Fiona Torbey

Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Peaceful Coexistence in the Diaspora,
Original Interview Length:
Interview Location: Marseille, France
Production Team:
Available Collateral:

Fiona is 49 years old, English and a naturalized French citizen who has been living in France for many decades. She is a lawyer, currently non-practicing, and she and her husband work as freelance translators. She lives in Endoume on the hill overlooking Marseille and the sea, and she and Jean, her French husband of Lebanese origin, volunteer in the soup kitchen in Secours Catholique once a month.

She saw a notice published by a human rights association requesting sponsorship and housing for Syrian families seeking asylum. Her family had no room with their five children so she emailed the request to many friends. Her close friends and neighbours who live around the corner contacted her and said they wanted to host a family but because they had long working days outside the home (they are both doctors), they needed her assistance with paperwork and guiding the family in practical daily life. She agreed and the young family (Amal and Abu Farouk and their baby boy) arrived and moved in with her family friends.  Fiona’s family hosted the Syrian family often during the day, included them on their family outings, cooked together with them at home, shared meals, and became friends and adopted relatives.

At first, Fiona knew nothing about immigration procedures but did the research and spent days with the family on admin. She said the officials were not nice to the refugees and immigrants, making derogatory comments they knew the immigrants would not understand. She was often questioned about why she was there (white and tall) as she held baby Farouk above ‘crush-level’ in line. She helped by being assertive – for example by refusing to return the next day as the authorities had all the family’s papers in their possession. She thinks this shabby treatment is systematic so that word will go to other countries that France is not a good option (no jobs and long, unpleasant bureaucratic experiences) for refugees and immigrants. The state offers no collaborative help if solutions are offered by private citizens, as in this case. The wait for residency was so long the family lived with her friends for 5 months instead of 3, and Fiona and the host family threw a successful fundraiser party to pay the family’s rent for the first year. The two families also solicited their friends to offer odd jobs to Abu Farouk as a gardener, and Amal as a caterer.

She says this experience brought her closer to the Middle Eastern culture of her husband’s childhood and that she is committed to taking her family to Lebanon yearly (as well as to England). She is a practicing Christian, inspired by her belief in “treat thy neighbor as thyself” although she says any religion or non-religion can produce good and helpful people. During Ramadan, Jean was annoyed they could find no one in their white, affluent neighbourhood to tell them when Eid was at the end of Ramadan, and they had to walk down to the Vieux Port to find out.

Fiona said the experience that marked her the most was in the airport when the two families received Abou Farouq, Amal and baby Farouq. Abu Farouq was holding a small bottle of Tanourine water and explained, mostly non-verbally, that Jean was originally from Tanourine. Abu Farouq gave the remaining water to Fiona to drink, which she did, in a sacrament of friendship of sorts. They laughed and high-fived in joyful complicity.

Fiona has become intolerant of the strict attitudes towards refugees, such as the idea that they must learn the language, must do this and must do that to properly integrate, and sympathizes with the effort, newness and trauma the refugees must deal with for a long time. She explains to her friends: you’re a French doctor; imagine if you had to flee to China. You would no longer be a doctor and would not be able to learn Chinese. Add to this the Syrian family’s experience of prison and torture, loss of homeland, access to family and fear. How would you feel?