⪧ We left our life in New York City to make a new one in Provence ⪦

December 10, 2009

If you are looking down, why don't you see me?



The 10th arrondissement of Paris is what many French people would still call "populaire" - which means a "working class" and diverse area. Our street from the very first day was a fascination to me. Each day there were groups of young guys standing around. They didn't speak French and they seemed to be from somewhere in the Middle East. They never seemed to work, yet they were all working age (18-35, or so it appeared). They were never aggressive and mostly huddled together, talking and floating in and out of the phone booths on the street with calling cards in their hands. After a bit of time living in the neighborhood, it became clear that they were Afghan refugees and they were waiting for visas and refugee status in France, or waiting to get to another country.



I spent the day with them today. For a long time I've wanted to hear their stories. A few times I've approached a huddle of these guys and asked if they spoke English or French - on those occasions they didn't. Today, I passed by and stopped to ask again. This time I was extremely fortunate and fell upon one gentleman, Massoud (this is not his real name and he requested not to be featured in any photos here), who had been a translator in Afghanistan and another young man who had worked as a translator in Greece on his way to France as a refugee.

At first, I asked simple questions, like, where do you sleep and do you have enough to eat and are you able to work? These questions opened up a conversation that lasted all morning, into the afternoon and almost until the sun set. Here is what they told me:



They are political refugees. They all agreed that they would rather be in Afghanistan if it were possible. Massoud said, "There are three levels of problems for humans: normal, medium and serious. Every one of these men's problems is serious. We cannot return to our country because it would mean our lives."



"We sleep under the bridge of the canal; at 7am the police come and wake us up. They put lights on your eyes and stand above us and they bring fire station water to put out our fire. We used to sleep in the park, but the police guard the park and won't let us in after sundown now."



"If there weren't charity associations, we would have nothing to eat. We have nowhere to permanently keep our things, they are often confiscated by the police." There is a refugee camp in between Porte de la Chapelle and Porte de Clignancourt named after the famous French soccer player Zinedine Zidane, but they said there is always a waiting list and it is not possible to sleep there every night. "There are charity associations who feed us; this one (he points in the direction) gives us breakfast two days a week and the man inside answers thousands of questions every day. Everyday he responds kindly. He is not the government though."

Massoud's story was unbelievable. He was a translator for the Americans and the British in a rural province in Afghanistan. A member of the Taliban infiltrated his company and became close to Massoud. When Massoud found out the man was from the Taliban it was too late. He had no choices left. The man threatened him that he would either do what he instructed, acting as plotter for the Taliban against the people he worked for, or he would die. This man told Massoud that if he suddenly disappeared (fled) his entire family would be a target. He decided with his family that he should flee regardless. Since he left, he has not been able to have any contact with his family as the numbers he calls are disconnected. He lives uncertain if his family has been killed in his wake.

Thanks to Massoud, I was able to hear many other stories. Unceasingly, every person we spoke to asked the question, "What should we do?" "What can we do?"

Massoud asked me if I wanted to see where they sleep and live. I did.



The canal is made of a series of locks and bridges. This is where they live. We walked under bridges where lines of sleeping bags bordered both edges of the concrete walls.



We walked further along the canal - a place where I often run or walk and can only site carelessness as an explanation for never having seen these places before. Under a particularly thick and wide bridge is the largest place. We walked toward it and I saw laundry hanging on the metal grate and a small square hole by which to enter. They invited me to come in.









They come from all over Afghanistan - but mainly from the rural areas of the provinces. Over and over again I heard tales of how they came to France - often a one-year voyage through Turkey, Greece, Italy and finally France - on foot, by train, boat and car. They once thought Paris would be their "entry to Europe," but now that they are here they don't know why they have come. They cannot work without refugee status. Only 2 out of the almost 50 people I discussed with today had actually obtained 'refugee' status in France. The process is long and difficult. Some had already tried in England and Italy only to be deported back to Afghanistan (and then to re-escape and find their way to another country, France this time).



One of them said: "I spent five years in England and then I was deported back to Afghanistan. The Taliban killed my father, my brother and shot me in the shoulder. It was my second escape after that. I feel that I could make the voyage with my eyes closed now."



He went on to implore Mr. Sarkozy himself: "Have I done something to Sarkozy that he doesn't accept me here? In Persian Sarkozy means someone who looks down. If he is looking down why doesn't he see me?

But it is the same in all European countries and American and Canada."



Another young man (he was maybe 18 years old) told me how he had left Afghanistan with the equivalent of 600 euros and had not spent a penny of it except to call his mother. "She cries when I call her and tells me she is fasting for me. This is such a beautiful place," he said as he looked over at the canal, "but I cannot see the beauty without my family." He had only 100 euros left.



At some point, I pulled out my camera and asked if I could take some photos. Some of the guys reacted defensively, saying that every time a journalist comes and takes photos, they are harassed by the police soon thereafter. Others asked me to take their photo "to show it to the Americans" and showed me places to take other photos of the place itself. I tried to be as respectful as possible and only use the camera when someone requested. We sat and talked for a long time. I listened to their stories and soon we were laughing despite the gravity of what they recounted.



One of the guys asked if he could take a photo and I handed him my camera. He shot the group of people among whom I was sitting. I laughed when I saw the picture. Throughout the day I never felt an ounce of bad will or aggression from any of these men. When I first arrived and sat down on the ground one of them immediately said to another, "You don't know how to treat a guest, get her something to sit on." Soon they apologized for not having tea to offer me. I shook my head overwhelmed by their humanity: in a place where they had been received with so little hospitality, they had lost none of this quality.



"Nobody helps Afghans in this world. Even at the French charities they ask us to wait at the back of the line."

"We are also human - we have relatives and family - but we are treated worse than animals."



In the end I asked them, who would you want to hear your stories?

"A person who cares about us. A person who will do something for us. If they need a refugee, we are real refugees. No way is possible for us."



"I promised my family I would come back for them, that I would take them with me. I have no contact with them. Imagine that, if you lost your family."



They told me they knew many of them would be deported back to Afghanistan. "We will have to be hand to hand with the Taliban - this is the only way to return. If we return, we have no choice but to go back to Afghanistan and join with the Taliban. No other way is possible."

These men as refugees are clearly more than a social inconvenience for countries like France or England or the United States, they are also a political liability. More than any of that though, spending the day with them made see that they are very very human. I've spent the past year walking past them in the street outside my apartment and today is the first day I saw them.



Here is a link to a related article in the NYTimes from this summer.

And another at change.org.

And another about Afghan refugees' rights in the UK (abominable).

A blog on the situation in Greece.

37 comments:

alpal said...

this is your best post to date. im really impressed with this one.

D1Warbler said...

Your humanity shines here, Emily. They obviously could see it, too, and sensed they could trust you. Their situations remind me of what happened to the Cambodians and Vietnamese, etc., who colaborated with the US, etc. They end up being people without any country. It is immoral for those of us who have benefited from their loyalty to our country and to decency and democracy to give them anything less than our best help. Unfortunately, fear nearly always trumps reason.

janene said...

wow. what a day you had.

i'm going to have to read this through a few times before it all sinks in. there's so much feeling here. so much story.

Karen said...

Incredible Emilie. Thanks for sharing.

Srta. Tímida said...

Hello,

This is one of the more interesting posts to pop up via the Paris Blog lately. Thanks for sharing.

kimberlee said...

emilie,
your post was very touching, very moving.

thank you.

Anne said...

wow...incredible story. Is there anything we can do?

Eloisa James said...

I'm living in the 9th this year, just for a year, and I've wondered about the groups of men in the 10th. This is so fascinating. Do you suggest any help one might give who is right there?

Emilie said...

I don't know what to do.

I left their place under the bridge yesterday and came home. I was going out and found a hole in the dress I was about to put on and felt angry - and then I cried because I was so absurd.

I think part of what we can do (at least what I can do) lies in realization. Another part is telling their story; this is why I wrote this and would love people to read it. It is much more pleasant to see these guys as lazy and bothersome men in street than what they really are.

I would love suggestions of other things that could be done. Perhaps we could work with someone at the American Embassy if other expats in Paris have connections there. The tricky part about this story is that these guys see the police and other members of authority as people who have fought directly against them and their struggle.

I think if you live in the 9th or the 10th, you might buy international phone cards to Afghanistan, give them to these guys, look them in the eyes and smile.

The truth is, I don't know. Would really love ideas.

Latxispa said...

article très touchant et criant de vérité. I thing Emilie is right, card phones, hot clothes for winter can be good ideas.
They are very discrete and polite persons. The problem now is, that our government does not want us to help these people and many associations can not do their job properly anymore. These times are very sad for solidarity and humanity.

Aurélie said...

Emilie bravo et merci pour ton blog qui très certainement fait réfléchir beaucoup de monde.

KatyTexan said...

Incroyable!! Modern day case of Les Miserables!! Amazing and courageous job in showing the humanity of those men. I certainly hope your work opens up eyes and minds in Paris and more is done to help those stuck in a politcal vacuum!!

Diogenes said...

Bravo! This is just a brilliant piece of journalism that grew out of your concern for fellow human beings.

It made me see another angle to this crisis.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Emilie hi

I am a reporter from Greece. I lived in Paris for 2 years to finish a DEA. Im doing a phd now in anthropology. For some reason i couldn't help it, i had to deal with refugees. Me, a priest and some friends founded "Aggalia" an organisation for the well being of refugees. We have a lot of trouble with finding food, shelter, support for these people. Well, some of the youngest ones leave Greece despite our counsel. We tell them that out there in Europe, its not the best of places. They dont believe us, they rush out, they believe hollywood movies more than us. "Its paradise out there", I've seen it", they say. Anyhow we cannot stop them from trying to find their way, their own way. Its not much better here in Greece anyhow...But your post is important for us. We can show them how it is out there, how is the paradise they are after. If you find Ali Nazizi 16, Habibi Taj, 17 tell them George from Lesvos says hi. contact me if you want to learn how it is here in Lesvos with refugees... or just type Pagani in google and help yourself. Thanks again.tyrikos@hotmail.com

Michelle said...

Emilie, you have very eloquently conveyed the plight of these young men, a really effective piece of writing. It is very powerful and inspiring....the kind of article that spurs people to action. I felt very uncomfortable watching the media reports of destruction of the Sangatte camp earlier this year and am confounded as to why these refugees are not treated more compassion and dignity.

mimi said...

Emilie... I don't know where to begin to tell you my love for you, for this post, and for these people. Thank you for doing this. You are saving the world. Can I make a deal with you? Buy them $50 in phone cards from me, I give you the cash in Jan?

koevet said...

This is the kind of post that shows why blogs and user generated content are relevant in our society. I'll try to do something myself while I'm still in Paris, maybe drop by and donate some cash.
Thanks,
Luciano

Liz said...

Thank you for your brave and interesting post. I know that this comment may not be appreciated by the readers of this blog, but, one "sustainable" solution could be for them to be welcomed into the French Foreign Legion and sent back to Afghanistan to fight for their country. There are young French men dying in the fight against the Taliban, and it seems perverse for these young men to be sheltered by France at the same time. I would really like to see some discussion of this possibility by the French government.

Jill said...

Wow, how did I miss this one? Very interesting. I remember those guys hanging around. I'm so glad you talked to them and solved the mystery of where they come from. Man, we just take so much of our posh, cushy lives for granted, don't we? Their stories remind me of the stories of Germans not wanting to co-operate with Hitler.

This is a very timely post after Obama's sending of 30,000 more troops into Afganistan and his recent speech at West Point.

Thanks for this Em.

Anonymous said...

Emilie, is there an address to which I could send money for the purchase of some of the phone cards you mention here? I live in Los Angeles and have no idea how to get funds to these souls. The night I read their story, I couldn't sleep for thinking about their suffering now made so very real and unforgettable by your post; I finally decided to venture forth from the lurking shadows to write to see if you have any suggestions as to where to send money for them. Thank you, LA Reader
PS - Emilie, your blog is the best ex pat blog I have ever read .. sometimes funny,sometimes sad, sometimes just lovely, sometimes infuriating (not you, what you relate - the post office story, specifically!) but always educational, provocative, enlightening, and interesting, with just the right amount of . .. everything. You should be a famous and beloved professor somewhere and you know what? I think you will be someday!)

Emilie said...

Thank you for your note, LA Reader...I will buy a phone card on your behalf and give it to them. Don't worry about sending money. Thank you for your thoughts on my blog as well. Much appreciated. All the best to you...

Anonymous said...

Fantastic! Thanks emilie for being a human being.

Adam said...

This is a fantastic post with very poignant photos. I've often thought about writing on this subject myself, but you've done it so much better than I could have.

It's a very difficult topic. Obviously the authorities know that this population is here and what their problems are, but nobody wants to take responsibility for them. Personally, I think the only long-term solution is to ensure that Afghanistan becomes a country that can look after all of its population with equality and fairness.

Badaude said...

Really moving. Can we all give you 10 euros each (do you have a paypal account?)? Then you could get a ton of phonecards - if you're willing to do this...

Lila said...

Hi Emilie,

I also live in Paris and would really like to visit these refugees to help out as much as I can by giving calling cards, food, etc.
Could you please tell me exactly where I can find them?

Wonderfully written article by the way and thank you for bringing this to my attention.

Anonymous said...

Jeez... I live just next to the street where those guys are spending their morning.

I see them very often, when I'm on my way to Gare de l'Est. I'm so ashamed that I had to wait to read your blog, to finally learn where they come from and what is their situation...

Well, I mean, of course I knew it was bad, but I never had the courage to start a conversation with them...

I guess next time I'll cross this street, I'll make sure to have some tea and phone cards on me. Thanks to you.

See, your blog post will maybe have more results that you would have expected. I retweeted it on tweeter, and I know that I'm followed by a bunch of people living in the 9th, 10th and 11th part of Paris.

I'll check your blog back in few days to see if their is any kind of action starting to help those men to spend the winter. At our level maybe we can do something...

Thank you for your post.

Anonymous said...

Pour les parisiens qui veulent aider, ces gens se trouvent précisément ici : http://maps.google.fr/maps?utm_campaign=fr&utm_medium=ha&utm_source=fr-ha-emea-fr-bk-gm&utm_term=google%20map

C'est dingue on les voit même sur la capture de google street view. C'est un petit passage entre la rue des vinaigriers et une rue qui monte vers gare de l'Est.

Anonymous said...

Merde mon lien google map a foiré, je le remets : http://shrt.fr/04d4

La Div@ said...

Bonjour, à toi emilie, je ne parle pas anglais ni le comprends, sorry, mais je trouve tes photos très belles, tu apprendras que cet été, en plein canal St Martin, j'ai rencontré ces réfugiés afghans et leur détresse m'a beaucoup touché!
j'ai voulu rencontrer les responsables de cette asso humanitaire qui s'occupe d'eux, et n'ai rencontré que chuchotement, interdits, tabous etc...
voilà chère Emilie, si tu veux correspondre avec moi écris-moi solmontagne@aol.com j'ai aussi des photos! notamment le dimanche matin,au Canal st Martin Jaures, et si tu parles français, j'en serai très heureux! en attendant Emilie Joyeux Noel à toi et ta famille! Miguel

La piquouze said...

Cette compassion est à vomir... Avez-vous rencontré les gens qui vivent dans ce quartier, les résidents du Passage Dubail aussi ? Leur avez-vous demandé comment ils vivaient cette agglutination de réfugiés ? Les nuisances que ça procure ? Les commentaires du styles" Oh les pauvres, comment ont peut faire pour les aider" m'énerve au plus haut point... Si ils vous émeuvent tant que ça, proposez leur de vivre chez vous... bizarre mais ça comme idée mais personne ne veut le faire ... quand on vit pas surplace on est toujours touché mais parce qu'on y vit pas, quand on à ça tout les jours en bas de chez soi, croyez moi c'est pas la joie.

Emilie said...

Votre commentaire est certainement à vomir, avez-vous seulement lu et compris mon post ? Si votre anglais est au niveau de votre synthaxe et de votre orthographe en français, j'ai peut-être une explication...
Je vis justement rue du Faubourg Saint Martin et ces réfugiés sont précisemment en bas de chez moi dans la journée ! Je ne pourrai m'exprimer comme vous le faites dans tous les cas.
Votre commentaire n'est que le triste reflet de votre manque d'éducation sur le sujet et d'ouverture d'esprit en général, preuve que le Xe arrondissement s'enrichit et que sa population se radicalise mécaniquement. Je vous suggère de déménager dans le XVIe ou VIIIe arrondissement de Paris, il y a là-bas plusieurs de vos semblabes qui tiennent le même genre de propos. Merci.

Daniela said...

Salut! Je suis une étudiante américaine, et je ferai des commentaires en français pour pratiquer un peu. :P Cette situation me met en colère! Je ne comprends pas la discrimination si injuste contre les Arabes autour de monde. Quelques gens croient qu'on doit "civiliser" le Moyen-Orient, mais ou est la civilité dans ce traitement-ci? Comment est-ce que je peux leur aider? J'habite à San Francisco, et je peux envoyer de l'argent, mais où? Merçi beaucoup!! Désolée pour ma grammaire.

steven greaves said...

emilie:

wonderful posts; thank you. i am a british/american photojournalist who is going to be working with secours catholique in calais to document the plight of these refugees and help with dissemination of this story to major news outlets. i will be in paris at some point and was hoping to similarly document the parisian refugees. any words of advice?
thanks and happy holidays-
steven greaves
www.stevengreaves.com

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Xtreme English said...

Your post is five years old! and I'm just seeing it. It's still powerful! I can't imagine that much has changed, but maybe.....Holding you in the light!

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