Migrants ? Refugees? Exiles? Asylum seekers ? The Prefect talks about asylum seekers. I will use the term refugees for simplicity now. At the end of August 2018, the Prefect is looking for a gymnasium to welcome for three weeks refugees to leave a gymnasium in the city of Évry. In agreement with the president of the University Paris-Sud and the director of the UFR STAPS , the Prefect thus requisitioned our university gymnasium.
The services of the university, under the impetus of the president, are mobilized: arrangement of showers, ground cover, security staff to protect 24/24, drawing of power lines, and coordination with neighboring research laboratories and especially with the association “Habitat and humanism” which deals with refugees: setting up camp beds, tables, chairs, printer for formalities in particular. I propose to organize an astronomy evening as well as one, or even two, cultural evenings of music or cinema type, persuaded that culture brings men closer together. The President takes my proposals to the leap and transmits them to the association, which accepts.
Preparation of the astronomy evening
The project is to propose an astronomy evening with several telescopes to observe the stars and the planets, and discuss the universe, the night, everything and nothing, until around 23h. For having organized and participated in many such evenings, I know that the relaxed atmosphere allows exchanges soothing, enjoyable and high quality, alternating between existential questions, jokes and serious or light topics.
While scrutinizing the weather forecast every day to choose a cloudless evening, I mobilize my amateur astronomer friends of the association AAV as well as the students of the association ALCOR . I am also seeking the services of the university to study the possibility of extinguishing streetlights where astronomical observations are planned. The return is immediate and positive! Just waiting for the green light for the date. Impressive speed and efficiency.
The university president and my vice-presidents come to welcome the refugees on the day of their installation. A few days later, the president informs all staff of the presence of refugees, and calls for donations. The call will be heard and many gifts will flow for several days, so much so that the small room in the gym is no longer enough. Volunteer helpers also arrive among the staff.
The refugees are 75 young men from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Chad and Mali. They speak English, Arabic, and more rarely French.
The early evening
If the night falls around 21 hours in early September, I will install the astronomical equipment around 19h to enjoy the day, and start meetings.
After having loaded the heavy astronomical material in the car of my laboratory, the Institute of Space Astrophysics ( CNRS and Paris-Sud ), I arrive, my heart beating with curiosity and some excitement, towards the gymnasium. The refugees, chatting outside, spot me quickly and come to me, as smiling and curious as me. The friendly discussion begins immediately in English on the mode “what is what you bring? Are we really going to see the stars tonight? How it works ? Where are we looking? Astronomy is magical in that curiosity and fascination outweigh any other aspect.
Max, of the association, welcomes me and participates in the dialogue. The atmosphere is warm. I would like to ask them dozens of questions about their backgrounds, their motivations, their lives before, their projects. But I restrain myself; it is best to let them express themselves, to listen to them, and to let us all carry through the discussions.
Everyone is happy around the glasses and telescopes that are installed while it is still day. The meal time arrives: everyone comes home, settles on the tables. While waiting for meals delivered by a friendly local service provider, refugees play card games, chess, or whatever. Around a good piece of chicken in sauce with semolina, the exchanges begin in French with Malians and Chadians. I am physically in “my” university, and yet, with this meal in the gym with them, I discover a larger, more contrasted and passionately human world.
During this meal stories begin to be exchanged: crossings of the Mediterranean for 3 days, “I stayed in Libya for a year,” you know the Chapel? I have friends. ” Another evening when I was dining with them, a tall young man from East Africa stands next to me, all smiles, and starts talking to me in a very approximate English. We eat, and his words come out without stopping. I understand some snatches, which chill my blood: you are forced to carry a weapon and kill such a group of people, otherwise we will kill you, what choice I had, it was necessary to hide … Another tells me, in the detour a light conversation: we are here, there are no bombs. I can not imagine what these young men have experienced. And if I imagine it, it must be far from reality …
Saturday evening astronomy evening and selfies
The 75 people were intrigued by our five devices, and the evening begins. It’s the tail behind the glasses and telescopes, in a relaxed atmosphere of laughter, English, Arabic, French. We observed some celestial wonders: bright and colorful stars (Albireo, Vega), and Mars and Saturn planets quickly since they were low on the horizon and our observation deck not ideally located since low in the valley.
The refugees were fascinated, intrigued, happy. At one point, everyone wanted to take a selfie or get caught with the telescopes. For about twenty minutes, it was a sound and light of laughter and powerful flashes of smartphones for this general improvised photo shoot, where everyone wanted to be! Not ideal for an astronomy evening (where you look for darkness), but no matter: the joy expressed on the moment wins! I feel proud to participate in such an evening, and their photos are quickly shared.
The exchanges were endless, joyful, intense. What energy they release! And what paths theirs …! Everyone seemed delighted with this evening!
ALCOR students in Paris-Sud and Paris-Saclay masters then told me to apprehend the evening a little by preparing it, some being shy or unskilled in English; all are happy to have had easy contact and communication with the refugees, and come out marveling at these exchanges and experiences, with stars in their eyes.
Usually, by organizing an astronomical evening, one delights to see stars in the eyes of the participants observing for the first time the telescope. Here, it was double effect: we also had stars in the eyes with these strong encounters. To paraphrase Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders in 1968, which basically said “we came to explore the moon but we discovered the earth,” subjugated by the beauty of our planet, I would say for myself that we had all come to look at the stars, the planets and the sky, and what we finally rediscovered was humanity, its universality, its warmth and the simple but profound joy of the encounter.
This beautiful evening seems to have delighted all participants – me first. I had anticipated this possibility a little, so I proposed a second evening the next day, a little further on the hillock whose horizon is clearer. Appointment is taken the next day Sunday at 21h since the weather is also favorable.
The following tomorrow for the end of the story.
Author Bio: Hervé Dole is a Professor (Astrophysics and Physics) – Institute of Space Astrophysics (CNRS & University Paris-Sud), Paris Sud University at Paris-Saclay University