My experience at CEDRE, Secours Catholique – Nathalie Zouein

Internship report: 

My experience at CEDRE, Secours Catholique

The humanitarian field is a specific field centered on mutual aid, sharing, exchange and selflessness, in order to devote oneself to others. This field has always interested me and that is one reason why I wanted to live this experience in the Centre for Refugees at the Secours Catholique in Paris, by doing interpretation and translation from English into French. When I sent my CV and my motivation letter to the manager, I knew I was going to live a unique experience, enriching and moving, humanly speaking. Moving, in the sense that this experience consisted in helping political refugees, most of the time.

Political refugees are people who have experienced real suffering for a short, and sometimes long, period of their lives, people who have left everything, their wives, their husbands, their families, hoping to find a welcoming and reassuring place to have a better life in a developed country. They are ambitious people, who dream of building a strong and stable future, but the language barrier often does not make it easy. That is why teachers come spontaneously to give their time to teach them the French language.

On the morning I arrived, I immediately saw a very large number of people in the hall, waiting for a meeting with my colleagues: social law advisors or social workers most of the time, who had come to help them with all matters and proceedings concerning their rights on French soil, as well as with their applications for asylum. What drew my attention was the fact that they came without resources because they did not yet have rights, and they waited in the hall with empty stomachs, sometimes for hours, but always motivated by this hope to build a new life on French soil. My mission was to translate the testimonies of these refugees but I did not hesitate on the morning I arrived to offer my service for breakfast, by offering cheese sandwich as well as a hot drinks. Their smiles in return were my greatest reward.

During the day I went from office to office to help my colleagues, who most of the time did not understand the language of the refugees. It was a pleasure for me to come and interpret what they said. This often concerned stories of what had happened in their countries, which later had to be transcribed to forms for the OFPRA, which would then decide whether they were to receive asylum. When interpreting each story, I did not hide that it was sometimes difficult to remain keep a professional distance towards these people who had suffered so much. Although it was my duty to remain professional and efficient to better assist them, we are not machines but fellow human beings in front of them, and I allowed myself to put them at ease by trying to joke with them and by telling them stories.

Although during the day I stayed mostly at the center, my manager also gave me missions on the ground, in provisional places where the refugees were staying, for instance under bridges. This sounds unbelievable but it is true. These people, who had suffered from abuse in their countries, were hosted under a bridge as housing in one of the most developed countries of the world. Once there, I saw the tents, tables and clothes stacked near their tents. If someone were to ask me how they had the courage to stay despite the cold, well the answer would be: hope. Only hope, kept them smiling and gave them the courage to go to the center every morning, despite both the distance and the language barrier. Once there, my mission was to do group interpretation, keeping them informed about the information meetings that took place, about the laws concerning their rights and about any changes concerning their situation. Several of us were doing this, and sometimes me and my colleagues stayed until 10 o’clock at night.

Likewise, on the ground, I sometimes had to accompany certain refugees who insisted that I go with them to the police headquarters to sign attendance papers, and to their lawyers’ offices to help them support their application for asylum, because every refugee has the right to a lawyer when he or she decides to make an appeal after a rejected asylum application. I had to translate every single word for the secretaries of the lawyers and the administration of the police headquarters. It is also worth stressing that it is not easy to get by in everyday life for a refugee who comes to a foreign country and who does not know anything about the system and the language. I was happy to help them and to remove the language barrier that is at the basis of every difficulty, and to facilitate communication.

What I have learned, an enriching experience.

It was an enriching experience both intellectually and relational. During this experience, which I will not forget, I met exceptional people who actually invested of their time without hesitating for a second. I also met refugees who moved me and with whom I sometimes forged friendly ties, refugees from all over the world, with lives and cultures so different from ours. In doing this work, I have given, but I also learned a lot. Despite their suffering, they keep smiling and are generous. My obligations as a student, make that, right now, I cannot go back to the center because I have to build my future, but at any opportunity I will not hesitate to help them again.

Nathalie Zouein 

Catholic University of Paris

Master II

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