MASSY — He greets his guests in his uniform: a navy-blue blazer, a striped tie, a baseball cap he "bought at a local supermarket," and a set of keys attached to a red cord. For nearly three decades, Nicolas Ngwabije was in charge of the reception office of the Massy temporary accommodation center, designed to help refugees in the southern outskirts of Paris.
Every day, he filled in admission files, gave new arrivals tours of the center, distributed mail to the residents, unclogged the sink, listened to personal secrets and so many tales of setting off in the night, leaving parents and homes behind. These accounts of long hauls aboard trucks, boats, on foot, borders crossed illegally, lives turned upside-down, have been making global headlines lately.
For Ngwabije, it's been a life's work — and a part of his own story.
Though he retired last summer, his habits haven't changed much. He has kept his work apartment on the first floor — "two rooms, a kitchen and a small shower." He gets up early, never leaves his place without his uniform, and continues to serve as a living memory of the thousands of refugees who have walked through these doors.
Hot on his heels
Ngwabije too fled his country. Born 69 years ago in Bukavu, near the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)'s Lake Kivu, he was raised in a Catholic family of nine children, and eventually became a geography teacher and an activist in Patrice Lumumba's independence movement.
"He came to speak to the crowd in my village when I was 13," he recalls. "It left an important mark on me."
But Lumumba was assassinated in 1961, and Joseph Mobutu would eventually take power four years later. "The opponents were arrested, tortured, massacred," Ngwabije recalls. So he left to hide in the scrubland in the country's northeast, on the plateau of the Rwenzori Mountains, with its 5,000-meter summit and year-round snow.
The camp was regularly attacked. One day, in 1966, he had to flee and cross the border to neighboring Uganda with Mobutu's troops hot on his heels. He recalls the intense fear amid the deafening sounds of submachine guns. It was only when he reached the other side of the river that he fainted, exhausted and riddled with bullets, his abdomen, liver, face and left hand wounded.
What followed was a wandering life of exile. In Uganda, he was in a coma for a month with the injuries from being shot. After that, he stayed for one year in a Tanzania refugee camp, where "you had to build your own shelter with your own hands, survive with a bit of rice." He spent more than a decade in Burundi, where he managed to obtain political asylum thanks to Congolese opponents who helped him apply.
This could have been the end of his adventure, but new agreements signed among the African Great Lakes countries and an extradition request from the Congolese government forced him to leave once again. This time, with a one-year travel permit, he headed to France.
Starting life in France
"I landed at Roissy (Charles de Gaulle) Airport in the early morning of April 11, 1979," he recalls. "When I held out my papers to the police officer at the checkpoint, he turned to his colleague and said, 'Burundi, what's that?' ' I thought, 'What a start.'"
A year later, after earning his right to asylum and having stayed with acquaintances in what seemed like every Paris neighborhood, he knocked on the door of the Massy center for refugees, the oldest one of its kind in France.
This facility is still hidden behind an old, wrought-iron gate, in a 17th century building, surrounded by centenarian trees and a vast park that used to be a hunting ground. Cimade, the agency that specializes in helping foreigners, bought it and turned it into a center for immigrants in 1968. Eighty beds have been set up in a new building at the end of the garden.
The Cimade building in Massy — Source: Google Street View
Hero of Latinos
Ngwabije spent six years at Massy as a resident before being hired to head the reception office. The injuries he'd suffered in Uganda forced him to undergo five surgeries at the Bichat Hospital in Paris, and his left hand would be forever atrophied. "Don't complain," the surgeon told him after the operation. "You could have lost it."
At the time, he lived in room number 4, on the first floor. It was nine square meters with a bed, a table, a shared shower and tiny kitchen. It was "the great period of the Latinos," as he calls it, when Chilean, Argentinean, Uruguayan and Brazilian refugees fled South American dictatorships. "Real political activists," he says.
Ngwabije had a habit of leaving his door open. With his refugee allowance, he bought a radio that picked up Colombian stations, and a teleprinter box able to spit out news from the wires.
He was a hero to the Latino residents because in the scrubland of the Congo he had met Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Every Oct. 9, on the anniversary of Guevara's death, they asked Ngwabije to recount the encounter, which he does again for us. "They nicknamed him 'Captain Tatu,' which means 'three' in Swahili," Ngwabije says of Guevara. "He came over with 150 men, mostly doctors. He spoke perfect French and could spend hours debating while bombs were falling, his Kalashnikov at his feet, without batting an eyelid."
Successive waves of immigrants
Ngwabije also recalls from that same period a Chilean woman in her thirties who lived at Massy. Tortured and raped in her country, she spent years at the center, between hospitalizations, before returning to her country after the fall of dictator Augusto Pinochet.
He recalls that waves of refugees succeeded one other. In the 1980s, it was the Iranians who wanted to escape the regime of ayatollahs after the fall of the Shah. Ngwabije recalls "Mariam, who spent 10 years of her life in prison, who wouldn't wear the veil and drank alcohol." After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the Chinese arrived, "mostly teachers, students, artists, who learned to speak French in just three months." They nicknamed Ngwabije "Mister President."
When he was in the Congolese opposition, Ngwabije made a stop at the Nanjing Military Academy in southern China. He brought back a few black and white photos — "I don't even remember how I managed to hold onto them throughout my exile" — and the images, etched in his memory, of young, dumbfounded Chinese who had never seen a black man in their lives.
In Massy, there were also the Rwandan refugees who'd fled during the 1994 genocide, such as a young Tutsi couple whose entire families had been slaughtered. And there were the Congolese after the overthrow of Mobutu in 1997.
"We even received one of Mobutu's former torturers," he recalls. "I asked him, 'How could you torture so many people?' He answered, 'I was enrolled in the army. I had no choice.' The fact that persecutors and their victims could be mixed together this way in a refugee center was unthinkable," Ngwabije says.
Today, there are mostly Guineans, Afghans, Chechens, Somalians and Iranians. About 40% of the residents are women who had been forcibly married and persecuted. There are also about 20 children. Many stay three, four or five years before managing to find a job, a home. Temporary arrangements can last a long time.
Ngwabije has never returned to Africa. He never saw his now-deceased parents again. Or his brothers and sisters, only half of whom are still alive. He learned that his mother died of cholera in 1994, through a letter one of his brothers gave to a Dutch journalist, who sent it from Amsterdam.
He has French nationality, married in France, had three children, and is currently separated. Will he ever return to his native Congo? He asked himself the same question after Mobutu fled, bringing the regime change he had long hoped for.
"But when I saw that the new power tortured, imprisoned, killed liked the old one, I thought, 'No way.' Did we struggle for so long only for President Joseph Kabila's team to do the same thing as Mobutu's?"