Private Charity Offers Bosnians Refuge in France
EquiLibre evacuates mothers and children and places them with French families
LAST April, when Serbian soldiers arrived in Fatima Hadziavidic's hometown of Foca, Bosnia, she and her family fled into the forest. She, her husband, their toddler children, and her mother-in-law hid in caves, then escaped into the mountains, where they lived in shepherd huts for two months.
Finally, the family fell in with a march of refugees headed for Zenica, walking for nine days and nights, scattering into the forest when they came under fire from bands of Serbian soldiers.
"Many people died along the way," Fatima recalls.
Today, Fatima and her children are recovering in southern France. EquiLibre, a Lyon-based charity, evacuated them and nearly 1,000 other Bosnian mothers and their children last November to spend the winter with French families. They will return to former Yugoslavia in June.
The French government has offered little succor so far to refugees from ex-Yugoslavia, and not much support for the EquiLibre initiative. With the arrival of the EquiLibre convoy last November, in fact, the total number of war refugees in France from ex-Yugoslavia doubled. Financing for the project came exclusively from private donations. As word of the refugees' arrival has spread, EquiLibre has been flooded with calls from people who want to help - offering everything from free horseback-riding lessons
to McDonald's dinners.
"The French people are showing a lot more gumption than their own government or the European Community," says Anne Marie Delage, a volunteer for EquiLibre in Montpellier. Host families bought health insurance for the visitors, but now the government is offering them full social-security coverage for a limited period of time.
THE French project differs from refugee programs in other countries because of the direct involvement of host families. "It isn't like sending off a check into the blue," says Jean Luc Brohan, an educator for EquiLibre in the Roussillon region. "People see the results of their efforts immediately." And in some cases, money isn't enough. The Bosnians need the pampering and affection of people who care.
Fatima's young children - son Sacir and daughter Azra - couldn't sleep when they first arrived in Montpellier. Catherine Addor, the 49-year-old divorced architect who has taken them in, was distressed. "I would lie awake at night wanting so much for them to be happy, and hear the crying, like a litany. Sometimes until 3 o'clock in the morning."
When Mrs. Addor took them to visit a doctor, Fatima cried and clung to her children. Later, Mrs. Addor learned that the religious head of her town, the imam, had opposed evacuation to France. He warned Fatima and the others that they and their children would become guinea pigs for medical experiments before being killed. But slowly, Fatima's confidence and independence is growing. She walks Sacir to and from kindergarten and buys small items at a local store.
Kemal Grbo, 14, and his mother, Azra, until recently a prosperous hairdresser in Sarajevo, are glad to have left behind the steady diet of macaroni and the hours spent huddled in corners as Serbian planes divebombed their neighborhood. They now live in a spacious town house, filled with Oriental rugs, in Auxerre, an ancient city in the Burgundy region. Mrs. Grbo's husband is a former officer in the Yugoslav Army who stayed behind to serve in the front lines with the Bosnian irregulars.
Kemal sports a (borrowed) fur-trimmed jacket and two brand-new pairs of blue jeans. He spends his days playing computer games and romping with Cartouche, his new family's Labrador retriever.
But for all its comforts, France is not home. Kemal cannot forget his father or his aunts and uncles, all left behind in the Bosnian nightmare.
"Every night, when I close my eyes," Kemal says, "I see my father." In winter, the French countryside is muddy and dreary beneath a constant drizzle of rain. "I prefer the snow back home," sighs Kemal.
SOME Bosnians wanted to turn around and go right back," says EquiLibre's Mr. Brohan. About 10 percent of the Bosnians have had to change families for one reason or another. Some host families in the center of France complained that the refugees were better dressed and better educated than they were.
The EquiLibre venture seems to be a huge success despite the many problems. The town of Auxerre is donating a hall where the four Bosnian families now living in the area can get clothing, and doctors are treating the refugees' for free. Fatima and seven other Bosnian women of the area attend weekly French classes in Baillargues, a village near Montpellier.
Still, volunteers such as Hadzira Mericanic, a Bosnian woman who settled in Auxerre 20 years ago and now serves the EquiLibre program as an interpreter, is not optimistic about the refugees' future.
EquiLibre stresses over and over that the refugees are guests here, not immigrants in disguise. But what if the war is still raging in June?
"I would never send them back again to become targets for bombs," says Alain Michel, the president of EquiLibre. And despite their longing for home and their concern for the families they have left behind, the reluctant visitors would probably elect to stay.
"What choice would we have?," Mrs. Grbo shrugs.