By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
In honour of World Press Freedom Day, we bring to you la Maison des Journalistes (MDJ), a French non-profit organization that offers shelter and support to journalists forced to flee their home countries. The MDJ was founded in 2002, and has since housed more than 250 journalists from 54 different countries. Maison des journalists offers courageous journalists a temporary home and the help they need to rebuild their lives.
The first role of the organization is to recognize individual journalists and the sacrifices they have made in the name of press freedom and human rights. It works to ensure that they are not forgotten or left to their own devices upon arrival in a foreign country, whose language many of our residents do not speak. Men and women come to the Maison des Journalistes during a particularly difficult time in their lives and many are dealing with serious physical and psychological scars.
MDJ offers a real and actual sanctuary for those who have risked their lives to bring news to the world. And the world could benefit from this example to open similar efforts in other nations. Some of the benefits provide include:
Housing, Meals and Transportation
Journalists are housed free of charge for a period of six months. Each resident has an individual room and access to common spaces such as the kitchen and a work room where they can connect to the internet. The security of the residents is very important and so the building has been secured.
Administrative, Legal and Social Assistance
Administrative, legal and social assistance provided by the MDJ helps the journalists navigate the complexities of the French legal system when applying for political asylum and obtain housing and health care coverage by the end of their six month stay here.
French Language Classes
75 percent of the journalists housed at MDJ come from non-francophone countries. The MDJ offers a French language class several times a week.
Thanks to the partnership with many Schools of Journalism – Sciences Po, Lille ESJ, Montpellier ESJ, the MDJ allowed several refugee journalists to adapt and advance their journalistic skills to get a French diploma for presenting themselves well-equipped in the national media market.
The following shows the homelands of those who MDJ has assisted since its inception:
But, a personal story shows what has been faced by MDJ’s residents have endured and the relief MDJ has provided.
Johnny (who declined to give his last name), a journalist from the Central African Republic (CAR), left his home in the capital Bangui after his brother was killed. For the past four months, he has been living in a tiny room at the non-profit overlooking a nearby cemetery.
“The first few nights were rough, but I got used to it,” he said of his new lodgings.
Despite the view, the MDJ has given Johnny a safe refuge from the violence in CAR. The country has been wracked by inter-religious fighting between Seleka – a coalition of mostly Muslim rebels from the north who briefly seized power in March 2013 – and Christian militia known as “anti-balaka”, which means “anti-machete” in the local Sango language.
Johnny fled the country after he was targeted by Seleka, afraid that staying in Bangui amounted to suicide.
“They confiscated my bag and computer,” he said. “They wanted to take them. Finally, they gave me my computer back and when I went to put it into my bag, a grenade rolled out. They put a grenade in my backpack.”
But life in exile is filled with its own challenges, a fact all too familiar to MDJ staff.
“When they first get here, we give them housing and we help them get political asylum,” Darline Cothière, MDJ’s director, explained. “Then we help them get the right paperwork, so they can get medical coverage and unemployment. It’s administrative help, but its stuff that needs to be done.”
Because so many of those who cross MDJ’s threshold have lived through trauma, the non-profit also provides psychological counseling.
Despite the presence of both French and African Union forces in CAR, the conflict has worn-on, raising fears it could spiral into ethnic cleansing or genocide. But Johnny still hopes that one day he will be able to return home and work without fear of persecution. Until then, the MDJ has provided him the means to start rebuilding his life.
The mission of la Maison Des Journalistes is very laudable and necessary. The people of the world benefit dearly from those who have sacrificed everything to bring justice and freedom to so many. Other nations could start similar refuges for the cause if they saw the need and embraced these human rights. Hopefully MDJ will become one of many to come.
By Darren Smith
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