Sr. Valentine Delafon. Journey on the Outskirts of Immigration
A testimony from Sr. Valentine Delafon, FMA, a member of the community of Lyon, France, opens our view to the world of the outskirts, one of immigration and seeking identity.
Infonline: Where do you work?
Sr. Valentine: I work as an educator in an association called "Valdocco". It was created in 1995 by a Salesian, Jean-Marie Petitclerc. We follow the motto "to educate by evangelizing and to evangelize by educating" not only for respect of the law in secular life, but also because 80% of the young people whom we welcome are Muslims.
Infonline: What kind of mission is it?
Sr. Valentine: Jean-Marie Petitclerc frequently tells us that beyond the techniques and human sciences, which we must know and intelligently use, our role consists primarily in "believing in young people, hoping and loving them as Jesus did". If at the end of the week I can say that I tried to make these young people more authentic, more human, more mature, then I can say that I have permitted Jesus to perform His work of liberation. At the beginning of my work I was tempted to abandon them, not understanding this profound meaning. They told me that any lay person could do as much as and even better than me. After having spoken with my community I became ever more convinced that Jesus is present in my mission, notwithstanding the appearances.
Infonline: What do you feel about it?
Sr. Valentine: I have been working in this association for a few years now, but I remember very well when an adolescent said to me: "Valentine, why are you doing all this for me?" This question surprised me and I believe that Jesus was using me for something greater. These young people from so many cultures and religions feel that they are accepted for what they are, without being judged, because of Don Bosco's pedagogy. For me this is fundamental to initiate the work of integration. Dialogue can begin in the moment in which each one feels accepted.
Infonline: Can you describe the reality of the young immigrants?
Sr. Valentine: There is a difference between second generation immigrants and those who have just arrived. Those who arrive for political reasons, or health, or for a better life, find themselves facing many uncertainties. Some of these young people have parents who had positions of responsibility in their country, but once arriving in France, their degrees are not recognized and they must begin all over again. For these young people the culture of their origins is that told to them by their parents. Arriving in France, they look around and want to integrate themselves, but at times they do not find it possible to fit into the rhythm of change. Their families have difficulty with administrative documents and the arrangements for a visa. Without permission to stay in the country, they do not succeed in finding steady work and this slows down the process of integration. This situation at times lasts for 2 or 3 years. The families make tremendous efforts to remain together and united. Then the parents lose patience and the children react in school rebelling against all that represents the French State.
Then there are those who are born in France or arrived at a very early age. For these there are various difficulties of identity because they are French, but having foreign parents they live the difficulty of dual belonging.
The last category is that of young people who belong to families that have had the possibility of profiting fully from the values proposed by France. The parents speak French, work and come into contact with the educational institutions; they speak little of their origins, participate in municipal activities and register their children in the State schools so that there may be the possibility of a future. They do not fear dialogue.
Infonline: Where do the young people come from?
Sr. Valentine: The majority from Central and North Africa and Eastern Europe. In the Argenteui neighborhood we have more than 40 different ethnicities. All of this little world must live together in the restricted space of the outskirts of the great cities.
The young people have their own language, their own codes, roles, hierarchies and organizations to protect them against each other. It is important to know a bit of their family history, to know where they come from, what culture they have received,
Infonline: In what way do you try to help them?
Sr. Valentine: At times I can only offer a friendly presence, one that listens and comforts and shares. Little ordinary things, but even in this way I can bear witness to the Christian faith. My faith does not allow me to judge, but rather to accept their humanity, their joys and their sufferings.
Infonline: Can you tell us some stories that will help us to understand what these young people are living?
Sr. Valentine: I will tell you about Said, the oldest of 4 children. His father is killing himself with work to maintain the family and his mother cares for the younger children. The parents do not speak French well and cannot take part in formation activities. The boy knows the financial situation of his family very well because he is the one who fills out the documents. He also knows that at the end of the month financial aid for the little ones arrives, but it is never enough and therefore he has decided to begin working to earn something. But he is under great pressure because he has too much responsibility on his shoulders.
The school has already given him an hour of make up time in the evening and this has forced him to give up soccer, the only activity that he had to distract himself. He is being gradually extinguished. His parents are not models of social fulfillment. He speaks with his friends about Algeria and visualizes it as an ideal country. However, he knows very well that he has only visited that country for 3 weeks, and he knows that he is not well looked upon there, and is, in fact known as "the Frenchman". He is neither French nor Algerian. With regard to Islam, he recognizes only the challenge of fasting with his friends during the time of Ramadan and this is, for him, in only picture of identity. Young people like Said are very sensitive to the words and coherence of adults. They look for an identity and follow whoever shows the most conviction in what they say, do and think.
But who is the most convincing? The educator, the teacher, the extremist Imman, the leader of the neighborhood or the sports coach?
Infonline: Do the young people succeed in rebuilding their identity?
Sr. Valentine: The greater of the young people do not succeed in adapting their values to those of French society. They do not know the story of their parents, but not even that of France imposed by the school. They frequently gather in groups and the fragile young people go along with the rules of the leaders: dangerous games, verbal and physical challenges to prove their strength and loyalty. They have a strong desire to exist, but when society rejects them, they become hostile and develop ever more aggressive attitudes.
Infonline: What can an FMA do?
Sr. Valentine: If these young people feel death in their lives, then I, as a Salesian, must give them life. In France one does not die of hunger, but in our neighborhood we must save many young people from death. They are looking for solid adults to whom they can entrust themselves. They cling to life and love that we attempt to give them. Our work is to be present in the difficult neighborhoods (in the suburbs of Paris and Lyon) to prevent violence and delinquency.