Paulette Rabier – Archives of Service Civil International

Paulette Rabier

During my studies (1952-1955) I came into contact with an association which brought together young volunteers helping old people (renovating flats, cutting wood, etc.). That is where I first heard of SCI. In the next few years, I went on to do social work with Algerian families. This is why I wanted to get to know more about their country, but going to Algeria at that time was out of the question because of the war. I got in touch with SCI and in 1958 I went to Tunisia on an ‘Orient-Occident’ workcamp (a project developed by Dorothy Abbott). Among the volunteers were several North Africans, and young people from several other countries in the camp. Our task was to repaint a hospital – no small job! There were lots of lively, idealistic discussions. A particular Libyan volunteer was very enthusiastic about the idea of creating a ‘Greater United Maghreb’ – a union of the 5 countries of the Maghreb (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.), that is, North Africa.

Although it wasn’t actually planned to happen we quarrelled a lot with the Libyan, Egyptian, (and to a lesser extent) Algerian and Tunisian male volunteers, with regards to their attitude towards women, and their role in society. They tended to be very ‘macho’, and backward. But, having said that, I did not really realize the situation when female volunteers were limited to the role of ‘sisters’ My main contacts there were with Algerian and Tunisian volunteers, some of whom took us to see the refugee camp at Sakhiet [1], which had just been bombed by the French air force (October 1958).

After that workcamp, as I still very much wanted to do something for Algeria – but I could not go there -, I decided that I would be more useful in Tunisia than in France. I went back there to take part in another workcamp, but, unfortunately it did not take place. So I obtained a contract for a job with the Tunisian authorities, in the first place, to work with Algerian refugees in the west of the country near the Algerian border. But soon it became clear that they did not really want French people there and they asked me where I would like to go and work. I suggested Kairouan, where there was a team of the Mission de France, which had just been expelled from the Algerian side of the border. I worked there a year as a social worker, under contract to the local authorities. Later on I worked in a home for Algerian children, run by the Red Crescent and the Algerian Trade Union (Union Générales des travailleurs Algériens U.G.T.A.). This time I was a volunteer with SCI (on a small allowance). I stayed there three years doing social work. In addition I trained social workers as well as providing information to potential donors. In the refugee home I worked with the following SCI volunteers: Jacqueline Lebreton-Ghazi (France), Susi Bachmann-Naceur (Suiss), Jean Rabier (France). From 1962 to 1965, I worked in Algeria, and again from 1967 to 1969. Afterwards, I taught in a French high school.

In 1959, I participated in another ‘Orient-Occident’ camp near Lausanne, to train teams of female volunteers to work with women and teach them hygiene, healthcare and sewing. That is where I met Nelly Forget and Lise Cérésole.

During these camps, I noticed that with regard to the issue of the ongoing war in Algeria, the Swiss volunteers were much less inhibited and more straightforward than the French volunteers were. The French were scared of getting involved and of the possible repercussions from the French authorities in general. As far as I was concerned, on the contrary, given my personal experience of war, the very idea of taking part in another one was completely unacceptable to me.

[1] This raid shocked public opinion everywhere. The bombing of a refugee camp in a friendly, independent country, causing a large number of casualties amongst the Algerian refugees was widely criticized in the international media.