Low-tech with Refugees in the French Alps!

English version. Read the French version here / Lisez la version française ici !

Low-tech with Refugees is setting up house in the Alps! Nestled between France and Italy, the border town of Briancon welcomes EKO!’s new project, where the fruitful efforts made in the biggest European refugee camp are being duplicated through local adaptation.

Low-tech with Refugees — Briançon’s first workshop©2020_EKO!

With its Low-tech & Refugees projects, EKO! enables refugees and asylum seekers to meet their current and future needs, in an autonomous, user-friendly and sustainable manner.

After a successful run in Lesvos, hosting the European Union’s largest refugee camps (with more than 16,000 asylum seekers), the organisation is able to spread its impact. More than 1,000 people per month have benefitted from Low-tech with Refugees’ activities, before the March 2020 crisis hit, through workshops, training sessions, and the use of the Low-tech Makerspace. Have a peek at the 2018 starter article!

Low-tech with Refugees’ new playing field? The Briançonnais, with its high mountain passes through which migrant people pass from Italy to France.

Located in a high-altitude alpine area, at the crossroads of five valleys, the town of Briançon is located on the French-Italian border. During the day, tourists ski, hike, climb and enjoy all kinds of outdoor activities. At night, it is the migrants who try to cross through the passes of l’Échelle (1746 meters high, accessible only by a narrow mountain road which is closed to traffic in the winter due to heavy snowfall) and Montgenèvre (1850 meters high, a busy crossing of the Turin-Marseille motorway).

Migration route to Briançon ©2018_Melting Book

Since 2017, Briançon, a small town of about 11,000 inhabitants, has seen more than 10,000 people seeking asylum pass through. Many of them are unaccompanied minors. Although the background of this population has changed since the beginning of the arrivals (recently, an increase in Afghani, Iranian, and Algerian people has been noted), the majority are French-speaking, mainly from West Africa. The pushback of migrants to Italy leads to an increase in the number of attempts to cross the border and the use of increasingly steep routes. Four people have already lost their lives trying to cross the border.

Three migrants, one a child, walk through the Alps near Bardonecchia, Italy, hoping to cross into France, January 2018. © 2018 Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Once they get to Briançon, they find a little respite. Thanks to a strong mobilisation of local citizens, supported in particular by the association Tous Migrants, and the association Refuges Solidaires (which runs an emergency shelter), they are welcomed as decently as possible.

Most migrants who arrive are young, hoping to rebuild their lives and plan a future in France. Integration within a new culture, as well as the potential for projection into a new or pursued career path, are core points of concern upon their arrival.

“[It’s] essential for me to meet people, build happy memories and discover things that I can re-use on my own.”

Ebou JOBE, actor-recipient of Low-tech with Refugees Briancon, from the Gambia

Marjolaine BERT, founder of these projects, has decided to launch the activities in Briançon in order to commit herself to a solidarity that integrates the ecological transition:

“After having worked abroad for many years and in particular launched the activities in Lesvos, working in Briançon takes on a special meaning for me because I come from there. Implementing programs in your home environment is particularly effective because you master the context, and pre-existing networks are just waiting to be activated. No need to take a plane, when solidarity and encounters can be built efficiently and coherently at home!”.

Marjolaine BERT, founder of Low-tech & Refugees and president of the association EKO!

EKO! favours a systemic approach based on the coherence of low-technology. This universe, first known by the actors of the ecological transition and the ‘makers’, has the potential to provide an answer to societal challenges inseparable from the environmental context.

As opposed to high-tech, low-tech is a set of techniques and practices that are accessible, sustainable, and meet essential needs. Low-tech is also a philosophy that gives pride of place to innovation for meeting societal challenges.

Low-tech know-how enables us to meet our basic needs: access to water, food, energy, a healthy and decent home... More specifically, examples can look like : the betterment of thermal comfort through the use of a sunlit system; repairing a bicycle; cutting up plastic water bottles to make string; etc… By using reclaimed materials, this know-how minimises our impact on ecosystems, thus forming part of an environmental resilience approach.

Thermal solar panel construction in Briançon©2020_EKO!

Whether one is exiled or not, having the ability to be self-reliant brings security and dignity. It allows us to explore a type of solidarity that positions the beneficiaries in the roles of actors, far from the conventional scheme of charitable solidarity. It is through action and creation that people respond to their problems.

Individual resilience goes hand in hand with societal resilience. It therefore makes sense, at a time of climate crisis and destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity, to integrate environmental issues into solidarity action. Raising awareness for voluntary sobriety and simplicity comes as an answer for the decrease in individual and collective environmental footprint, carbon impact, and ressource minimisation, strong reasons for migration today.

Potato planting in the Guisane valley©2020_EKO!

Low-tech with Refugees in Lesvos has had to suspend its activities since March 2020 due to the violence perpetrated against refugees and volunteers alike. In the context of SARS-Covid19, the lockdown of the main camps has been repeatedly extended. This context has therefore halted the association’s Greek operations. Meanwhile, the Low-tech with Refugees team has started to duplicate the project in other territories, currently Briançon and Marseille (France), some steps further down the migratory path.

The main objective of the project for the refugees living in camps in Greece is to address the humanitarian emergency by enabling people to meet their physiological needs, and improve their living conditions through the use of low-tech equipment. This translates into workshops and access to the Low-tech Makerspace at the intersection of Moria and Kara Tepe camps.

In France, where the needs pertain rather to socio-professional integration, the activities are aimed at : discovering technical know-how, reinforcing pre-existing skills, bringing people together, and building one’s career plan:

Foraging aromatic and medicinal plants©2020_EKO!

Low-tech with Refugees Briançon aims at promoting the autonomy, dignity and self-confidence of migrant people. With this objective, the project works towards raising awareness around low-technologies and integration in the work force through those. Workshops through summer 2020 are acting as an introduction to the project in the valley.

“During the workshops, everyone has the opportunity to pass on their know-how, so that the exiled are revalued and can project themselves into a profession built around their skills. As this knowledge is already part of a philosophy of respect for the environment and humans, it gives meaning to their motivation for the construction of a resilient future”.

Eléa LASCOURRÈGES-BERDEÜ, Low-tech with Refugees Briançon coordinator

What are the proposed activities?

  1. Weekly workshops to discover and practice sustainable professions such as beekeeping, market gardening, woodworking, etc… The systems built often require a multidisciplinary approach from the participants and the trainers. (e.g. the construction of a solar water heater requires a wooden frame, a water circuit and physical principles involving a carpenter, a plumber, etc.) At the same time, participants are made aware of the finiteness of resources and our impact on ecosystems.
  2. Training sessions, including a certified Permaculture Design Training Certificate in 2021. The aim is to develop the professional skills of exiled people in the fields of low-tech and permaculture, thus aiming at integration into these professions. These training courses act both to reinforce skills and to validate the acquired experience.
  3. In parallel to these two activities, the Low-tech with Refugees team provides continuous support for socio-professional integration. Participants are guided in the construction of their career and life projects in groups and individual sessions. In particular, this allows the beneficiaries to be directed towards other partner resource structures: accommodation, legal aid, further training, employment, etc.

The aim of these actions is, first of all, to improve the quality of life of the beneficiaries. The aim of these actions is, first of all, to improve the quality of life of the beneficiaries. Second, a solidification of career planification, both in its ambition & realism, helps reduce stress linked to job searching. Third and last, the indirect impact of a heightening of interest for sustainable professions leads to an increase of active workers in the sector.

“I’m very interested in these workshops because they present jobs that humans and the planet need. It’s also a way to learn how to get by with little money, for example, for the solar water heater, the energy from the sun is free, so it’s one less thing on the electricity bill.”

Boubacar DEMBELE, actor-recipient of Low-tech with Refugees Briançon, from Mali

The first workshop held around Briançon welcomed 23 participants of 14 different nationalities. In the idea of ‘doing together’, an intercultural encounter was made possible, in particular when it came to overcoming language barriers. The programme: construction of a dry-stone wall, making a mosaic, creating a wooden log staircase, and planting a potato patch in accordance with agro-ecological principles.

Marjolaine explaining how to build a dry-stone wall©2020_EKO!

Pedagogy in action: we learn by doing. There is no local/exile dichotomy, the only one present is the learner/trainer relationship. And again, everyone learns something through interactional pedagogy: one learns by collaborating with the other. The approach is also integrated: one learns by forging links.

Constance, British & French, and Ali, afghani, making the plans for a mosaic©2020_EKO!

Second example, second workshop: beekeeping!

Participants caught by Sylvain’s explanations about the world of bees©2020_EKO!

Highly solicited during the preliminary needs assessment meetings with the future participants, all involved discovered the different components of the beekeeping profession. The roles of the various inhabitants of the hive, honey production, royal jelly and propolis, (virtually!) everything was explained and shown. After essential theoretical explanations by the trainer, Sylvain, we moved onto action! And of course, to finish: honey tasting!

“As a workshop facilitator with Low-tech & Refugees, I am at the same time a learner, an apprentice and a trainer. It is the surprising emergence of each person’s skills, knowledge and know-how that is exhilarating. The joy and excitement that comes out feeds me and gives me enormous enthusiasm to continue such a practice.”

Sylvain EYMARD, permaculture trainer

In addition to qualified and experienced external speakers, the workshops offer the opportunity for participants to share their know-how with each other. The ‘European-teacher versus non-European-learner’ scheme is broken, giving way to mutual learning through interaction.

“I’m a woodworker and will soon be training to become a carpenter, so I look forward to passing on what I know in the workshops.”

Ebou JOBE, actor-recipient of Low-tech with Refugees Briançon, from the Gambia

These are the moments for which the Low-tech & Refugees team is committed to its cause: moments of wonder, moments of passion for sustainable professions, which give hope and optimism in the possibility of pursuing a profession based on passion in the sustainable development sector.

Lamine, developing a vocation for the craft of welding, and Guillaume, professional welder©2020_EKO!

“We organise the workshops in the low-tech spirit: For the meals, we collect unsold bakery products or make the end of markets. The rest we buy in Biocoop [eco-friendly shop]. So we manage to create nice, vegetarian and balanced meals at a lower cost. Our latest recipes: baba ghanoush, roasted vegetables, hummus, salsa, mafé… For materials too, we rely heavily on recycling. And for the tools, it’s mostly borrowing, thanks to the mutual aid networks, our partners and generous people who want to do their part.”

Jack HICKEY, volunteer workshop organiser

Discovery and foraging of aromatic and medicinal plants©2020_EKO!
Preparation of a St. John’s wort macerate, an effective treatment for burns©2020_EKO!

Each of these actions has a multiplied impact if the actor-recipients in turn share their experiences and learnings, as has been the case since the beginning of 2018 in Lesvos: involving the participants as facilitators, trainers, spreading to new territories…

“I’m taking part in what allows me to discover several skills, in addition to electricity. And if one day I know enough about a skill, I’d like to pass it on too.”

Boubacar DEMBELE, actor-recipient of Low-tech with Refugees Briançon, from Mali

These activities are currently being duplicated in Marseille, an important place of passage and integration in the Mediterranean! The workshops start this month, and in the same logic as the Briançon project, a training session in permaculture design is being planned for end 2020.

Join EKO!’s Low-tech with Refugees project in Lesvos, Briançon, and soon… Marseille!

Follow our activities here:

Join us on the field in Lesvos, Briançon, and Marseille, by bringing your organisational, maker, facilitator, designer, social worker, or any other skill which could benefit the project! You can also help from home!

Financially support our activities through HelloAsso, a secure online method of payment. If you pay French tax, you can benefit of a 66% fiscal deduction for companies, and 60% for individuals — : a 100€ donation only costs you 30€.

To take part in Low-tech with Refugees, contact Marjolaine Bert, founder-coordinator of Low-tech with Refugees and EKO! president : contact@asso-eko.org & bert.marjolaine@gmail.com.

We are Marjolaine, Elea, Constance, Sylvain, Jack, Josh, Sam, Carlotta… and you?

EKO! is a French association recognised as being in the general interest, which promotes positive and innovative projects in the fields of sustainable development and international solidarity. It promotes individual and collective fulfilment and resilience that respects nature and cultures.

Association of general interest which carries out positive and innovative projects in the fields of sustainable development and international solidarity.

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