Migrant Lives

Odyssey Of An African Refugee, 50 Years And Counting

Nicolas Ngwabije fled his native Congo in 1966, a political refugee. He ended up working for decades at a French migrant center, a reference point for generations of refugees. And they keep coming.

Odyssey Of An African Refugee, 50 Years And Counting
Nathalie Funes

MASSY â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" "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.

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 â€" "I don't even remember how I managed to hold onto them throughout my exile" â€" 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?"

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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