A group of refugee women and local ladies seen on a café terrace in Diekirch on 11 October 2017. From left to right: Abir, Asma, Zeina, Diane, Afaf, two locals, Gebrial, Helen, Amieset, Almansour, and another woman from Härebierg. Staff photo.
Diane Gleis, an advocate for integration, meets up twice a month with a group of female refugees outside their “foyer” (refugee shelter) to have a cup of coffee, get some fresh air and, well, to do what women enjoy doing.
On a Wednesday afternoon in Diekirch, the group of 9 refugees and 3 Luxembourgers at the Place de la Libération chit-chatted away, some of them warming their hands with a cup of coffee on this rather chilly autumn day.
Not really a spectacular scene one would say. Yet pretty much all the other café patrons turned around to take a second or third glance or to whisper something to their neighbour.
Why? Well, the majority of these women wore a headscarf or spoke in a language fairly unknown to the locals of Diekirch. It was a group of female refugees, from the Härebierg foyer, which had left the centre to mingle with the local community.
Gleis, who also has opened her home to another young refugee, mobilised the group to leave the four walls behind and to get out on the streets. Twice a month Diane meets up with these women from various backgrounds, including Syria, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
A coffee talk between refugee women and native Luxembourgers in Diekirch on 11 October 2017. Diane Gleis is seen in the centre. Staff photo.
Even if sometimes they stay in the foyer to cook or to knit, Diane explained to Delano on 11 October that it was important to get out sometimes and to do other, non-household related activities: “they don’t always want to knit! They are like us, and sometimes they just want to sit down and talk or have a cup of coffee with a friend.”
And to laugh--even if communication mostly consisted of a hybrid mixture between English, French and Arabic, the laughter of this group was contagious for everyone.
Luxembourg as a new home
Some women opened up about their traumatic experiences of the war in Syria. Afaf, from Daraa which is a city in the southwest of Syria, used to work in public health where she consulted pregnant women. Afaf said that she lost her 16-year old son, as he was shot by the Syrian army, and that “everything she had worked for in 20 years had been destroyed within minutes.”
After she and her daughter had lived for one year in Greece, they moved to Luxembourg. Afaf explained that her daughter was extremely talented in languages and eager to learn Luxembourgish; Afaf herself started taking French lessons.
Afaf is seen holding a Luxembourg language textbook she bought for her daughter. Staff photo.
Abir used to be a French teacher back in Raqqa and she came to the grand duchy two years ago. She was happy to be in Luxembourg, but is desperately looking for her own home:
“I really need a house to continue establishing my life here.”
Another Syrian woman, called Zeina, explained that her beginning in Luxembourg was rather rough. She and her husband were first placed in the foyer in Ettelbrück, where they had a huge confrontation with a family from Iraq, as she told Delano:
“in the fight, the other man hit my husband with a chair. He had to stay at the hospital for 15 days. He’s OK now, but he lost his senses of taste and smell.”
As to their monthly meetings with Diane, they showed an overwhelming amount of gratitude for her engagement. Abir said that Diane tried to support her and to reach out to her contacts to help her find an apartment. Afaf equally hailed Diane’s support and with a smile, she added: “she’s my best friend.”
A lot of laughter among the refugee women in Diekirch. Abir is seen on the right corner talking to Diane, partially obscured on the left corner. Staff photo taken on 11 October 2017.
Diane herself explained that coming to the streets of Diekirch helped to attract locals’ interest in her project:
“Some reactions are negative, but there are also the good ones. I want to create a chain reaction, so that more and more people can get involved.”
And indeed, a former commune council member of Diekirch stopped and promised her financial contribution to their upcoming cinema plans. Dialogue and direct confrontation was the most effective integration method, as Diane noted: “everything that is foreign evokes fear; yet as soon as one knows the foreign, the fear vanishes.”