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A welcome refuge
Nicolas’ home has become a place where refugees can rebuild their lives.
Most French homes are quiet in August, as the country collectively closes the shutters and heads off to the beaches, lakes and mountains to enjoy the annual summer holidays.
But for Nicolas Richard, Head of Advisory for KPMG in France, the house remains a hive of activity, with his family hosting refugees in search of a better life.
“It all started when my wife made a big career change, swapping a senior marketing position to join an NGO. The Jesuit Refugee Service is a charity that aims to integrate refugees from around the world into society. Once she had started work with this organization, it seemed like a natural step to become volunteers ourselves and take in individuals.”
Settling into a new and unfamiliar country is often very isolating and can prove a huge challenge for anyone. Even more so when you’ve suffered harrowing experiences of war, unrest and persecution and undergone a long, arduous journey.
“Everyone we host has a unique story” says Nicolas. “Our current guest left Afghanistan at 15 and spent 6 months in the desert between Iran and Afghanistan, before managing to get to Europe. Such stories are very humbling and remind us how fortunate we are. When you think about what they have been through, it’s really not that much to offer our time and a few square meters of our house.”
Nicolas is also quick to point out that this form of volunteering requires his whole family to be active and involved.
“We’re not just here to provide food and lodging. We need to get our guests on their feet and help them become independent as swiftly as possible. When they arrive, they are understandably low on energy and need their batteries recharging. I see myself as a mentor and that means being a motivator, encouraging them to take positive steps. You need to provide some quality time and be tough, honest and transparent. It’s often a hard task but it’s always rewarding – you get back more than you give.”
In the 6 weeks or so that refugees spend at Nicolas’ home, once they have their refugee status, they need to start learning French with a local charity, and find full-time accommodation.
“It’s a critical period” continues Nicolas. “And I can use my skills and my contacts to accelerate the process. When you meet these people, you realize they’re just like you and me. All they want is the chance to pursue their dreams, fulfil their career ambitions and support their families.”
In the past couple of years, 12 refugees have stayed at the Richard household, with varying outcomes.
“One is a doctor in ER, another is now a taxi driver, and one young man from Iraq has continued his career as a professional volleyball player with a French team. Two others have gone on to jobs as a journalist and house painter respectively. And, inevitably, there are some we’ve lost touch with.
Nicolas feels the experience has enabled everyone in the family to grow. “It is a fantastic adventure for myself, my wife and our children. We’re lucky that we have a big enough house to be able to accommodate people and the least we can do is give back instead.”
Despite having taken in guests regularly for the past 3 years, Nicolas is now considering whether to find another charity and serve as a board member. This would be in addition to his significant involvement with the KPMG France Foundation, which tackles important challenges like social inclusion, environmental protection and sustainable development.
“Volunteering with the Jesuit Refugee Service has been very much a case of rolling up my sleeves. The next logical step would be to use my governance and leadership skills on a board. It would have to be something I believe in, so we shall see what turns up.”