Emmaus International : solidarity in practice
With his round glasses, threadbare black cassock, pepper-and-salt beard and close-cropped hair, Henri Grouès, better known as Abbé Pierre, was for a long time France’s most popular celebrity. Indignant at the poor conditions in which some people lived, he started the Emmaus communities in 1949 “for and with those who were most disadvantaged”. Whilst there are 175 active communities in France, it is often forgotten that Emmaus has spread throughout the world. Today, over 308 local organisations work to put the same values of solidarity into practice in 36 countries.
The village of Thanapara in north-west Bangladesh stretches along the Ganges. Suddenly, a shout goes up : the spokesman for the local Emmaus group is speaking. He talks about women’s rights and reminds everyone of the law that prohibits the marrying of children. A reliable and effective way of raising awareness in this solid community. As a community however, Thanapara had a close shave. During the upheavals of independence in 1971, all the men in the village were massacred, leaving the women with no resources and no protection. A Swedish non-governmental organisation – which later became a member of Emmaus – stepped in to support them. The women got themselves organised and started their own business. Today, 250 people work in their factory, producing ethical clothing. Now that the families are on a stable economic footing, there is time to tackle other issues : domestic violence for a start, but also healthcare, the water supply, which is contaminated with arsenic, and setting up a micro-credit scheme for the villagers. A school has opened, with over 600 pupils enrolled. Finally, the farmers have switched to organic farming, thus securing their supply of seeds and fertilisers. The experience has spread like wildfire through the surrounding villages, which have been struck by Thanapara’s independence and sense of solidarity.
Serve first those who suffer most
“This group really sums up the whole philosophy of Emmaus,” explains Catherine Tittelein of Emmaus International. “Serve first those who suffer most, whoever they are, without distinction, and locally, set up financial activities with the most marginalised in society to work for access to fundamental rights for all.” Five programmes, access to water, health and education along with ethical finance and migrants’ rights, act as signposts for all groups around the world. “Each has its own characteristics and responds to local needs,” continues Catherine Tittelein. The Spanish group in San Sebastián, for example, has set up a successful social re-integration and recycling business that employs over 100 people. Reflecting also on the waste produced by consumer society, the group organised a popular art competition on waste recovery and in the summer places fridges all around the city filled with… books ! In post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, when the refugee camps closed, elderly or isolated people and those suffering from mental health and learning disabilities were completely disoriented and found themselves with nowhere to go. The young, dynamic local Emmaus group set up a bakery and honey farm to offer people who had been abandoned by society somewhere to live and work. “The idea is to give them a framework to help structure their days, but also to give them the resources to live a decent life again,” explains Majda Bouchanine, project manager at Emmaus International. “The business is not an end in itself, but a way of helping people get back on their feet again so that they can help others in turn.”
Helping others to help oneself
In Benin, for example, young people in difficulties, living far from the capital, help fund schooling for children in Cotonou through their market gardening business. The children have lessons at an Emmaus centre whilst their mothers sort containers of clothes sent by European groups. Once classes are over and the sorting is finished, the mothers go and sell the second-hand clothes in the markets to provide for the day-to-day needs of their families.
Emmaus groups reflect Abbé Pierre’s brilliant intuition that “it is by saving others that we save ourselves”. Indeed, when Abbé Pierre came across a man who wanted to kill himself, he persuaded him that he could be of use to other people, in spite of how wretched he felt, by building makeshift housing for the homeless. The man, the first Emmaus community member, thus found a reason to live and regained his dignity.
Once the Emmaus communities in France were flourishing, Abbé Pierre went abroad to give lectures, particularly in Latin America, prompting some people to set up groups in their own country, starting in 1971. Youth camps, a fantastic mix of goodwill and experience, where young people from all around the world devote a few weeks of their summer holidays to helping groups with specific projects, offer an opportunity for them to familiarise themselves with the spirit of the movement. Although Emmaus was founded by a Catholic priest, it is a non-political and non-denominational movement. When an initiative is suggested, groups in the continent concerned analyse the proposal and may decide to support the project for a number of years before it is fully integrated into the movement. “Each Emmaus group is unique,” explains Catherine Tittelein. “The specific nature of different activities and operations add to the rich diversity of the movement. But they do share a common spirit : an unconditional welcome, respect for human dignity, recognising that every individual has the capacity to control their own life and take charge of themselves, and solidarity with the most vulnerable.” The organisation is very democratic, with no centralisation ; instead there are shared impulses and a pooling of experiences that allow each group to shape its own response to the challenges it faces. Today, over 200,000 people are involved in Emmaus groups around the world, but millions of people benefit from their solidarity and generosity. Abbé Pierre, who died in 2007, left behind a living legacy that is still relevant to the upheavals this world faces.
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