Society

A day in Paris with refugees from La Chapelle

Article published on May 3, 2018
Article published on May 3, 2018

France recently passed one of the strictest laws when it comes to immigration. It’s a move that will surely not make life easier for refugees seeking asylum in the country. I went to Porte de la Chapelle in Paris, where reception centre conditions are grim to say the least.

For our YoTambien project, we dove into the themes of Yo!Fest @ the EYE2018, Europe's largest youth-led political festival, to explore the issues that matter to young people the most. This article focuses on the theme "staying alive in turbulent times". 

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8:30 am. People have gathered at the Nathalie Sarraute promenade to serve breakfast to refugees who spend their nights at La Chapelle, in Paris’ 18th arrondissement. In a few hours, this same spot will be filled with an entirely different crowd. Right next door, the bar and restaurant Les Petites Gouttes – with its deck chairs, turntables, arcade games, photo booth and Berber carpets  – will be packed with young and hip Parisians.

The end of the fucking world

I am with Samir*, a Syrian history professor who arrived in Paris in September 2016. It is with him that I will be spending a day exploring different refugee camps that have been set up in the northern part of the French capital. Samir taught in Deraa (in the south-west of Syria, ed.) before leaving his country in 2012, and eventually arrived in France four years later. Saddened by seeing so many people sleeping in the streets, he spends a great deal of his time listening and helping newcomers. According to him, the social fabric between the French government and refugees is broken. “New welfare programmes are the only way to solve inter-relational problems. Refugees have to open their hearts to the French, and the government should seek to integrate people by taking into account their cultural identity,” he says. For Samir, it is vital to bring them moral or financial aid, because it is the lack of support that lies at the heart of these divisions. “We need to see them as people above everything, and not simply as ‘refugees’. It’s the feeling of abandonment that creates shame and deepens social divisions.”

Samir invites me to follow him across the street, where a whole new scenery is unveiled. A table is propped up alongside a wall, where several volunteers are bringing out large thermos and plastic cups. Every morning, opposite the Michèle Ostermeyer sports centre, the organisation Quartiers Solidaires provides tea, coffee, chocolate spread, napkins, warm clothes and blankets. A group of refugees shyly head over to the stand to meet the volunteers. “There are about fifteen in total today. Before, there were up to two hundred.” Dressed in a beret and a red scarf, Benoit Alavoine insures the distribution by asking himself questions like: “Why is there such a shift in numbers? Ramadan is approaching. They are not obliged to do it, but they do it anyway. Most of them are at La Villette and live in the new camp that accommodates 2,000 people,” he explains. Since the humanitarian shelter at La Chapelle shut down on the 30th of March, refugees have been forced to find a different place to sleep. The establishment was supposed to help refugees find a different place to rest their heads. It’s past 9:30 am, and the volunteers are leaving the area to go to work. I decide to take over with Samir and stick to the chocolate spread. I take advantage of this moment to speak to the refugees, most of which are from Sudan and Eritrea.

A few days earlier, I had gone to the famous humanitarian shelter the day it shut down. The shelter was managed by Emmaüs and the town hall of Paris, who explained that – in order to ensure a smooth transition – five reception centres would made available in the Paris region (the exact date is still vague, ed.). The atmosphere was as charged as the cloudy sky. A Syrian family was sitting against a tree. In front of the doors, a security guard was on watch. Without a proof of residency, it was impossible to go through. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that didn’t apply to the group of people walking in front of me. They walked through the doors without a problem. Among them, I recognised Alex Lawther, the main actor in the TV show The End of the F***ing World. He had come to attend a performance in the “bubble”, a sort of makeshift dome that has been set up in the neighbourhood.

Set up by the British organisation Good Chance Theatre, the dome brings together Parisians and refugees around a weekly performance called the “Hope Show”. Ghadir Abbas, a 22-year-old Iraqi man who had been hosted in the shelter for 24 days, is one of the rare people who found a place to sleep after it shut down. “They temporarily moved me to a hotel in Argenteuil. I live there with another Iraqi refugee,” he explains, pointing to his friend in a wheelchair. After having lost several family members to Daech, the young Baghdad native decided to leave Iraq. “I have lived my whole life in the dark,” he confesses, his arms covered in scars. Like 90% of the men hosted in the shelter at La Chapelle, he is in a deadlock because of the Dublin Regulation, which forces him to hand in his asylum request in the first European country he gets checked in. For Ghadir, that was Finland. But the country refused his request for asylum five times: “They told me that Iraq was safe and that I should go back.” Which he did, before finally arriving in France.  

Sidewalk of shame

In 2016, 1.5 million people applied for asylum in Europe, a number that halved in 2017. Still, due to administrative challenges, Article 15 of the Dublin Regulation has been the object of criticism. It’s something that Yann Manzi, co-founder of Utopia 56, a major organisation in La Chapelle that helps with the voluntary hosting of refugees, is dealing with. The organisation, which has up to 6,000 supporters, condemns a system that “sorts and expulses”. It’s why he decided to withdraw from the humanitarian shelter in La Chapelle, which, according to him, is a result of “negative interference” from the French state who tries to trap refugees.

“France and Europe are doing everything it takes to dissuade people to come here,” he says, referring to Macron’s “non-welcoming” policy. “By poorly welcoming them, we’re sending out a message. Refugees make up 0.7% of the population. We need to understand that, first and foremost, it’s a political problem,” Yann exclaims, hinting to the surge in nationalism that is taking place in Europe. His thoughts reflect the fury felt by several organisations in reaction to the new “Asylum and Immigration” bill, which was presented by French Home Secretary Gérard Collomb. The bill was passed on the 22nd of April this year, and aims to reduce the delays for asylum applications and tighten illegal border crossings. It’s a vision of immigration that caused a lot of controversy in the country, bringing it closer to the migration policy measures of the National Front. “It’s unheard of. With this new law being prepared, the government will have the right to detain so-called Dubliners,” says Yann, referring to the detention period which can last up to 90 days. Even longer, if the refugee insists on asserting his or her rights.

Samir and I walk on towards the Boulevard de la Villette. He wants to show me the famous “sidewalk of shame” in front of the France Terre d’asile establishment, where refugees seeking asylum go to. Several camps are lined up along the sidewalk. To gain access to the premises, refugees often sleep outside several nights in a row. “As long as the welcome policy and the asylum application procedure remains this complicated, refugees will keep sleeping in the streets of Paris,” Pierre Henry, the boss of the establishment, tells me.

Solidarity, brawls and Talibans

Ahmet*, a 20-year-old Afghan, has been living in a tent with a friend for the past ten days. The two men were forced to leave Afghanistan due to security issues caused by the Talibans. Encouraged by his family, Ahmet left Kabul in 2015. During his odyssey, he crossed Iran, Turkey, Yemen, Macedonia, Hungary and Sweden, where he ended up finding refuge in a house assigned to refugees by the Swedish Migration Agency. It was a short-lived experience, as he ended up going through the same process as Ghadir and was eventually sent back. “The re-examination of asylum seekers takes place every three months. Despite the welcome I was given, I was finally told to return to Afghanistan since there we no more Talibans and therefore no more danger,” he explains. He left Sweden to go to Germany and stayed in Hamburg in a camp of 2,000 people. This is where he met Fazil*, the Afghan friend who is currently sharing a tent with him. The two men ignore the fact that the establishment is going to be transferred to the Boulevard Ney. “Probably in the beginning of May,” Pierre Henry clarifies. An insufficient solution, according to him. “I have been repeating myself for a year. We need a national system of first reception, in the form of centres in each regional capital.” In the meantime, hygiene and security conditions are getting worse for asylum seekers.

“A fight broke out last night,” Ahmet tells me. “Refugees from a different camp attacked us. The police saw what happened, but they didn't intervene.” Local residents know this topic well, and have reported on the issue. Ahmet is thankful for the kindness from the local residents, who bring him blankets and food. But he feels that his priority lies elsewhere: “I want to go back to school. I would like to learn and work. A place to live will come later.”

The hours pass by and I realise that Samir is popular in this neighbourhood. Whether it’s the members of Good Chance Theatre, the Quartiers Solidaires association, the shopkeepers or simply the people, the Syrian expat has taken on the role of a guardian angel. Around lunchtime, a man approaches Samir to confess to him his situation. Samir always listens attentively to the people he meets. “A network of friends” is how he managed to find a job and housing.

My day comes to an end. I thank Samir for his time and I head towards the metro station Jaurès. In between wagons, the metro highline offers a stunning view of the Boulevard. Along the Canal de l’Ourcq, I see the terrace of Point Éphémère and a fleet of colourful tents at its feet. In the bar, people are dancing.

*the name has been changed

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Cafebabel is a media partner of Yo!Fest, the annual political youth-led festival organised by the European Youth Forum that mixes political debates and workshops with live music and artistic performances. The festival is once again being organised as part of the European Youth Event - EYE2018 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The #EYE2018 provides a unique opportunity for over 8,000 young Europeans to make their voices heard and shape a vision for the future of Europe. This series will explore the event's five core themes: Keeping up with the Digital Revolution, Staying Alive in Turbulent Times, Working out for a Stronger Europe, Protecting our Planet and Calling for a Fair Share. Follow the EYE and Yo!Fest on social media.

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