A Meeting with Marie Gittard: in the service of the New Caledonians and the French stranded in Australia
Marie Gittard is New Caledonian. Living in Sydney for over thirty years, she is an unmissable figure in the French volunteer community in Australia. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, she has swung into action day and night to help French people, particularly New Caledonians, stuck in Australia. She shared her experience with us.
On the 20th of March, the New Caledonian government suspended all air travel. How did you react to this announcement?
It was a bad surprise! More than 400 New Caledonians suddenly became stuck in Australia. At almost the exact same time, Australia too closed its borders. I knew immediately that the situation was going to be really problematic, not only for the hundreds of New Caledonians on Australian territory, but also for the thousands of French people stuck in the country, many of whom saw their finances disappear with the crisis.
With a group of twenty volunteers, we accordingly decided to come together to facilitate the relay of information from the Consulate General and the French Embassy. First and foremost, it was necessary to find practical housing and transport solutions to come to the rescue of thousands of French people, from France and from New Caledonia, whether they be tourists, students or on Working Holiday visas. Our response was as widespread as possible to help all the French people in difficulty in Australia. But it was specifically adapted to suit each group.
The crisis response units enacted by the Embassy and the Consulate of France were quickly overwhelmed. How did you remedy this problem?
Our solidarity network was put into place to help the crisis response units offered by the French Embassy in Canberra, the Consulate General in Sydney and the New Caledonian authorities. Despite the continuous shifts, their call service can’t respond to the thousands of calls that they can receive in a few weeks. As such, we decided to create WhatsApp groups for each Australian state. The majority of these groups, which were quickly filled by young students and travellers in particular who were in difficulty, were split into two to allow for everyone to join. On the 21st March, two specific WhatsApp groups for New Caledonia were also created. It was essential to make different groups as each state had established its own measures.
We were contacted by families, elderly people, young backpackers, who were all facing different and various problems. The first thing to do was to put in place a relay of information. Myself being originally from New Caledonia, I naturally focused on assisting returns to Nouméa. My husband and I helped cross-check the news and consolidate the lists of repatriation to draft a database with the delegate from New Caledonia, Yves Lafoy, based at the French Embassy in Canberra and the Regional Cooperation and Foreign Affairs Service (RCFAS). The team of volunteers focused on the thousands of questions related to flights, visas, employment, repatriations…
On that day, more than 50 000 interactions were recorded in the groups. Our team assisted the Consulate General in monitoring the repatriation flights, with three to France (from Perth, Sydney and Melbourne) and four from Sydney to Nouméa.
What kind of issues did you encounter in organising these repatriations?
We knew that there would be several flights to Nouméa and there would not be a lot of places as strict health safety measures had to be respected. It quickly became apparent that the repatriation flights would only depart from Sydney. As such, the New Caledonian delegate issued documentations to allow the passengers to pass the Australian state borders freely, which I recall were closed, to reach Sydney.
A lot of domestic flights were cancelled. So, we organised car rentals and car sharing. I also arranged accommodation at a hotel next to Sydney airport, where the passengers came together before the departure. I met each group at the hotel the day before the departures. There were five flights between Sydney and Nouméa. One repatriation flight was postponed at the last minute. The passengers were required to obtain a face mask and a thermometer. Yet, in the middle of the crisis, the pharmacies had run out of stock.
After several weeks of waiting, a number of people found themselves in a precarious financial situation (lack of means, cancelled credit card…) Medical concerns also necessitated urgent interventions.
For the three flights for Paris, the Consulate General dealt with the list of passengers and we lent our assistance to some tough cases. Several volunteers also helped the Consulate staff members during check-in at the airport. There were numerous questions concerning the travel possibilities in Australia on the WhatsApp groups, but also for once having arrived in France. Which domestic flights or trains were still running? How could those tickets be bought?
What was the mindset of the people whom you helped?
It was necessary to reassure the waiting people on the delays and the resolutions under preparation. But the WhatsApp groups allowed the people to communicate with each other. The passengers on the first repatriation flights shared the details of their return extensively. For Nouméa, the first to return shared their quarantine conditions in Nouméa, which reassured the people still waiting in Australia.
We had to tackle difficult cases. In particular, I’m thinking of one person who was short in medication. The Embassy succeeded in organising a private, emergency repatriation flight.
After three months of crisis management, I still keep in touch with some people with whom I was particularly close. A lot of them continue to tell me about their in-country return experience.
Are there still New Caledonians stranded on Australian soil today?
New Caledonians are still in Australia, some by choice (students, dual citizens) and others are waiting for a resumption of commercial flights between New Caledonia and Australia.
The WhatsApp groups are still open. If there are still exchanges on the groups of the different states, there are only a few today on the specific groups for New Caledonia now that repatriations have finished. I still receive direct requests which are managed case by case. Since then, we have created other groups that are more specific to those who stayed in Australia: job enquiries, visa or health questions. These groups are very active.
Like with everyone else, we hope that there won’t be a second wave of infections, that the borders between our countries will be able to reopen and that the economy will recover as quickly as possible from this shock, all while learning important lessons for a more responsible and sustainable society. Our current team, which is now present and operational in every Australian state, will stay active and engaged to continue its role of providing mutual aid and standing in solidarity beside our fellow citizens. Well-experienced in this regard, we now know that we are actors on the ground and we rejoice in future collaborations with our institutions and fellow citizens.
What do you retain from these past three months?
This experience was full of connections and lessons. I naturally had never thought that I would confront such a situation and I learnt a lot about the political and logistical issues that ensued. The mutual assistance network and solidarity put in place is now well-established and brought together. The warm gratitude expressed by many deeply touched us. For me personally, I‘d like to make the most of this opportunity to thank our Ambassador, our Consul-General and their teams for their belief and the very positive joint-effort during this difficult period. From the bottom of my heart, thank you also to all the volunteers who jumped into this adventure with me!
Transaltion: Marina Liu