When he crossed the Mediterranean to Italy in a makeshift boat, Yasir prayed a lot. On the sea, as the water entered the boat, this 32-year-old Sudanese felt very strongly that, in this solitude, only God could help him. “At that moment, you no longer have either father or mother, he said. Only God remains. » On the boat there were Muslims and Christians. And as in the book of Jonah where it is said that in the storm“each prayed to his God”, on Yasir’s boat, Muslim and Christian prayers resonated. One of the passengers knew the traveler’s invocation – which Muslims recite to ask for protection – and all the others, Muslims and Christians, started repeating after him. The Christians also recited their prayers, and the Muslims followed them. “Teach me how to pray” his neighbor, who was neither Christian nor Muslim, asked Yasir.
For migrants, the faith, which they have often rooted, constitutes a pillar, a resource, in a difficult journey of exile. In this test, “it allows them to stand up” observes Guillaume Rossignol, deputy director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). But once in France, the transition from a very religious society in their country of origin to a secularized society confronts migrants with atheism, religious plurality and secularism. For them, the novelty of this context often leads to an evolution in their practice, towards a faith that is sometimes more private or more interior.
Upon arriving in France in 2018, Yasir experienced his first surprises. Arriving in a Parisian camp at the end of the month of Ramadan, he met a French volunteer, a Muslim, who did not practice ritual fasting. “He told me that no one ever forced him to do it,” remembers Yasir, very surprised. For this Sudanese who had been trained by his family, from the age of 12, to fast half the day, then from the age of 17 to fast the whole day, this was quite unprecedented.. “I understood that people here had a choice, he confides. I discovered another connection to Islam. »
Yasir also quickly noticed that relationships change when the norms of a religion do not apply to everyone. While he was fasting, the young man was surprised to see people eating or smoking in front of him, as if nothing had happened. “In our country, people who cannot fast do not eat in front of others,” he explains.
“They are more Muslim than us”
The shock, for some exiles, also comes from meeting very generous people, but not Muslims.. “When we were in the camps, a lot of volunteers were there for us, teaching us French,” remembers Hassan, 35, also Sudanese. “They did everything that religion asks us to do, without being believers,” he then remarks, disconcerted. He heard his friends say: “The French are very nice, all they need is for them to convert, and they will go to paradise. »
Sometimes, the void is felt when the practice no longer punctuates daily life. “At first, I felt like I was arriving on another planet,” also testifies Grace (1), a Nigerian Pentecostal Christian, noting that so few people went to church on Sunday in France. She, in her country of origin, did not only go there on Sundays, but also on Wednesdays and Friday evenings. When she arrived in France in 2003, she spent six months without attending church. “I missed him a lot, but I wasn’t sad, because He was with me,” she says, seeing signs of God’s presence in all circumstances. Grace always had a small Bible with her, which she read in the evening and several times during the day. She ended up joining an evangelical church, where she joined the choir.
This sudden plunge into a society where religious practice is not structured by the community also puts the practice of migrants to the test, sometimes to the point of making it falter. In Afghanistan, in the province of Nangarhar, Ali (1) had learned to say his five prayers a day since childhood. His father told him to go and pray, but also the “white beards”, the city notables, who told the men to go to the mosque.
“I believe that everyone has their own relationship with God”
Arriving in France, social pressure suddenly eased, and Ali found himself alone facing his religious duty. “The community has a lot of effect on the practice, he analyzes today while observing his Afghan friends. I know people who were good Muslims back home, but here they drink alcohol and don’t pray. » For him, the arrival in Europe functioned as a revealer of the sincerity of the faith. “In Afghanistan, you have no choice: you don’t have access to alcohol, for example. Here it is. So if in your heart you are not truly Muslim, your faith does not hold, he believes. You must practice your religion and say your prayers for your God, not to please the community. » He himself, however, admits to having relaxed his practice and no longer being as diligent in prayer.
For others, learning about secularism has forced their religious practice back into the private sphere. Walid, a Libyan, for example, reflected on the fact that in France, religion is a subject that we cannot talk about in all circumstances, nor with everyone. “France is a secular country”, he elaborates. “There are Christians, Muslims, Jews and others who do not believe. If the person is not religious, I will not talk about religion with them. » Only with those he knows to be believers, he allows himself to say: “Insh’Allah!” »
Yasir has come back from his first surprises. Today, he has obtained his refugee status, has a stable situation, works in the installation of air conditioning. His relationship with faith has also evolved: he sometimes drinks alcohol, no longer goes to the mosque often, and accepts it without complexes. “The important thing is to believe in God”, he said. He has also broadened his vision of the divine, and is interested in different traditions, Buddhist, Sikh, and is preparing to borrow a book on the history of Judaism. “I believe that everyone has their own relationship with God, he thought. The important thing is not to do bad things. »
(1) First names have been changed.
A place of welcome for exiles from Calais
Founded in Calais in 2016 by a monk from the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht, a British pastor and a French Catholic, the Maria-Skobtsova house is a place of welcome for exiles from Calais, in particular women and families with children.
Inspired by the houses of hospitality of Dorothy Day, but also by the Orthodox saint Maria Skobtsova, the house makes room for the spirituality of exiled people, and notably includes a chapel decorated with icons. A daily prayer time is organized there by the volunteers.
The house is particularly linked to the community of Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox migrants in Calais, and accompanies them in the celebration of Christmas and Orthodox Easter, with the Catholic parishes of the city. Exiles and volunteers live a community life there, sharing cooking and cleaning.
The house is named after Maria Skobtsova, a Russian poet and nun exiled in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, founder of homes for isolated young girls, resistance fighter and finally deported to Ravensbrück in 1945. A religious woman, she was canonized by the Orthodox Church in 2004.