Emmaus International

In 2007, Séverine Diot, a community leader in the Quimperlé Emmaus community, decided to leave the world of retail to work with Emmaus in the Parisian suburb Mantes-la-Jolie.

severine diot BDSéverine has been interested in social justice for a long time; in high school, she created a charitable group that donated proceeds from musical performances to other associations. Later, she sold cans that she had collected from the trash, separating aluminum from scrap iron and using the proceeds to sponsor a little girl in Zambia. At the World Assembly in Jesolo, Italy, she sat down to discuss her current activism – and her beginnings at Emmaus.

You have been interested in recycling, re-use, and solidarity movements for a long time, haven’t you?
Yes, when I learned about what Emmaus was doing, it really spoke to me; the idea of giving a “second chance” to objects and people at the same time made sense to me immediately. I remember thinking “that’s just perfect for me.”

You felt an immediate affinity for the Movement?
What I really liked was how alternative it seemed. The idea of sharing responsibility for one’s community is alternative; even if it is difficult, we try to live our everyday lives this way, and to show that it’s possible – having lived it, I know that it is possible. So there’s this concept of shared responsibility; and the vocabulary that comes with it – the idea that there are no directors; that volunteers are not just volunteers but friends, companions. Basically, Emmaus offers an alternative to the usual way of doing things; for me it feels like the beginning of a paradigm shift.  

What does “Companion” mean to you?
People don’t become companions immediatly. When they arrive, they want protection, safety, a roof and food. A true companion is a person who really tries to become part of the group, who respects some basic rules and understands the values of mutual respect and generosity. People who come to Emmaus don’t necessarily intend to become part of a community, but if they stay, they get a sense of how things work; and we hope that they will start to want to live for others. I wish that more companions became invested in the movement. In any case, our job is to help them to become involved; we have to listen to them, but we hope that they won’t only speak for themselves but for the well being of the communities, and of everyone else.  

How can we help the companions to become more committed to the Movement?
I think that we need to motivate them to fully participate in solidarity. They act in solidarity every day, but we don’t place enough emphasis on our actions. The act of helping someone goes beyond bringing him or her furniture when they’re in need. To help someone is to participate in solidarity, in sharing; to be a companion. We live in an abundant world – and we can help people who have less than us; we need to communicate more about this, to explain it better. This requires a lot of time. We don’t do it enough. We’re busy; we’re in the store, we’re arranging things; it’s a routine, and we need to stop from time to time to think about what we’re doing. So there’s local solidarity – and we’re lucky to have containers – actually, right now we have a project with containers, we’re going to make the trip with them, and empty them ourselves when we arrive in destination countries, closing the circle.   We want this to show the companions how much we’ve discarded, and what we have to bring back. But it’s difficult; there are 55 companions from 15 different nationalities, and many different cultures, in our community. We try to work on solidarity amongst ourselves, but often at the end of the day it’s “Ok, my day is done, I’m going to my room.” We need to avoid this attitude, to try to do things differently. The companions have to re-appropriate the community, - we’re not managers at a company, - it’s their tool also, a tool that will allow them to survive and to help others. Our work is a common good: it is for everyone.

How do you see Emmaus evolving in the future?
Pessimism won’t help us. I have a lot of doubts, though. We live in an individualistic society. I hope that our communities can stay alternative. Because of funding, there is a tendency to focus on integration through employment. I hope that the communities will be financially autonomous in 10 years; I’m afraid of us becoming an establishment like any other, that there won’t be any more alternative models. I hope that we’ll maintain our financial independence and I hope that we can share our skills, ideas, and resources even more. We must share more, at the regional level and hopefully at higher levels as well.  

Why are Abbé Pierre’s ideas relevant today?
His ideas are relevant because of the individualism I just described. I am comforted by all of the alternatives models out there, being implemented as we speak. I feel hope. We feel like we’re moving towards an inevitable situation, that we can’t make change, but people are rising up and taking action every day. They’re developing microcredits, alternative currencies, different educational approaches; we have to focus on this while also remembering the still relevant views of Abbé Pierre: we live in a society governed by banks, and we need to keep up the fight. We need to listen to Abbé Pierre’s words, because we need them now; and if we work with other associations, I know that we can change the world.