Simone Francois-Whittier has built her career over a decade working in the Foreign Service. She also qualified to practise law and was in private practice. Her path seemed set. But Francois-Whittier decided last year to use “her gifts” in pursuit of something else. The Coordinator of the Archdiocesan Ministry for Migrants and Refugees (AMMR) sat down recently with Senior Writer, Lara Pickford-Gordon (email@example.com)
After an induction programme with the migrant ministry at the Living Water Community, Simone Francois-Whittier spent the first month visiting parishes in Carapichaima, Penal, Arima, St Joseph, to get a feel of the work being done by parish ministries “on the ground”, and learn their challenges and needs.
“I enjoyed going out, putting a face to the name and their becoming familiar with me,” she said.
She called the Penal parish an “eye opener” with the large number of children at a school established by the migrant ministry. Francois-Whittier said she had to ask the Chairperson of the Parish Ministry there, “where all these children come from?”. At Carapichaima, she had seen just a small number but the 120 or so children at Penal “put things in context”.
At the time she was interviewed, she had more parishes to visit.
Information collected indicates there are approximately 20 parish migrant ministries, five to six “fledgling” and a few parishes had individuals “doing the work”.
Francois-Whitter has seen a lot of interest in helping the migrants but said it must be channelled constructively. She told Leela Ramdeen, chair of the AMMR how proud she was as a Catholic for the efforts in the parishes.
“People using their own money, taking time to take children to health centres, getting them immunised, teaching them, literally sitting down with these kids all day…they don’t know these children, don’t know the parents.”
She acknowledged that “further sensitisation” still has to be done in parishes because not all are welcoming.
The comment about Venezuelan women coming to “take people husband” has been uttered by Catholic church-going people. Francois-Whittier said she was shocked.
The challenge of xenophobia
Contrary to perception she explained there were more men coming, a large proportion are between the ages of 18–35, “in their working years”. There may be instances of women coming for sex work, but most were here to earn a living to support themselves and their families. Unaccompanied minors are also coming.
Another perception behind the xenophobia was of Latin women being hypersexual. Francois-Whittier said work must be done with Catholic men’s ministries so Catholic men do not display behaviours based on stereotypes.
Deep-seated issues surface with xenophobia. Francois-Whittier said, “As a people we have to work it out for ourselves, as Church we have to be cognisant of it. …we don’t like to talk about it, but we have a lot of issues regarding race, colour, class, Port of Spain more so than other parts of the country”.
She has received reports of exploitation of migrants such as charging exorbitant rents and taxi fares and a few episodes of persons using “discretion” and refusing to treat migrants seeking medical attention at health centres.
“I am very disappointed when I hear stories like that because Trinidadians I know, can do better, can be better,” she commented.
The influx of migrants has raised fears about the scarcity of resources, and uncertainty about the future. “If you are coming from a place where there’s never enough and you always have to be grabbing and keep for yourself because you never know when next you will get that is what influences how you will behave…”
For the Catholics who have chosen to help, trust has developed between them and the migrants. “Because of the credibility of people, their own personal integrity and reputation, people trust them to help them.”
She added that the Catholic Church has a reputation as a trustworthy institution to which migrants can turn for help and nothing should be done to jeopardise this.
“The Church took up the responsibility and not just our Church, the Presbyterians are doing good work, I even met members of the Muslim Women’s Association, people are helping”.
Francois-Whittier’s family is multiracial, from “all over the world”; she observed many Trinidadians were at one time “migrants”.
Who is Simone Francois-Whittier?
“I’m a mother of two, a wife, this year will be 14 years of marriage. I have one sibling, I have a very close extended family, first cousins, aunts, uncles on both sides.”
Francois-Whittier is proud to be from south Trinidad. She was born in Pointe-à-Pierre and grew up in Fyzabad.
Her résumé is impressive. In a nutshell, she is an attorney-at-law with a Master’s degree in Philosophy—Government/Political Science. Francois-Whittier worked at the Ministry of Foreign and CARICOM Affairs, and in the Ministry of Labour and Small Enterprise Development.
At the Consular Affairs Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Francois-Whittier felt satisfaction helping T&T nationals in situations of distress. “There was never a dull moment ever, Trinidadians and Tobagonians tend to get themselves involved in all sorts of craziness, but you got a very immediate response in terms of being able to see your effort and the result.”
She went into private practice deciding that after almost 13 years in the Public Service she would take her time and “enjoy me”.
On her move to the AMMR, she said she loved her job but had to make a choice. Francois-Whittier wants to continue helping people and feel fulfilled. “I want to use my gifts the right way,” she said.
Through her work in the Ministry she is au courant with the migrant issue. “This job has given me the opportunity now to assist in a different way”. Francois-Whittier describes herself as an introvert who likes meeting people.
As a hobby she mixes drinks—she is a trained mixologist creating different liquors. Last year, she earned an award from Caribbean Industrial Research Institute for the most progressive entrepreneur for IndelimeTT Ltd, “artisanal liqueurs and cocktails”.