are entering Europe, which has received more than 500,000 asylum applications this year as of August, they still carry significant symbolic weight. “We don’t have political power. We don’t have financial power,” he said. “But maybe we can decide to create a consciousness, to open hearts that are closed and remove fear.”

Besançon, known for its social engagement and leftist tendencies, is the capital of rural Franche-Comté, which received more than 1,200 asylum applications in 2013 and 2014, many of which are still in process or in appeals. Annette Garcia of Besançon’s branch of Cimade, which helps asylum seekers make their claims, projects the number for 2015 will be much higher; the prefecture will release that figure early next year.

She said midsize cities face particular difficulties taking in asylum seekers because, unlike urban zones that have experienced waves of immigration, they were completely unprepared for the influx. In 2014 France received more than 64,000 asylum applications, the fourth most in Europe, after Germany, Sweden and Italy. The country accepted only about one-fifth of them.

All refugees in France with pending asylum claims have the right to shelter, but “many end up on the streets,” Garcia said, for lack of available, organized housing.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve recently met with 600 mayors as well as top regional and officials and association members focused on migration issues to work out details related to 11,000 new housing spots that he promised in June to create. A major discussion point was the creation of reception centers for asylum seekers and additional housing for those who eventually receive refugee status.

In June the European Union’s statistical office said Kosovars accounted for a quarter of asylum seekers in Europe this year up to that point. Most governments see immigrants from the Balkans as job seekers rather than refugees. France, though, removed Kosovo from its list of safe countries last fall, citing “political and social instability” and the threat of violence to “vulnerable categories of the population” as reasons for doing so. Although the Adamis arrived before that change, every person has the legal right to apply for asylum in France, regardless of nationality. The Adamis said they hope the removal of Kosovo from the list of safe countries will give credence to their claim.

There’s no timeline for their appeal process, so the Adamis pass their days in limbo. Arta Adami said that she hopes they can both finish their studies and restart careers but that all she really wants is “a normal life.”

“We just want to be done with all this,” she said, her eyes welling with tears.

Her timid smile returned when Bernadette Salvi brought out a cheese plate, integral to a French dinner. Arta Adami said Elsira “loves Comté cheese,” the top specialty of the region. “Now that’s a good sign of integration,” Jouët said.

As the parents took Elsira upstairs to bed, she turned back to her adopted family. She began speaking recently, and as she waved good night, she added one of her few phrases, “Au revoir.”

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