Even in Paris, refugees seek assistance and asylum

Even in Paris, refugees seek assistance and asylum

March 31, 2008
Written by Daniel Hazard

Israel Komi Amageshie (l.), a refugee from Togo, with missionary Tim Rose. W. Evan Golder photo.
In February, when Tim Rose read the headlines, "Violence in Chad Intensifies," and saw the bloody scenes from Chad on his television in a Paris suburb, he knew what he could expect in about six months.

Most of us can't even locate the French-speaking country of Chad on a world map, let alone pinpoint it as a land-locked, poverty-stricken country, nearly twice the size of Texas, just south of Libya and west of Sudan.

But Rose knows. As a UCC missionary with Global Ministries, the combined overseas ministry of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Rose is assigned to the Reformed Church of France to work in its program for refugees, primarily from French-speaking Africa.

From six years experience helping refugees from Cameroon, Togo, Zaire and Ivory Coast in the resettlement process, he knows that it takes about half a year before refugees from France's former African colonies can make their way across water and land to seek a new home in France, away from the death and destruction he's witnessing on TV.

"Those with means, who work for the government or for large corporations, will arrive here immediately, practically on the next plane," he says. "They won't have any problem finding a place to stay or work to do.

"But many of the rest, especially those with Protestant connections, probably will find their way to the Foyer in Aubervilliers."

Vital Protestant ministry

A suburb of Paris, Aubervilliers is a depressed city of 70,000 located just north of the "City of Lights." Although Aubervilliers once was a middle-class textile town, today, according to Rose, 80 percent of the people live in government-subsidized low income housing. More than half the population is made up of immigrants, mostly of African and Arab descent.

In 1929, the Foyer Protestant started as a small wooden church. Today its 30-year-old building sits in downtown Aubervilliers, a vital Protestant parish nearby to a centuries-old Catholic church and a communist City Hall. From a tiny office he shares tucked in the back of the church, Rose engages in parish ministry, prison ministry, youth ministry and refugee ministry.

"About a quarter of the persons I deal with have no papers," he says. "Many of these people aren't assimilating well, and I deal with many second-generation immigration problems: drugs, school drop-outs, petty crime, big crime, and so forth."

Technically, it is very difficult to immigrate to France, he explains. "There are no national quotas, no lottery systems for letting people into the country," he says. Even so, some 25- to 30,000 persons each year seek political asylum. Others arrive via student visas or marriage to French citizens or work visas if a corporation brings them in.

Diplomatic passport worthless

Some arrive legitimately, then suddenly find themselves stateless and without papers.

For example, 10 years ago Israel Komi Amageshie arrived in Paris on a diplomatic passport, in charge of protocol at the Togo embassy. Suddenly, a mini-civil war in Togo made him a man without a country. Aligned with Togo's prime minister, Amageshie lost his job when Togo's president won the power struggle. He was threatened with imprisonment if he returned to Togo.

His diplomatic passport worthless, he sought help from Tim Rose and the Foyer for himself, his wife and their two children. Twice over a three-and-a-half-year period Rose helped him apply for political asylum — and twice they failed. In the meantime, he became a worship leader at the Foyer and active on the parish council. He prayed daily in the church.

When he couldn't work legally, he and his wife took what work they could get. He worked first as a security guard, then in a gas station; on the side he videotaped weddings and special occasions. His wife cleaned houses then worked as a home health aid. When her client went into a nursing home, she became unemployed again.

Finally, with Rose's help Amageshie received a renewable one-year permit. Once he renews this, the next step is a 10-year permit, even though he would like to return to Togo.

During his absence, he has missed the funerals of his mother and his father and his wife has missed visiting her aging mother. Confirmation is a big event in Togo, but both his children were confirmed at the Foyer in France.

"I thank God every day that I'm here," Amageshie says through an interpreter. "Faith makes your head strong. Faith is what got me through all this."

Despite the language difference, he wants to make it clear that Tim Rose helped him a lot, physically, morally and financially.

'For us, this is normal'

Rose trained to be a teacher, but first served as a Global Ministries intern in Geneva and in Beirut and the Middle East. While interning in Beirut, one afternoon he was sitting with a Lebanese friend during the war between Israel and Hezbullah. Despite the sounds of explosions and gunfire punctuating their conversation, his friend seemed very relaxed. Rose was anything but.

"How can you be so calm?" Rose asked him.

"For us, this is normal," his friend replied.

"That sentence changed my life," Rose explains. "For me, 'normal' was anything but what I was experiencing. I realized how privileged I had been as I was growing up. I knew then that I just couldn't go back to my old life, but that I wanted to do my little part in the world to try to make things better."

When his internship ended and he decided to become a missionary, he was given a choice of serving in Nairobi, Fiji or Beirut. How glamorous, he thought, to be working in Fiji, on an island in the South Pacific.
Then he had second thoughts. "I felt as though God had led me to Lebanon, to experience this so that I could clearly hear God calling," he says. So he stayed put in the Middle East.

Local churches and camps

Later this year, Rose will spend time speaking to UCC and Disciples churches and summer camps, telling of his years of experience assisting refugees. Worldwide, according to the 2007 World Refugee Survey, some 13.4 million refugees are homeless and seek asylum. Of these, only 69.4 thousand persons have been resettled.

Back in the United States, Rose will learn only from afar the fate of refugees from Chad arriving in France. Next, wherever he is assigned, he is not worried.

His ministry in France has taught him that he, "a missionary from North Carolina, can feel right at home with Moroccans and Congolese, Algerians and Portuguese, Togolese and Spanish, Zairois and Italians — and oh, I almost forgot," he laughs, "with French, as well."

"I have learned that there are many different ways to look at the world, at Christianity, and at God," he says, "and that other cultures' ways of seeing things may be just as valid as my own."

Lear More

To learn how your congregation can help resettle a refugee family, contact Mary Kuenning Gross, UCC executive for refugee and immigration ministries, 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115; phone: 216/736-3212; email: grossm@ucc.org.

The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News. He visited France in February. 

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