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23 / 08 / 2004
Olivier Eitel: “My role is to show videos of people who die in the boats"

An immigrant who helps other immigrants. That phrase sums up the vocation and profession of Olivier Eitel (Cameroon, 1970), who arrived to Spain as a stowaway on a cargo boat in 1994. Now he works as a social mediator at ACCEM, an NGO linked to the Catholic Church that helps refugees and immigrants throughout Spain.

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They accompany immigrants and refugees through the arrival process showing them basic tasks like grocery shopping; explaining at what time one can visit people, etc., until they achieve full social integration. This is the same association that took Eitel in and helped him ten years ago. His case is no exception. 30% of the staff of ACCEM are foreigners, since they encourage immigrants they have helped to join the program. The objective: to achieve interethnic, multicultural and interfaith volunteerism. ACCEM is one of the NGOs that participated in the World Volunteerism Conference at the Universal Forum of Cultures– Barcelona 2004.

—People talk about immigration as a problem, why is integration so difficult?
It is not a problem but a phenomenon. There is always a handicap because the media has a great influence on society. In ACCEM we did a report on the language that the press in Castilla-La Mancha uses. Often when a boat of immigrants arrives, they say, "today there was an avalanche of immigrants." An avalanche in the dictionary means that something comes and devastates everything in its path. If I, as a Spanish person, understand it that way I think that immigrants are going to come and take everything I own and kick me out of my own country.

— This is false because more immigrants come from the North than from the South, do they not?
Yes, when we look at the statistics we see that there is a lot of rich immigration. These are retirees with a lot of money. They come and buy a house, but we never talk about that kind of immigration, which is larger than poor immigration. Therefore, people associate immigration with poverty and delinquency.

—Why do you think the media gives this distorted image?
There are political interests and certain media groups work according to the government in power. If we try to get the media, instead of emphasizing the negative aspects of immigration, treat immigration as a phenomenon, we will achieve something better. It is very surprising to me that Spain was a country of emigrants. To me, it's contradictory that now, as a receiver of immigrants, they are scared. Before the economic level in Spain increased so much, in the nineties, there was more immigration here. What happened is people came here and they didn't stay. They went to other countries. Spain didn't think it would one day receive immigrants and suddenly there are many people and no one knows where to go from here.

— And what doe Spain have to do in order to confront the phenomenon of immigration?
Right now there is no magic solution but I think the government, the public administration, all the entities and NGOs that work with immigrants have to get to work in order to achieve a model of integration. It's very important that Western governments know that it's time to put a stop to immigration and carrying programs in the immigrants' countries of origin does this. Putting up more borders, more police aren't going to stop immigration. We have to let Africa develop trade, sell its products, take care of itself. They have to be aware of the fact that we must to let these countries alone, because there is still colonization, in my opinion.

—Do you intend to return to Cameroon one day?
I always imagine that I will return to where I was born but I don't know. I think that my role is, when I go on vacation, to show videos of people that die in the boats, to try to show that crossing the Strait in a small boat is not a good idea.

—What is the worst thing an immigrant experiences when he arrives to Spain?
What a Catalan professor recently defined as the Ulysses syndrome. When they start the trip you think everything is solved, and then they are rejected, time goes by and they don't have working papers. Sometimes in order to survive they have to have degrading jobs, they are stressed, they can be violent and even reject people who really want to help. This behavior usually goes unnoticed because it all goes on in the head.

—When can an average citizen do?
It is important to see immigration as a normal phenomenon that has existed and will exist because want to move, not only to improve their living conditions but also to discover new cultures. Here, in Catalonia the phenomenon is lived out within one country. Here in Catalonia many Andaluces came to work and have stayed. That is also immigration. I think every citizen also has to break down this barrier that comes out the unknown, and should get to know the immigrant, where he is from, how he lives and allow for a bit of exchange.

—And how do you see the future?
Working for multicultural society where every culture brings its good points. If we don't get down to work, I don't know what will happen. I would be very sad if Spain didn't achieve it because we are at a good time. We know the experience of Germany, England and France and we have tools in order to create or own model of integration that allows for people to live in harmony. If not, I'm afraid that tomorrow this chance for a multicultural society might not be possible.

—Has the experience of immigrating been worth it for you?
I think so, because it has allowed me to see another way of life, of thinking and to learn how much you suffer away from home. At home I had never felt rejection, I don't know how much someone who could suffer without family, without having anyone for example to trust and talk to about a problem. In my town in Cameroon we often say that the young man who has visited ten countries is wiser than an 80-year-old man who had lived many experiences.