Iraqi refugees brave cold as World Cup ski volunteers

Battling bitterly cold temperatures of minus 15 degrees C (5F) and glacial winds, Raad and Wissam Hadaya, two Iraqi refugees in France, work tirelessly as volunteers for the Nordic combined World Cup in Chaux-Neuve, their way of saying "thank you".

Iraqi refugees brave cold as World Cup ski volunteers
Raad and Wissam Hadaya working in Chaux-Neuve, eastern France. Photo: Sébastien Bozon/AFP
Wrapped up under several layers including thick parka coats, Raad and Wissam, 33 and 27, hang posters and help put up shelters as they lend a hand to the organisers of this weekend's World Cup stop-off in the Jura.
“For us, it's an honour. We want to be part of the joys and sorrows of the people who have welcomed us here and it's a way to say thank you to France, to give back a bit what they give us,” explained Raad, one of several members of the Hadaya family who fled their hometown of Qaraqosh.
They escaped the northern Iraqi city, home to a large Christian population, at the time of the arrival of the Islamic State jihadist group, in August 2014. Forced to relocate to Erbil, in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, they sought asylum in France, hoping to avoid the daunting trek — by sea, then through Turkey and the Balkans — undertaken by hundreds of thousands of others fleeing the war. After two years of waiting in “very difficult”
conditions, they received the go-ahead to fly to France.
The contrast between the warmth of their hometown and the Arctic temperatures in Chaux-Neuve, not far from “the little French Siberia” known as Mouthe, is biting.
“The people warned us 'the cold is coming, the cold is coming!' and they lent us warm clothes,” said Raad.
An English teacher, Raad and his nephew, a tiler by trade, have been working since Wednesday with some 500 volunteers for this World Cup event where 15,000 visitors gather each year.
“They're very motivated, lovable, always available and above all, they speak English, which comes just at the right time, because with the foreign athletes and International Ski Federation, everything is done in English,” beamed event coordinator Samuel Lopes.    
“It's a real help,” he added as the two Iraqis made sure to greet everyone upon their arrival at the venue, instantly winning over the local volunteers.
The 10 members of the Hadaya family, including two grandparents in their 70s, and three young children, have been living in Mouthe, a small village of 1,000 inhabitants, since last summer.
Despite the trauma of having to uproot, Raad and Wissam are grateful to have left the Iraqi torment behind them.
They said it was a relief to find a safe place to live and send their children to school, before explaining their next mission is to learn French to help find employment.
Not everyone was initially at ease with arrival of the refugees in Mouthe, but “they integrated quickly, people straight away saw they were good people, very pleasant and very polite,” said Gilles Goelzer and Denis Pagnier, members of the Welcome and Solidarity association in Hauts du Doubs.
“We have to be good individuals with these people who do so many things for us,” said Raad, who has already several new friends, many of those at the church his family attends each Sunday.
But the pain of leaving home and the loss of their past lives is recognisable in Wissam's sombre expression, and he tries to stay in touch with those close to him via the internet.
“We were waiting for the liberation of Qaraqosh. It's done. But the churches, the schools are destroyed, the houses have been burned,” he said. “So for now, it's difficult to imagine going back. We'll see in the future, a future that is very uncertain.”


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.