samedi 5 mai 2007

Café Social

(Café Social outing in Montreuil Garden. Copyright © 2007 by MA Shumin.)

What does one do in ‘retirement’ when all one knows in one’s whole life is work for survival, and concepts of hobbies and leisure vacations are non-existent? I have been interested in this question ever since my father retired in 2003.

My father was a peasant farmer for thirty years in our village in Taishan of Guangdong Province, China. It was small rice village by the name of ‘Stream Factory’ of about a hundred people with the same family name. When we immigrated to New York, he worked for twenty years as a dishwasher and chef at a Chinese restaurant on Canal Street. When both of his children graduated from college, my father decided to have an early retirement. I was relieved that he was no longer working so hard, but was worried what he would do with all his free time.

“Located in the heart of Belleville, a multi-ethnic neighborhood of Paris and a place of nostalgia, the association Ayyem Zamen opened in January 2003, a social café to welcome, help the elder immigrants and to accompany them in their old age”. The people who come here range from age 60-90. The majority are men from North African countries of Tunisia and Algeria, but there are also men and women from other parts: Morocco, Senegal, Ivory Coast, etc. It’s a warm place, not only in the yellow pastel color of the wall paintings, curtains, and tables, but also in the familiar and cozy atmosphere. Here, you will find that people always greet one another by shaking hands. The three full time employees are friendly, dedicated and sincerely care about helping the people who come in.

One of the three employee is Moncef Labidi who is also the founder and manager. Originally from Tunisia he has been in Paris for 25 years. He was a sociologist by profession before noticing that too many retiree/senior citizens are uncared for. Four years ago he established the Café Social. The Arabic name is “Ayyem Zamen” which means those days that are gone. Moncef wants the people to not only remember fondly of the days that are gone, but to also enjoy their old age in Paris.

These North African men first arrived in France in the late 1950’s and 1960’s to rebuild France after the war. They came young, in their 20’s, at my age and only expected to come to work for a short while, make money and then to return to their country. Instead they stayed for much longer, some for 50 years. In between they would return to their home country to get married and have children, but they would never go back to live for permanent. Today these men are in their 60’s to 90’s.

How does an elder immigrant deal with ‘retirement’, when all he knows in his life is work for survival, and concepts of hobbies and leisure vacations are non-existent? The same Spring 2003 that my father retired in New York Manhattan Chinatown, the Social Café opened in Paris Belleville. The Social Café has since become a haven for elder immigrants, a place for them to come for aid, to help with translation and social papers. It is a place for them to meet, to have exchanges and to find solidarity. Each week is filled with events such as film screenings, Tuesday and Friday morning breakfasts, and outings, such as to the sea in Normandy and to the Paris suburb garden.

Every Thursday the Café Social takes the elders to a garden in Montreuil, the eastern Paris suburb. A dozen or so men would participate. These men eagerly work on plowing the earth and plant seeds for growing vegetables, herbs and flowers. The men are happy to get away from the busy Paris city for a while and to be around with nature. All these Arab men used to be farmers in their native Tunisia and Algeria. They had no education, and cannot read and write. But here in this Montreuil garden, everyone is equal, working with their hands, and it doesn’t matter if you are not highly educated with many degrees and speak perfect French.

At that moment, standing there and looking around me, appreciating the natural landscape and seeing the elders working, it reminded me of my own father working in the rice fields in our village.

From a distance someone might ask what does this Chinese-American girl have in common with these Arab elder immigrants. And the first reply, they may say there is nothing: we come from a different generation, a different country, a different culture and different language. But I would say, while there seems to be nothing, there is also everything: we all speak French with funny accents and we are all immigrants from a village, whether China or Tunisia or Algeria. And while we all have left our home country to survive and thrive in a foreign land, we did not forget where we came from.