Operational Support During Covid-19 in France

[Newsletter 1] In the northern districts of Marseille with Massabielle

Hi everyone,

How are you?

Some of you may have gotten used to news on the fly but this year it has been an intense  adventure which left me little time to write these few lines. 7:30 am – 11:30 pm non-stop 6.5 days out of 7! 🙂  

We initially had to leave for an impact measurement mission in the favelas of Sao Paolo which was replaced by an adventure in the heart of the northern districts of Marseille. This adventure was particulartly striking because it was not a question of entering into the daily life of families living on the other side of the world but that of French people who live a daily life really different from the one I live in my little Parisian bubble.

Pause Café Marine, Matthieu et Romain Sion
Last sip of coffee before the adventure begins 🙂

# The Massabielle association

With three of my brothers and sisters, we put ourselves at the service of an exceptional association called Massabielle. Established in the heart of the northern districts of Marseille, it shares daily life with each inhabitant of the different blocks of buildings and welcomes all those who pass the door. It is a place of peace with a Christian presence. To get a young person up and going in a city surrounded by violence and drugs, it takes more than tutoring and reintegration projects, it takes a lot of respect, listening and kindness. This is a mission that Massabielle has successfully completed for the past twenty years in the dozen blocks of buildings around the one called “les lauriers”. A Christian association in an 80% Muslim neighborhood… How can this work? Answer in the next newsletter. 🙂

Massabielle Maison bernadette Marseile
Maison Bernadette Massabielle devant cité les Lauriers
Massabielle NGO lower left – at the foot of the “Lauriers” district

#The building « les lauriers »

Housed in the association, we were located at the foot of one of 18 blocks of buildings called “les lauriers”, a 14-level block of buildings in which over 1,800 people live. This building was built after the war in order to “temporarily” house the emigrants who came to help in the reconstruction of France. Most of these buildings are now dilapidated and unsanitary inside. With the extreme right wing in charge of the town hall until 2020, the budgets allocated to renovation projects were without surprises … quite meager. 🙂 

According to Kathy, a dean of the district met at the skatepark, life was peaceful in the early years before drug trafficking and violence came up. At that time, all the families who had the finances left. Today, most residents who have settled there cannot afford to move elsewhere. 40% of “les lauriers” residents are currently unemployed. Most of the inhabitants are fighting to get out of it (this is particularly true for women. I will come back to this later :-)) but the challenges are numerous.

Cité les Lauriers Marseille
Vue chambre maison Bernadette Massabielle
Small glimpse of the bedroom with the brother – a tip: sleep with the window closed otherwise a drift and motocross concert guaranteed:-)

#Our arrival and the end of the clichés

I do not recommend that you do a google search on “les lauriers” block-building because unfortunately the media love the sensational news and does not mention much about positive initiatives. 100% of the articles published will refer to keywords such as shootings, fire, shoot-out… It is a reality, but it only represents a small part of the daily life around this block-building.

Being one of the oldest of the volunteers, Nathan the head of the association immediately made me understand that he would give me responsibilities. 🙂 A few hours after our arrival, we left by car in the direction of Brico depot in order to prepare the site that I was going to lead. As we came out of the parking lot (in the opposite direction but that was normal :-)), a big white Audi Q4 got in our way and signaled us to back up. The driver dressed like a gangsta in movies ended up going on throttle, speeding around the parking lot before stopping in front of us. It was there that he greeted us kindly with a big smile before leaving. It was surreal! After the greetings were over, it was finally explained to me that this was the car used for Gofast. This young man, Nathan knew him well. He was an athlete with potential who unfortunately dropped out of school before starting as a lookout for “traffic”. My brother had a similar experience accompanying a grandmother in an electric wheelchair. The grandmother inadvertently “knocked out” the chair of the G-block lookout on which drugs were placed. My puzzled brother apologized and the lookout replied amusedly, “Don’t worry, it’s okay!”. In the evening, we quickly realized that our prejudices would quickly shatter and that we were going to live an adventure that would break free from the prejudices engraved by the images conveyed in the media…

Audi Q4


During this adventure, I befriended Kader, a grandfather of Algerian origin. Very kind, he came to the association every day to drink tea he offered us with his traditional madeleines. Big fan of the Real Madrid, he had every possible football channel we could imagine. For the match Real Madrid vs. Manchester, he invited us to his flat to see the game together. During the match, a volunteer asked him if it was a problem that we were all Catholics even though he was of the Muslim faith. His answer struck me because very simply he told us that it was absolutely not. As long as there is respect, religions can live together. This has been true throughout this adventure. A few minutes later, he had eclipsed himself to say his prayer before coming back with a surprise: ice cream! 🙂

Invitation Match de Foot Kader
Great night at Kader’s apartment for the match

Have a great evening,

Marine, Claire, Matthieu & Romain

[Newsletter 2] The northern districts of Marseille, the impression of crossing a border

Hi everyone,

How are you ?

Very quickly, we took our bearings within Massabielle and the days went by at full speed. Unable to be there from the start of the adventure, our little sister Claire joined us at the end of the first week.

#Our daily life

The days were punctuated by a busy schedule: spiritual time and help for the functioning of the charity in the morning and service (work sites, exchanges with the inhabitants, school support, activities with children, etc.) for the district in the afternoon.

On the spiritual level, I was particularly sensitive to the testimony of the couple responsible for Massabielle at the “Lauriers” district. At the “Lauriers” district for 8 years, they explained to us that without their Christian faith, they could never have lasted more than 6 months. They would have slammed the door 100 times… One day, a young man failed to shoot them with a harpoon. Another time, the traffickers locked them in the basement of the “Lauriers” building when they took the initiative to propose motivated young people for a public tender. How would I have reacted in their place? As a Catholic, I very much appreciated the exchanges I had, especially with Gabi, an evangelist from the gypsy community, or even Kader, a Muslim. This reinforced one of my deep convictions: with respect, religions can coexist with each other.

Echange avec Kader autour d'un thé accompagné de ses traditionnelles madeleines
Discussion with Kader over tea accompanied by his traditional madeleines 🙂

In order to contribute to the proper functioning of the charity, the support was divided between cleaning and meals. All supermarkets are now obliged to give their expired products to charities to avoid waste. So, every week, we went to collect the unsold items at the nearby Carrefour: it was a surprise as to the products received and then there followed an important work of sorting and of course of preparing the meals. 100% of Massabielle’s food is thus insured thanks to donations from Carrefour! So, thank you Carrefour! 🙂

Collection of expired and unsold products at Carrefour
The car being tired – System D with Claire (my sister) to get in the car

Regarding the service for the district, they took place in the afternoon with a time slot dedicated to work for the inhabitants or for the community, then a time slot with young children: activities, academic support and finally a moment of discussion, of meetings with the district inhabitants, at home. For the renovation site, I was responsible for the opening of two 4th and 3rd grade classes, a chemistry laboratory and a library at the Ozanam center. Indeed, few years ago, Massabielle transformed an old mansion that had become a squat and a place of prostitution into a non-contract college intended for young people of the district. So, with about fifteen volunteers, we rolled up our sleeves: sanding, painting, laying of baseboards, tables, shelves, fitting out, etc., so that the rooms could be ready for the start of the school year. The place is awesome! This is where Saïd’s children go to school (next episode :-)).

Renovation site of the Ozanam center with the opening of two new classrooms
Team of volunteers on the Ozanam site
Installation of the blackboard in the Ozanam center for the future 4th grade class

#The borders of the city                                                                                                                     

When we first arrived in the “Lauriers” district, we had the impression that we were crossing an imaginary border, as if we were moving to another country. Except to go to work, the inhabitants do not often leave from the district and outsiders have no particular interest in going there for a walk. This is what feeds our prejudices! After a few days there, we discovered two striking aspects: precariousness and a sense of welcome.

The Lauriers district – Marseille
The surroundings of the Lauriers district

I had read that over a third of the district’s residents live in poverty. This precariousness is even more striking once there. We entered these big, tired building bars. The stairwells with dilapidated walls are tagged inside giving a feeling of insecurity. No longer should we be surprised at the cockroaches in the charity’s bedrooms and kitchen, or at the rats that were certainly more numerous than the “Lauriers” district inhabitants who were frolicking around…

Small map for locating the inhabitants of the Lauriers district 🙂

On the other hand, we found there a warm sense of welcome that is rare in France. During our visits, it happened to us to ring at random among people in order to introduce ourselves and to propose a discussion. All the families opened to us with a smile and some even invited us for tea. We will not forget Yollande called “Tata Yoyo”, from the Comoros who introduced us to her specialty: coconut punch, nor “Tata Doudou” who told us with simplicity the journeys of her life which began with her mother who had abandoned her in a shoebox. With a lot of humor, she offered to accompany us for the shopping at Carrefour. Thanks to her handicap card, she has a VIP pass including a dedicated parking space, a priority checkout and finally the possibility of smoking in front of the store! J Or to Romain’s mother, who explained in detail how her son’s mistress managed not to let motivated students down during the covid.

# Drug trafficking and violence

Drug trafficking and violence are part of the daily life of the inhabitants of the city. Police rarely go there except for raids. Just 2-3 years ago, there was only one entrance to the district area and the grip of the drug traffic was such that even an EDF agent was not allowed to enter without showing clean hands. Some time ago, during a visit, a volunteer had rung to the wrong door and was greeted by one of the leaders of the drug trafic who had a weapon of war hanging in his living room. Another time, during a police raid, two young people escaped through the charity with their Kalashnikovs.

The drug traffic is hierarchical with, at the bottom of the ladder, the lookouts then the sellers, the carriers of drugs and weapons, those who transfer the money and finally the middle managers … The heads of the traffic are, not surprisingly, white collar from great schools who never set foot in the districts! The drugs are hidden in the homes of “nannies” or families who willfully or forcibly store the drugs in their apartments before they are sold in the stairwells. The prices and opening hours of these “stores” are sometimes even clearly displayed. 🙂 When we were visiting people, we therefore favored elevators over stairs. Other than saying “hello” to lookouts, we followed the golden rule: “don’t mind their own business”. 🙂

Store with a name, products clearly displayed with their prices and opening hours
There is even the Snapchat QR code 🙂

This violence already affects some children. A few weeks ago, a young boy was knocked down by a girl: humiliation. Two groups then met to face off with stones. Fortunately, those responsible for Massabielle who knew them were able to calm them down in time. According to Nathan, the head of the charity, although the violence is still very present, the districts have really calmed down in recent years. However, it would only take a spark to rekindle it.

# School dropout

Next to the “Lauriers” district, there are two high schools with teachers who do their best but in which you would surely not put your children. According to our discussions, dropping out of school often happens when a young person thinks he or she is bad and good for nothing. For example, when a student doesn’t understand a chapter in class and is told 1X, 10X … that he is good for nothing, he ends up believing it and throws in the towel. I have been told about young people who, at the age of 10, already take care of their younger brothers and sisters as their parents start their work very early or finish their work very late at night. They often have long transport times if they are working outside the district. Kabal’s father tried everything to prevent his son from falling into trafficking, he tried to reason with him verbally. Out of desperation, he ended up using force. A judge told him that if he did it again, he would end up in jail. Since then, his father has abandoned…

High school near the Lauriers district

At the same time, there is the influence of the “big brothers” who approach young teenagers from 12-13 years old with proposals such as: “Here 20 €, can you buy me a bottle of coke? You can keep the change” or“ Could you replace me at my lookout post for a few hours tomorrow? “. This is where it all begins… Paid between € 300 and € 500 per week to watch, the young miners feel like “the kings of oil”, then it is difficult to get them back to school. From the age of 14, some of these young people already think that they will have no future and that they have nothing more to lose. Unfortunately, it is often to them that the thankless tasks are given: disappearance of evidence, settling of scores, shootings … In 2015, 3 young teenagers of 15, 18 and 23 years old murdered others tennagers at the “Lauriers” district … Fortunately, effective levers exist to avoid dropping out of school (next episode :-)).


We left on a Thursday evening to meet the inhabitants of the “Lauriers” district. One of the best spots is between the skatepark and the petanque area. 🙂 There, we met Kathy Taleb, one of the deans of the district, from Morocco and who had lived there for 43 years. Needing help cutting some tiles for her kitchen, we left with Matthew to give her a hand. Between two cuts and a homemade banana milk juice, Kathy told us about her struggles, in particular to get work. Before meeting her former manager who gave her a chance, she had suffered a number of refusals because of her last name which was said to be: “too Arabic”. Knowing that she did not went through long studies, the best gift she wanted to transmit her children were: her family values, respect for others and for work. For Kathy, “doing is how you gain credibility. Sometimes making mistakes is good for learning and getting better.”

Session bricolage chez Kathy avec Matthieu

Have a nice day everyone,

Marine, Claire, Matthieu & Romain

[Newsletter 3] Hope and levers for action in the northern districts of Marseille

Hi everyone,

We hope you are all doing well.

Here is the latest news from our adventure in Marseille! 🙂

#Our Daily With Young People: street activities  

Olympic games Bellevue district Marseille Romain Sion
Team relay during the Olympic Games
Olympic games Bellevue district Marseille
Olympic games Bellevue district Marseille Romain Sion
Organization of major thematic games on Saturdays

Every day, at the end of the afternoon, we were leaving in groups of 6-7 volunteers to organize street activities for the children in one of the neighboring districts. Assigned to the district Bellevue, we have organized team games as well as thematic ones such as the Olympic Games or the Pirate Island. Dressing up as Red Rackham for the occasion, I was entitled to that nickname all the following week. :-)These activities had two objectives: to encourage children to play together and to engage in conversation with those who wanted to. The discussions were rich! After getting to know each other, for example, some began to ask questions about the engineering profession, the studies that had to be done to get there …

Street activities Bellevue Romain Sion
Quick Selfie with Ailis, Safrina, Aissa and Cadidja

Ailis, 5 years old particularly marked me. It was very important to him that I remember his first name. Knowing that there were Ailis, Aissa, Aisser and Aissam in the group, he quickly saw that I was in trouble. 🙂 So he offered me a challenge. If one of us can’t remember the other’s first name, then he should do 10 push-ups. We had a good laugh ! 🙂 He clearly could have been my little brother or my cousin. What revolted me was realizing the multiple challenges he will have to overcome to obtain a trajectory of possibilities equivalent to the one I have been able to benefit from. At birth, we clearly do not all start equally! I will not forget all these good times with Rama, Aissa, Ailis, Yassine, Safia, Rayana, Djibril, Aaron, Chaimaa, Mohammed, Abder, Jade, Aisser, Stéphane, Sabrina, Aissam, Matisse, Abdu and Cadidja.

# Levers to take actions: Academic support & professional integration

Centre Ozanam - Massabielle Quartiers Nord Marseille
Playground at the Ozaman Center
After renovation Massabielle Marseille Centre Ozanam
Renovated classroom following renovation work at the Ozanam center 
Street activities Massabielle Bellevue Romain Sion
Group of regulars attendees of our street activities in the Bellevue district

To deal with the risk of dropping out of school, we have been able to identify two effective levers: academic support and career guidance. Within the association or directly at home, Massabielle offers support classes. Although some parents did not pursue long studies, we met many parents who were very involved in their children’s education. At the same time, Massabielle set up the Ozanam center where we did our renovation work. The class list appealed to me because 90% of the first names were between the letters R and Z. Many young people want to work but many do not have the codes, the network and have difficulty in identifying the range of possibilities that they could go after. Footballer, rapper, maintenance or security officer are not the only possibilities. Career guidance support is key.

Career orientation and support with Massajobs

Attached to the association, Massajob is a support program for 250-300 inhabitants of the district for employment. There are 2 pillars: “dream big”, a 2-3 day program aimed at helping young people gain confidence, identify their talents and their dreams. Then “the road to employment”, a 15-day program designed to prepare young people for interviews (outfit, CV, cover letter, respect for schedules, etc.) and to help them in their research. We had the chance to meet Moussa who had resumed training to become a dog handler and who just got a new contract at the hospital. In partnership with schools, Massajob also seeks to invite employees from different backgrounds to testify about their careers.

#Sport: An opening outside the district

Sporting Club Karthala Marseille
Photo of one of Said’s youth football teams

The night we arrived there were fireworks for the inter-district tournament final. Each city has its team, its shirt and its supporters. Great pro players sometimes come back to play with their prior district teams. Do you know why the referee wears a balaclava in some derby matches? 🙂 In the event of a misinterpreted whistle, it is sometimes better to remain incognito when leaving the stadium. 🙂 During a street activity, I had the chance to meet Saïd, originally from the Comoros and President of Sporting Club Karthala Marseille, who explained to me the challenges of the districts’ training clubs. As a former player, he has trained with Evra, Cissé, etc. Young prodigies are identified from the age of 5 in order to be trained with an objective to perhaps signing a contract as a professional footballer. From the age of 14, any transfer is subject to a contract between the clubs where the family receives 81% of the amount and the training club 19%. It is partly thanks to the placement of players at the Olympic Marseille, Bordeaux, Arles … that Saïd has been able to develop his club. To attract young people, one of the levers that work is the brand of the shirt. Very proud, he had just launched a partnership with Puma and Kappa.

Sporting Club Karthala Marseille
New outfit for the football team

Knowing that few young people will become professionals, Saïd’s objective is above all not only to help them develop sociability, their team spirit, work capacity… but also to allow young people to leave the district and see something different thanks to extrernal games. The lucky ones were even able to fly for the first time. For Saïd, football allows young people to dream and have stars in their eyes. He does everything to get them to work well at school and not fall into drugs. For example, he made arrangements with Olympic Marseille to get tickets for the games and then, he gives them to deserving players and to the ones who have good grades.  

#One Day A Meeting: Invitation to Roselyne and Mathis

Invitation for dinner Roselyne Massabielle Marseille
Dîner chez Roselyne

For our last evening, we have been invited by Roselyne for dinner. We came with part of the meal because for some families, hosting is not easy when every euro is counted. We had a great evening and had a good laugh with the skate demonstration of his son Mathis who had his head full of projects. We understood that her mother was sacrificing herself by putting everything aside for her children. With the equivalent of a minimum wage for 3 people, she had managed to send her son to a private school. She took care of his frequenting, his behavior and his grades on a daily basis. While admitting that she couldn’t keep up with her homework and didn’t understand all the conversations, one thing was certain, she fought hard for her son and his future. Result: her son was first in his class. After a few minutes of writing, Mathis gave us a nice gift: a freestyle!

Here is a demo:

#An Incredible Adventure while remaining vigilant

Fire Massabielle
Start of fire at the foot of the association wall
Weeding Massabielle Marseille
Emergency brush clearing to prevent it from happening again

This year again, it was a tremendous human adventure which allowed us to deconstruct our many clichés on the districts. We discovered there an exceptional sense of welcome as well as a beautiful vision of diversity from which we should be inspired. I will not forget Amor’s words on the way to Bellevue to introduce myself to one of his friends who was a Muslim: “Here in the city, we do not look at religion but we look at the heart”. However, it is important to keep in mind that all is not rosy. Insecurity and violence are part of everyday life. During our stay, two young people voluntarily or involuntarily (we will never know) set fire to the surrounding wall of the association. Marine (my sister) realized this in time and everyone rushed to shut it down with whatever means at hand. 8m2 of land burned in a few moments. It could have turned into a disaster. The watchword: stay alert.

Street activities Bellevue district Marseille Romain Sion
One last photo 🙂

To conclude these few lines, I return to Paris with a strange mixture of rage and hope. We have witnessed deeply unfair situations that make us realize how lucky we are. We have no right to waste this chance. But it’s also a feeling of hope when you tell yourself that change is possible! From the Ugandan jungle, to one of the most unsanitary dumping ground in India, through a social enterprise in Cambodia and the largest urban Kenyan slum, before arriving in Marseille, I had the chance to meet hundreds of citizens from the most diverse backgrounds all fighting for a better world! To this day, we have every reason to hope and aspire to it. Whether you are entrepreneurs, teachers, students, parents, activists, politicians, journalists, investors … we can all make an impact on our scale. Whether it is the choice of products that we will put in our cart during our shopping, journalists when they will write their next article on the districts, investors choosing their next investment, students when companies acting against their values will make them attractive offers or activists committed for a just cause which is hard to defend, we can all act on the system at our level! 🙂

Have a nice day everyone, 

Marine, Claire, Matthieu and Romain

“At our pace and scale, everyone can aspire to change to world” 

Ps: dedication to my brothers and sisters who have agreed to join this adventure! We will remember this for a long time!:-)

Family picture Sion Romain