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In multireligious borough, people live peacefully

By Francois Gloutnay
Catholic News Service


MONTREAL (CNS) — Marcella Villalobos Cid, 36, lives in Saint-Denis, a working-class neighbourhood in the north end of Paris, with her husband, Guillaume, and their two-year-old daughter, Kateri. In her job as co-ordinator for Jesuit Refugee Service’s hospitality network, Villalobos often finds herself concerned for refugees and their families.

After police raided a Saint-Denis apartment for terrorists Nov. 18, Villalobos found herself on the opposite end of the concern spectrum.

“Every time I hear about airstrikes being launched in Syria, I send text messages to refugees and ask them if they’ve been able to reach their families out there. This week, we switched position: It’s the refugees themselves who texted me, when Saint-Denis was being raided by the police. Just to make sure that I was OK. Such solidarity is just priceless,” she said.

“Saint-Denis is rather close to Paris, to my office and to our friends. It’s easy to get around town through transit. But besides those down-to-earth considerations, there’s one reason we chose to live here, in Saint-Denis: It’s a small microcosm of French society and of the world we live in,” Villalobos told the Montreal-based Presence info.

More than 100,000 people live in the borough, whose inhabitants are from 170 different nationalities.

“In Saint-Denis, community life is rich and thriving. There’s lot of young people here. What’s more, it’s a welcome hall for many immigrants,” said Villalobos. It’s also a multireligious borough where “Catholics, Muslims, Jews and Protestants are in good terms and live peacefully.”

When police raided the terrorist hideout just a few blocks from the Villalobos home, friends from all walks of life and many different nationalities sent them dozens of text messages.

“They wanted to know how we felt, if our family was safe and sound and if we needed anything,” she said.

The JRS-France project co-ordinator said terrorist attacks such as the ones that struck Paris Nov. 13 “are commonplace in the daily life of many people around the world. I hope it will open everyone’s eyes to the situation lived by people who live in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq or Ukraine. Those countries have known such terror for many, many years, and on a daily basis.”

Before moving to France five years ago, Villalobos lived and worked in Montreal, where she volunteered with the Canadian church’s Development and Peace agency. She has worked with Mexican seasonal farmworkers and worked with the poor as a socio-pastoral agent for the Archdiocese of Montreal.

Villalobos still follows events in Quebec and Canada. She was saddened to learn of an online petition asking to stem the imminent settlement of Syrian refugees in Canada. Some fear that terrorists might mingle with the refugees and become a threat for national security, but the Canadian government announced Nov. 24 it would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees by Dec. 31 and another 15,000 by the end of February.

Villalobos, who works daily with refugees, said people “must refrain from the temptation of putting in the same bag the terrorists who commit those horrible acts of violence and the refugees who are actually fleeing the violence of those radicals.”

“To us, it’s pure nonsense to believe that jihadists might mingle with refugees and submit themselves to that long, awful and horrific journey on sea and land, toward Europe. Many people have died while trying to get across the Mediterranean. Do you sincerely believe that any jihadist would be willing to take such a risk? It’s totally insane. It’s just pure nonsense,” she said.

“The Muslims that are being accompanied by Jesuit Refugee Service are friendly, highly critical of their own country. They even criticize Islam itself,” she added.

Every year, Jesuit Refugee Service, with the help of volunteer families and religious communities, helps 500 refugees settle in France. Up to a thousand refugees benefit from the services offered by JRS, be it legal counsel or French lessons.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks, Catholic leaders in Paris and Saint-Denis offered soothing words to the faithful.

“The Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, and the Bishop of Saint-Denis, Pascal Delannoy, asked that ‘through our prayers, our words and our deeds, we may be peacemakers,’ ” Villalobos said.

“Being a peacemaker . . . it’s just not possible to cross your arms and stay at home. Whether we live in Paris, in Saint-Denis or elsewhere in the world, we must ask ourselves what it means to be a peacemaker and what must be done to build a world that’s fairer and more peaceful,” she said.

Gloutnay is a staffer at Presence info based in Montreal.

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