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Michel Conus is the chair of the Emmaus Berne committee of friends, whose volunteers have been collecting, sorting and selling second-hand goods since 1956. He tells us about the work done over the past 60 years and the challenges facing the committee of friends, which is now being converted into an Emmaus community, due to welcome its first companions in 2017.

Interview conducted on 17th October 2016

How did the Emmaus Berne committee of friends first come into existence?

Berne 1956The appeal launched by Abbé Pierre in the winter of 1954 left a strong impression on people in Switzerland, especially among Catholic communities and the media in the French-speaking part of the country. At the time I was a boy Scout, and I remember just after Abbé Pierre had launched his appeal in France, we were out on the street collecting money, with the help of big collection pots labelled with the Scouts logo, and our own home-made signs saying “For Abbé Pierre”. But it wasn’t until 1956 that Emmaus activities really got started in Berne. That year, Abbé Joseph Candolfi, who was the Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Basel, invited Abbé Pierre to hold a conference. He did so on 6th February 1956, on the topic of “La misère juge le monde”, or in other words, a society can be measured by its treatment of the poorest.  The conference was attended by around 1,700 people. Five days later, a handful of young people got together and started to drive a van around the neighbourhoods of the old city, in temperatures of -20°C. They took fuel, blankets and warm clothing to individuals and families who were isolated and living in vulnerable situations. That was how Emmaus Berne began, and it has been operating continuously ever since.

Has the city changed over the past 60 years?

For 60 years, the Emmaus Berne committee of friends has been run entirely by volunteers. The only people who are paid are a few drivers, for insurance reasons. Our committee currently has 60 members, 30 of whom are active members. Most of our volunteers have been working with us for many years and are aged between 75 and 80.
We organise collections and receive donations of furniture, clothing, crockery and paintings, which we sort, and repair when necessary. Then we sell them, either at our market stall in Bahnstrasse or our shop called Montagslädeli, which is on Rathausgasse street. All the profit is used to fund solidarity projects in Switzerland and other countries.

En estos sesenta años ¿ha cambiado el aspecto de la ciudad?

In 1956, we used to deliver coal, wood and clothing to people living in the old city of Berne. Nowadays, the old city is full of ultra-luxury apartment blocks. Poverty isn't as visible as it was back then. In Switzerland you don’t see anyone sleeping rough any more, people are taken into shelters for the night. Nevertheless, some of the customers who we see coming to buy things from our shops are in a great deal of difficulty.

In what way has your work evolved over time?

Over the past 60 years our collection, sorting and re-sale activities haven’t changed. We have run a few occasional events, such as organising soup kitchens, or participating in large demonstrations, but these days our main focus is on fund-raising for our solidarity work.
In Berne there are 31 different second hand shops, and this is making our work increasingly difficult. On top of that, the furniture that people donate to us is not as old or as good quality as it used to be, so it’s difficult to attract the antiques dealers, and online competition means that families on a modest income can get hold of new furniture almost as cheaply as buying it at Emmaus.

The committee of friends relies principally on volunteers; what is it that motivates them to get so involved?

SAM 0474The volunteers are motivated by what I like to call the 'Emmaus spirit'. They want to support the Emmaus philosophy. They know what they're here for: they want to generate profit, to fund solidarity projects.

Each year, we put between 20,000 and 40,000 Swiss francs (€18,000 to €37,000) towards acts of solidarity. This allows us to fund small-scale projects, with each one receiving between 2,000 and 5,000 francs (€1,800 to €4,500). Since 2008, we have spent 300,000 francs (€277,000) on solidarity projects. In Switzerland, we support Villa Maria, a women's refuge run by nuns, not far from our premises. It provides shelter mainly to women in distress, some of whom are victims of domestic violence. At the international level, we have funded a project to drill a number of wells in Africa, as well as a fishing project in Côte d’Ivoire and a rabbit-breeding project in Benin, to name a few examples. The volunteers are extremely proud when they see what their work and dedication has achieved – that's why we mainly focus on small-scale projects where we can see the real impact. We were delighted to get involved in the Nokoué project run by Emmaus International, which provides access to water and sanitation in Benin.

Could you tell me about a particularly significant moment in the history of the committee of friends?

That would absolutely have to be in 2007. That was the year we were awarded the social prize of the City of Berne. We did receive a small amount of prize money, but more than anything it was just a great honour and magnificent surprise to win. It meant that our work and activism was being recognised.

You have been operating continuously for the past 60 years – what do you think of the work that you have accomplished in that time?

Berne 2016 2Not many institutions in Switzerland have been around for as long as that, especially when you consider that our work relies entirely on volunteers. I think we can say that we're proud of what we have achieved and the recognition we have been given. For example, we're very touched that our 60th anniversary celebrations were attended by a number of national, regional and local government representatives, as well as delegates from Emmaus International and Emmaus Europe. All of this has given a richer meaning to our work, and driven us to continue what we are doing.

Aside from your day-to-day activities, do you also lobby your local politicians to take action against the root causes of poverty?

Political activism is quite tricky in Switzerland. It doesn't really form part of the culture. Nevertheless, the sales that we organise to raise funds for solidarity projects are a good opportunity to raise awareness of the causes we support.

After 60 years in operation, what new projects and challenges lay in store for the Emmaus Berne committee of friends?

Quite a few major challenges lay ahead over the next few months! Most of our volunteers are between 75 and 80 years old, and there are fewer and fewer active members who are able to give their time to support the work of the committee. That’s why we decided in December 2015 to become an Emmaus community, to allow the work of the Berne group, which is a historical part of the Emmaus movement, to carry on. It’s a major upheaval for the volunteers – the end of an era. But we think it's time to pass on the baton. That said, we are still going to ensure that this community remains a place where people are welcome, a place for social connections, where volunteers can come and meet up on a regular basis. Our current premises are not suitable for accommodating companions, so we have identified the new site that will be used for the community - we should be getting the keys to it in the next few weeks. At that point, we’ll need to adapt the new premises and sell the house where the committee of friends is currently based. The community will start with around four or five companions and eventually reach around 20. We would like to make a start in early 2017, but that will depend on how the various different stages unfold. A community leader has already been appointed, and she's currently receiving training at the Emmaus community in Cologne.

Berne 2017