Inspired by the Scalabrinian spiritual aspect of welcoming, the organization Le Pont is witness to a unique experience of assistance and support extended to individuals in exile awaiting confirmation of their status.
From Centre Justice et Foi (In-house translation)
A conversation with Alessandra Santopadre and Arthur Durieux
Alessandra Santopadre, Director, Le Pont, and Assistant, Office for Cultural and Ritual Communities, Diocese of Montreal
Arthur Durieux, cofounder of Le Pont, Assistant (2015 to 2017) to the Diocese of Montreal’s refugee-sponsoring program.
Through the following conversation, we learn about how one faith-based organization incorporates the ethical demands of hospitality into its work, and how bonds are forged in this way that are the essence of belonging in a society.
VE: What is Le Pont and what is your mission?
LP: Le Pont was founded in October 2017 as a shelter and service-point for the newly arrived and for persons seeking asylum. As an initiative of the Office of Cultural and Ritual Communities of the Diocese of Montreal, the organization was established in response to the growing and urgent need for accommodation among those seeking asylum.
We represent a continuation of the Diocese of Montreal’s historical role, hearkening back to previous work in the area of welcoming immigrants, such as the efforts on behalf of the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ at the end of the 1970s.
Almost a half-century later, Le Pont was instituted as a grass-roots response to crises of displacement spawned by the many ongoing conflicts and wars, some of which we may have heard of.
VE: To whom does Le Pont offer accommodation and protection?
LP: They can be those who are vulnerable: for instance, women on their own, single mothers or families. We provide them with safe temporary housing that offers a sense of family and opportunities for interaction, and a great many services as well. To make their integration process less arduous, we follow up personally with each family’s situation and their needs. We refer them to appropriate community organizations. We also make use of community organizations to establish partnerships and hold activities (conferences, webinars, cross-training, social and cultural events, volunteering, etc.). In addition, many Montreal parishes supply us with materials, support, volunteer assistance and numerous donations.
Remember that much of our work also consists of advocacy activities that we take before the authorities in order to protect and encourage asylum seekers, in addition to safeguarding their rights and their access to necessary services (1). These efforts include the drafting of letters and petitions challenging the federal and provincial authorities. One concrete example of the struggle to which Le Pont is committed is mobilization to ensure that the children of asylum seekers have access to affordable daycare services. We spoke out against the fact that these children were being denied access to subsidized educational daycare facilities or benefit from advance tax payment programs for daycare fees.
The situation presents an obstacle to adequate economic and social integration, among other things in terms of finding work and francization for the parents. It also prevents the children from participating in pre-school. For single mothers, these structural obstacles translate into dependency on social assistance, encountering discrimination in the search for accommodation and further destabilization of their family situation. These rights must extend to all parents, regardless of their status.
VE: How do your team and the people you are accommodating find the challenges of the pandemic, and how is the organizational setup inside the house working for them?
LP: Following the first announcements by the government concerning social distancing, quarantines and the lockdown, we responded immediately. First, we minimized the team in order to protect our staff and volunteers. We quickly changed our methods of providing assistance. We had to go into lockdown and adapt to new living conditions inside the residence in response to the circumstances brought on by the pandemic. That meant we had to explain everything clearly. For us it was important to convey the information to our residents in a precise and instructive fashion, without inciting panic or anxiety.
One of our first concerns was maintaining food security. All the food banks with whom we collaborate were temporarily closed. In those uncertain circumstances, we reached out to the parishes that work with us on a regular basis to ask for donations. We also appealed to social media to set up direct assistance for families. Then we went to the food banks that were open again in order to prevent people from having to take the metro. For the many single mothers whom we assist, travelling is already difficult enough with children and bags to carry. So it was important for us to cut down as much as possible the amount of travel by public transportation in order to reduce the risk of infection.
Covid-19 was globally unprecedented. Our second task was to organize meetings to share information about the pandemic. In the course of these meetings and various individual discussions, we realized the residents at Le Pont were in many cases showing signs of anxiety, worry and psychological distress due to the added financial instability or their immigration status, but also not knowing how long the lockdown would last. Without access to the assistance provided by the various services (access to information, health care, social services and employment), their situation became complicated. Certain individuals began to relive trauma symptoms they had undergone during their experiences as migrants. In spite of their resilient strength, such distress is typical subsequent to the many injustices and humiliating discriminatory situations that preceded the pandemic.
‘‘Hospitality includes integrating people as citizens and making them belong. The latter may take the form of becoming a member of a group, of a faith community, of an association. But all these forms of belonging, however necessary, are not enough unless they are nurtured by democratic participation and the consciousness of belonging to a political community in association with rights.’’
VE: How have your approaches with respect to accommodation and hospitality been challenged or confirmed by this pandemic?
LP: Beyond the denigrating images that we see around us targeting individual migrants, for our part we have continued to live and to embody the four verbs of Pope Francis: welcome, protect, promote and integrate. For us, these verbs signify concrete actions, at both the social and the political level. They are an invitation to be unconditionally predisposed to the act of hospitality.
We are facing the challenge of welcoming these people during a moment when retreat into identitarianism is the norm, when xenophobic undercurrents are gaining momentum, and we are witnessing immigration policy moving backwards and fears crystallizing. The act of hospitality is not merely an act of generosity moving in one direction, nor simply a moral or humanitarian gesture, generous and essential as that may be.
Hospitality includes integrating people as citizens and making them belong. The latter may take the form of becoming a member of a group, of a faith community, of an association. But all these forms of belonging, however necessary, are not enough unless they are nurtured by democratic participation and the consciousness of belonging to a political community (2) with associated rights. We fully realize that the hospitality we offer is a disturbance to the symbolic boundaries of ordinary life, exposing the violent realities of the migrant experience and the institutional policies with which states treat people. Most of those who offer hospitality are largely unaware of these realities and are unprepared for the shock of the confrontation that eventually arises.
In our case, we have had to live with the consequences of the federal government’s decision to close our borders to asylum-seekers. We would have preferred that Canada continue to honour its international commitments to welcoming and protecting asylum-seekers. Canada has always presented itself to the world as a welcoming country and one that is able to integrate immigrants and refugees, capable of establishing the humanitarian spirit as the centre of its policies. Now, however, we see that these most basic principles of hospitality can be abandoned as the country falls back on the logic of total security, albeit clad in the language of public health.
This led us to ask a number of questions: what happens to those seeking asylum and who are affected by the closure of so many welcoming organizations, and under such conditions? When will they be permitted to submit their application for asylum to the Canadian authorities? Numerous governmental and community organizations, like Le Pont, were and still are able to take in asylum-seekers, in our case around 25 or 30 persons. That is what we are able to do.
VE: Does your concept of welcoming entail critical reflection on integration and citizenship?
LP: Citizenship and integration are processes which develop over a long period of time, and to which the newly arrived person contributes by participating in a range of ways, from paying taxes to participating socially and politically in the society. In that regard, hospitality should not be conceived as being achieved within certain time constraints or to fulfil some immediate gratification. Instead, it is a cyclical exercise in which those who arrive engage in a relationship, as opposed to being mere objects of generosity.
We are dedicated to making it possible for immigrants and refugees to enjoy conditions that will permit them to achieve fulfilment on a human level. This makes for mutual enrichment. Integration is not assimilation, demanding the suppression or abandonment of one’s identity. The question is how to develop real relationships with others, not ostracizing them but also not trying to reduce them to a state of uniformity. The question invites us to reflect on the concept of a mutual responsibility grounded in trust. Contact with the Other leads to our discovering their ‘secret’ and, by opening up to them, we receive their valuable contributions, thus nurturing a deeper mutual understanding. Integrating these individuals means giving them a place where they will feel a responsibility to participate actively in the society. If they are acknowledged and validated appropriately, the abilities and skills possessed by immigrants and asylum-seekers and refugees will represent a real resource for the societies that welcome them.
‘‘A nation’s approach in welcoming immigrants demonstrates its vision of human dignity and its stance with respect to humanity. In our actions, we affirm that each migrant person has the right and the duty to embrace integration into the host nation and to be counted as part of it, all the while remaining their own individual person with their own history and dignity.’’
We strive to foster these relationships. Integration is of greater value when the road towards it is made easier. Citizenship is not merely a status that is granted by the legal process; it takes on significance through mutual action and activity. Participation in simple, informal social activities like ours can form attachments. At Le Pont, we have chosen to embrace in the spirit of humanity any persons who have been forced to leave their country. From the same perspective, a nation’s approach in welcoming immigrants demonstrates its vision of human dignity and its stance with respect to humanity. Through our actions, we affirm that each migrant person has the right and the duty to embrace integration into the host nation and to be counted as part of it, all the while remaining their own individual person with their own history and dignity. At the same time, it is the responsibility of government authorities to protect and to regulate judiciously and in a spirit of goodwill the flow of immigration, fostering a welcoming and hospitable approach, so that local populations are educated and encouraged to participate in the process.
VE: What are the drivers of these solidarity initiatives and what are the associations that support them?
LP: With the support of the network that we formed from the outset of Le Pont, consisting of fellow workers, parishes, CLSCs, private donors, religious communities, businesses and restaurants, we have been able to have access to numerous donations. We placed special emphasis on women, mothers, children and families experiencing uncertainty and instability. We have often stressed that they have access to only very limited services (training, employment, daycare). By appealing to the sense of solidarity and empathy towards migrant persons, we are able to offer them certain services corresponding to their needs. Many of our contributors act out of an affectionate memory of their own experience associated with immigration or are aware in concrete terms of what the issues are. Some were welcomed in the past and now want to help. There are also those for whom providing help has a religious significance.
We have appealed to public organizations to access new assistance programs, such as Food Rescue (3) and Second Harvest. This enables us to distribute gift cards for a total value of $20,000 to more than 150 beneficiaries, thus meeting the constant need to restructure food availability for our residents during this pandemic.
Additionally, we have received several other grants, allowing us to bring three temporary employees onto the team. In the present circumstances, team members can assist in the gradual return to locating housing, identifying services, education facilities and work opportunities for these families, while at the same time following the sanitation rules in place. We rely heavily on this type of emergency funding, which enables us to meet the new needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, and which we have never had to deal with before.
VE: What have you learned through your interactions with these persons that could help portray these realities in more human terms for the population to understand?
LP: The people we take in (4) at Le Pont arrive here from different countries and have diverse backgrounds and migrant itineraries. Many of them leave their countries not knowing where they are going or unable to tell their loved ones where they are going. We must remember that when you are faced with persecution and confronted with all kinds of violence, the only thing you can do is escape. In some cases, decisions cannot be shared with family members or friends who must stay behind, in order to prevent putting their lives in danger.
A migrant itinerary can last a few days; other times it can take months or years. Often, the future is unknown. Those who face these difficult experiences are motivated by the desire for a better life, a new beginning and, ultimately, the promise of freedom. For the sake of that freedom, they are willing to face anything: violence, isolation, despair, abandonment, loss and refusal. At Le Pont, we have learned that we must face reality and bear in mind these people’s journeys. For us, hospitality is needed now more than ever! It invites us to acknowledge the humanity of the Other and to rediscover through that encounter the path of our own humanity.
It is important to consider migrants as independent of their status: first as persons with their full dignity. At that point, the presence of this ‘other than me’ encourages a real hospitable exchange, so that the thing being shared is above all a human relationship, not just about what they lack or what they do not have. Asylum-seekers should not be regarded through a lens that focuses on the suffering of the desperate and needy. They should be regarded in their entirety and in all their capacity for action. Hospitality must not be seen as an exercise the constraints of a time frame and providing immediate results. It should be considered as a cycle, whereby those arriving are taking part in a relationship, as opposed to being mere objects of generosity. It is not a negotiation.
We must not forget that each person who arrives by way of a trajectory of exile like this is carrying a burden of experiences, codes, customs, beliefs, fears and insecurities that are necessarily different from those shared by the majority. In this work, every one of us is confronted with the fear of foreigners.
As Pope Francis often says, in this age distinguished by individualism, the Christian faith is still capable of nurturing other approaches to living that embrace fraternity and solidarity.
Interview conducted by Élodie Ekobena, Project Leader, Vivre ensemble and Mouloud Idir, Coordinator, Vivre ensemble.
 Such as access to affordable daycare service, the right to a clean and decent accommodation, access to francization, access to the rental board and healthcare…A list of services not available to persons of insecure status
 These questions are explored further in the conference held by philosopher Guillaume LeBlanc of the Centre justice et foi: https://vimeo.com/298198399
 Referred by social workers (mainly from PRAIDA), as well as by other social services in Montreal. See: https://www.ciussswestcentral.ca/programs-and-services/praida-regional-program-for-the-settlement-and-integration-of-asylum-seekers/media-praida/