Last Thursday, I found myself in the pretty Jardins de l’Europe in Annecy, wheeling and dealing on a mobile phone while police watched on with loaded guns. This is one of the famous areas of Annecy, right by the lake, between the Pont des Amours (Love Bridge) and the large sightseeing boat docks. So what was I doing?
Rewind four months when I was invited to a meeting completely by accident. A different local Wendy was supposed to be invited, but Facebook’s autocomplete stuck my name in there instead, and everyone at the meeting was as surprised as I was. The meeting was to discuss ways to help kids who had been living on the streets with their families in Annecy for up to five years while their parents awaited papers allowing them to stay and work through refugee status. Nothing happens quickly in France, and 14 families were surviving on the goodwill of charities, a temporary shelter they had commandeered and a couple of adult refugees who had been granted the right to work who were sharing their money. Annecy has given them no assistance, despite the law saying they must at least provide shelter. This has kept me busy, and is one of the reasons I haven’t written my blog for such a long time.
Rewind to last Wednesday, when I ended up at the beach with some volunteers and ten of those kids so they could enjoy a day at the beach. The kids splashed and played and ate ice cream (I admit that being the Ice Cream Lady instead of Toilet Accompany Lady was more attractive). Skiidy Gonzales kindly donated a van and driver to transport the kids, and as I waved goodbye from the curb at the end of the day, they blew me kisses. They were happy, like kids should be.
And then Thursday came along. At 7am, police entered the refugee’s only shelter and ordered them out at gunpoint. Kids cried and a lady was knocked to the ground. They were overly forceful with the families, but I didn’t know any of this because I was still curled up in bed, sleeping soundly, like many of us.
I found the refugee families, who had sought shade from the 35° heat at the Jardins de l’Europe, that afternoon. The kids’ faces lacked the carefree smiles of just a day earlier, and they walked with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Would they be sleeping on the streets again tonight, after enjoying the comparative ‘luxury’ of their shelter, where they happily shared bedrooms and showered in cold water, because it’s still better than no shower at all?
After many phone calls, emails and verbal discussions — and always being watched by armed police — we managed to temporarily house everyone. It was not an easy task, and by no means a solution, and the local department continues to ignore the demands of local charities, lawyers and citizens to do the right (and legal) thing to at least provide shelter. Of the 14 families, two were sent to Lyon to face a judge (both families have been freed and have returned to Annecy), two with small children have been rehomed (hooray!), a family with an autistic son was put directly on a plane back to Pristina, and a few remain under some sort of house arrest. All remaining families are at a constant risk of living on the streets between temporary accommodation, but due to their legal refugee situation, they can’t leave the area. They’re basically stuck.
As much as I normally love to write about how much I’m baffled by some aspects of French culture, today, I’m saddened, frustrated and worried for the gentle kids who, through no fault of their own, are dreaming of stability and security instead of ponies. My involvement in this entire situation came about by the wrong Wendy being invited to a meeting. I hope I’ve made a difference, but there’s still so much to do. We need more accidental Wendys.
If you’d like to learn more about what’s been happening in this financially loaded part of France, visit the Lake Aid blog.
If you’d like to help these families through grass-roots charity, where every cent goes to them, you can donate here (we desperately need funds – even if it’s just a few euros!).