Stretching along the Bassin Louis Blanc in Paris there are clusters of multi-colored tents, sitting idly, practically steaming in the May heat. The canal water lurks by quietly, and next door, Parisians sip beer or coffee at a trendy bar turned breakfast spot during the day. The bar is called Point Ephémère, French for ‘ephemeral’: fleeting, transient, temporary.
“I was going to have my throat cut in Afghanistan.”
It’s one of the first things he tells me. His assertion that he deserves refugee status, that he was in real danger — he will say it to some student who is not even French. I imagine he’s said it over and over again.
“I am a translator by profession. I speak five languages.”
His resume, his proof that he’s not a migrant worker. France is friendly to refugees, or so she claims, but wants to stop the flow of migrant workers, especially into Paris.
“In Afghanistan, I had a big villa, a nice car…”
He is not moving to Paris because he was poor at home and wants to make money. He is an intellectual, a skilled worker. He is useful. He is not a leech. He is more than his situation.
“This is not my life”.
While living in a temporary shelter beside the Bassin should have been a situation “ephémère,” Ahmed has lived on the street for over a year. After fleeing his situation in Afghanistan, he finally arrived in Europe and made it to Paris: the city of love, the city of lights. Stickers on the door outside Point Ephémère advocate for refugees, “J’existe”; around the city there are stenciled graffiti cutouts that have cropped up all over Europe — “refugees welcome”. He tells me that he wants to stay in Paris. He is good at French, he has family who have settled here, he wants to stop moving.
Immigrants in France who do not have documentation are called sans-papiers, the majority of them refugees, and while they wait for the government to determine their status they are not allowed to work. This means they are at the mercy of charities and a government allowance to stay alive. For the entire settlement of refugees in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, there are a few portable toilets and there are the tents. While French President Macron had promised to see refugees housed by the end of 2017, thousands are still sleeping rough in the streets waiting for their fates to be decided. The ultimate requisite is, did you suffer enough at home to be allowed to stay here? Are you worthy of Paris?
This year Paris saw an unusually cold winter. The snow made the city picture perfect, but while many Parisians marveled at city dressed up in white, French police were spraying asylum-seekers’ blankets with water. The water would freeze, making it impossible for them to stay on the street and be warm, with the idea that they would go to immigration centers. The question the police never asked was why people would be sleeping on the street if there was space for them to be anywhere else. There were accounts of police telling immigrants to disperse, and when they asked where they should go, the police officers said, we don’t care, just somewhere else. I wouldn’t meet Ahmed and the other Afghan refugees until the snow had already melted, but they told me that it was Parisians, and particularly people who are of immigrant descent who helped them to make it through the cold. It was Parisians who brought blankets, food, water and winter jackets. Meanwhile the shelters were at full capacity. Temporary settlements cropped up and were treated like weeds by the police. Sprayed, cleared, and the people shuffled along. Sometimes they had to sleep standing up to avoid being noticed by the police.
I first encountered Point Ephémère accidentally, on a night out with two friends in March. I was on my way to a jazz club near the Stalingrad metro station; night had already fallen, and the Stalingrad area is already a little sketchy to begin with. When you exit the metro, you pass a neon “Paris Fried Chicken” shop, and are dwarfed by a grey bridge with peeling posters and graffiti.
It’s easy to get confused on the Parisian streets, especially when it’s nighttime and your mobile map app thinks you’re floating in the Seine for some reason. It took us a long time to find the jazz club, so we were disappointed when we looked through the window and saw a lone musician and an empty restaurant. The music that floated through the glass was sub-par, and my jazz-expert friend deemed it “not worth it”. We decided to go to a different place, Point Ephémère, which popped up as a suggestion on the internet.
We stood on the bridge, looking down at the club and I pointed out four rats to my friends as we paused at the bewildering scene below. On one side of the rat meet-up there was a line to get into the bar. On the other side of them there were tents, sleeping bags and a canal with the most overpowering smell I’d encountered in Paris thus far.
My friends and I looked at each other, and then looked back at the scene. This place was beside the water, a prime location to party, but didn’t these club-goers notice the slum beside them? Didn’t they care? Across the canal there were about a dozen police vehicles. Unsettled, we followed our map up the wrong street, and then down that same street, and then up it again. We were sure that place below couldn’t be where we were trying to go. A smiling stranger walking his fluffy white dog stopped us, “You seem lost!”
We explained what we were looking for. He frowned, “That’s it, it’s right by the canal.” He pointed to some stairs we could take down to the water. When we peered down onto the alley below we saw three men peeing against the wall.
Some people come to Paris because it’s the city of love, the city of lights. It’s easy to see Paris through these rose-coloured glasses. You smell something funny and breathe through your mouth, you hear something scuttle in the corner of the metro and you choose not to look. Why ruin an otherwise perfect place by paying attention to those little flaws? Other people, the artsy types, come to Paris because of that layer of grime. It seemed we had found one of those places; the kind of place where the music is loud, the hipsters are chatty and artists float in and out with ideas spewing from their multi-coloured lipstick mouths. Point Ephémère calls itself “a center of artistic dynamics”, with visual artists and musicians in residence, rehearsal studios, a concert hall and a bar. As with so many places in this city, you never know who you might meet there.
We descended the stairs, careful to avoid puddles of anything at that point, and entered into a crowd by the canal. People were drinking and smoking, talking and laughing. We weaved our way through and approached the bouncer, but paused when we saw the tents.
“Why would they camp next to a river?”
“Well they need somewhere to go to the bathroom.”
“I wonder if they’re immigrants.”
“I wonder if they’re gypsies.”
Someone was barbequing next to a tent. We debated whether the people in tents were actually a bunch of hippies who were choosing to sleep outside of the club.
“Is that allowed?”
The smell told us otherwise. These people were living here at least semi-permanently. We looked at the bright lights of the club and the fog of people pressed against each other. I kept thinking I could see a rat in the corner of my eye. We decided to leave, with our heads full of questions about Point Ephémère. I knew that we would be back.
Homelessness and poverty in Paris are two things that you can choose to confront or ignore. I’ve noticed that many people tend to pretend not to see it, or they romanticise it. In the Châtelet metro station there is a woman who lies with her forehead to the ground and her hands stretched out in front of her, a coffee cup balanced in her fingers. People mill right past her. Entire families sit on the stairs in the metro, children asleep on their parents’ laps, signs stating that they’re Syrian refugees, or that they just need a meal balanced on their knees. Sometimes people come onto the train with cups, declaring their need for food, or quietly asking each person for a euro. There is a particular question, when the beggar or homeless person is a person of colour, about whether he or she is a refugee or not. I didn’t realise how important that question was until we returned to Point Ephémère for a second time.
When I returned, I brought the same two friends with me. The Stalingrad area looked totally different in the day. It felt like it had its arms open; there were people with babies in strollers and groups standing outside smoking and chatting. Even the “Paris Fried Chicken” shop that had seemed so comically seedy at night looked like a nice place for a fried chicken sandwich during the day.
We approached the tents and the bar and noticed that there were people sitting outside, having lunch and chatting. Once again, I was shocked by how little they seemed to care about the people in tents beside them. The club-goers or hipsters and the people living in the tents came from two different worlds: one of abstract care for immigrants among little-known musical beats and one of homelessness. Two worlds that don’t mix.
We approached a man having breakfast, and asked him if he knew a little bit about the club and the people living near it. We were surprised to learn that all the people in tents were “Syrian refugees”. He told us that they were being supported by NGO’s and they had to live there until they got official refugee status. They sometimes came to the club for Wi-Fi. We asked him what he thought the solution to the problem could be and he said that the only solution was to end the war in Syria. Then we clarified that we’d meant what was the solution to people living outside in tents, and he shrugged, “the situation is so complicated, very complicated. The NGO’s do good work for them.”
We walked past a man sitting cross-legged on the slope leading up to the bridge. He was wearing round John Lennon-style glasses, had long flowing blond hair and was eating his lunch with the view of the slum below. Another hipster who wanted a taste of the grimy layer of Paris, yet he was still elevated above the slum-dwellers of course. I felt uncomfortable looking at him.
We stood on the bridge contemplating how to approach these “Syrian refugees” when my friend, Chiran, caught their attention. They waved to him and he waved back. Then we stood, awkwardly staring at each other. My friends and the people near the tents below were all laughing and glancing at each other, unsure of how to handle the situation socially. Chiran broke the impasse by waving for them to come up onto the bridge.They did, and what we learned was surprising.
Around ten of them came up to talk to us, and at first it was difficult to navigate through a sea of French and English. We found ourselves miming to them. Finally, after the men clarified that they’re from Afghanistan, my friends realised that they had a language in common: Hindi/Urdu. My friends spoke to everyone this way, but especially a man named Malang. That was when I met Ahmed.
He tried to speak to me in French first, since it was obvious that I didn’t understand Hindi. Then he switched to English. For some reason he thought, or maybe hoped, that telling me his story would bring about some change. He had spoken to journalists and government officials, people who were full of promises.
“They take our fingerprints and our pictures and they tell us soon, soon, soon. I’ve been living here for a year.”
Meanwhile, one of the men said to my Indian friend, “India and Afghanistan are brothers. You have to help us.” She was lost for what to say, and only gently reminded him that we’re students but we would do what we could.
Some of the men watched my conversation with Ahmed intently, adding pieces and weaving strands into his story. They took us seriously. I asked what happens once they get refugee status; do they get any more help?
“Sometimes people move in with family once they get the papers but some of us already have them,” one of the men passed his to me gingerly, “and we still live here, we have nowhere else to go.”
For the group of people that I met as well as asylum-seekers all across Paris, health and sanitation are rapidly deteriorating. Public bathroom facilities are available but you often have to pay for those. Without being able to wash themselves properly they risk skin infections and scabies. They also live in fear of the police, who slash their tents and force them to move on. Immigrant centers turn them away because they’ve been maxed out. Police will show up without warning at temporary shelters like the one along the Bassin Louis Blanc and force immigrants onto buses to temporary shelters. People who don’t happen to be at the camp when it’s rounded up can be separated from friends and family, and risk losing the few possessions they do have when the entirety of the camp is thrown into dumpsters. Police have been known to tear-gas the groups as well. Sometimes they don’t send them anywhere in particular, they just tell them to disperse. Immigrants are treated like criminals in Paris, for all of the artists’ insistence that “immigrants are welcome” and Macron’s claim that France is “honored to welcome refugees.”
Roundups have created a vicious cycle for refugees of flitting from under one bridge to another. They go to immigration centers only to end up on the streets again. They are photoshopped out of the pristine Paris and are weaved with flower crowns in the hippie wonderland. Ahmed told me his greatest annoyance was that people from the bar would come to take pictures of the camp.
“When we ask them why, they say they will make a Facebook post so people know about us. But people already know, and it is not dignified.”
The life of the refugee is transformed again, into a sad story that is shareable. A thread in a night at an artsy bar that you visited. A grimy layer in a tapestry. But the people living in those tents are not just a backdrop. They are not ephemeral men.
The problem with awareness campaigns and Facebook statuses is that these people are already very visible. They are so visible in Paris that it becomes possible to have a cigarette next to their living space. To have a cocktail and talk about contemporary art. To piss a few meters away from where they have to sleep at night, seeing them but not understanding what their presence really means. They become reduced to the way they look, flattened into ‘Syrian’ refugees who “we”, the true Paris, can do nothing for. In Paris, people view immigrants, especially immigrants of colour in two ways. They are refugees, who only matter because of their sad situation, and there are economic migrants. I met one man in the Paris flea market who, when I said I was from Abu Dhabi, told me he wanted to go to Dubai.
“Paris is racist. They don’t like me because I am Arab, because I am Muslim, because I have a beard.”
The man we met was not a refugee, so he is seen as a leech. Taking “true” Parisians’ jobs. Not French. Not worthy. His journey has been deemed not sad enough, not enough of a struggle. His story is a thread that so many would like to tear out of the tapestry. He is a beard, a religion, an “other”. Ahmed’s thread, by comparison, is a little blue one, a thread that we’re used to seeing and can’t distinguish from all the other refugee threads. I’m surprised when he tells me that he goes into the bar sometimes, that he parties, that he hates his boredom the most out of everything he has to deal with in Paris.
I left my conversation with Ahmed with ahead full of questions. I had wanted a neat narrative, the kind of story that would help me to understand him and use him as a lens to see all refugees through. I wanted to write a story that would also act like a manual for how we could help “them”. Instead I was confused. The story was messy, and facts conflicted from one person to the other as I spoke to them. My friends got the phone number of the refugee they’d spoken to the most, named Malang. He said to call him any time. We promised that we would. I was determined to retrieve a “classic” refugee story, to dig out that blue thread and twist it around my finger.
A couple of weeks passed. When we called Malang he said of course he remembered us. We asked to meet at a McDonalds in Stalingrad, but he said to come to the camp and pick him up from there. I had a list of questions ready for him. I wanted to know who his family was, how he’d come to Paris, what he was running from, the smallest details of his life in the camp. I wanted a beginning, a turning point and a journey. I wanted trauma. I wanted a checklist for how to help.
When we arrived in Stalingrad we called him, as he’d told us to. A different voice answered the phone.
“Can we speak to Malang?”
“Malang. The owner of this phone.”
“This is my phone. I don’t know a Malang.”
We had just called less than an hour ago to arrange the meeting. We wondered if Malang’s phone had been stolen, who was that other voice? We decided to call back a little while later. This time a different voice answered.
“What do you want with Malang?” … “I don’t know who Malang is.” … “My name is Walih Khan” … “Who are you?” … “wrong number I think.”
Everything we asked was met with increasing suspicion. We told the voice we were students, that we’d arranged to meet him a little while ago.
“Malang got his papers and has a house now, he can’t meet with you because he has his papers.”
The voice hung up and I stood in a McDonalds in Stalingrad with a list of questions and no answers. I had wanted to learn the story of a refugee but realized how short-sighted I’d been. Of course, strangers asking for him by name would be suspicious. Refugees in Paris get treated like criminals. Men who don’t have homes and papers disappear, not worthy of the city or too afraid of the system to continue to trudge through it. They become ghost people, ephemeral and flittering, bounced from place to place without dignity. There is no one story of being a refugee, and there are no true answers to the who, what, when, where. There is especially no answer to the question why.
Just like the people at Point Ephémère, who had infuriated me, I was flattening the refugee story. I tried to whittle it down to one man, and I colored the entire experience blue rather than accepting complexity. When Ahmed told me that he hated that people came to the slum and took pictures I was confused about why it would bother him so much. I thought he was worried people might see him living in such conditions, but it was so much more than that. The attempt to take a snapshot of the refugee experience is futile, not only do we see it all the time, we also fail to see it because we’ve decided, like the French man who told us that they were Syrian, that we know the truth already.
I’m not the only writer who has tried to tell The Refugee Story. In our compassion, we often try to dig up the people who are suffering, already having decided what the narrative is going to be. We think that in telling their stories we’ll make some change. What we create is an easily-consumed mistruth.
Popular newspapers and magazines have focused on the widespread refugee situation, collecting heart-wrenching quotes from asylum-seekers about feeling like animals, being mistreated, being exhausted. The Independent writes about the “trail of misery”, City Lab writes about the asylum-seekers hope “unraveled” in Paris. They take a snapshot of the lives of each refugee and we read the newspaper and sigh. Then it becomes part of the picture of Paris, a part that you step over just like you step over the woman bowed with a cup in her hands in the Chatelet metro station. An easily-consumed story is also an easily forgotten one.
When Malang-not-Malang instructed me to meet him in Stalingrad and then another-Malang-not-Malang said he didn’t know who Malang was, it frustrated me. I imagine that I got a small taste of the frustration Malang and Ahmed and other asylum-seekers feel in Paris. They’ve lived on the street for over a year and there are no answers. They do exactly what they’re instructed to do but there is no neat ending in sight. While they’re very visible as a group, the individual man is a ghost. His story is too complex, too difficult to write, especially when we expect him to speak for the entire group. It’s easier to take a picture and let it speak for him, it’s easier to collect quotes that only depict suffering, as if everything about him is his pain. Statistics and snapshots are important. It would be much worse for the refugee to be invisible because nobody wants to try to depict the complexity of his story. Brushing it into a different alley, or under a different bridge, is exactly what we don’t want to do. Awareness is important, but it has to be accompanied by the individual story.
The first thing Ahmed told me about himself is that he is a translator. He can speak five languages. I learned from him that our compassion can also rest heavy on the shoulders of people who are suffering. In an effort to understand, or even help, we flatten. Malang and not-Malang taught me how difficult Paris has made it to know refugees because they’ve been dehumanized to the point of self-silencing. Discovering the individual refugee has been made into a near-impossible task because we’ve expected them to speak for the entire group, and because the city has been so hostile to them that they have to hide in case the truth has them deemed unworthy.
This piece is part of the Invisible Cities series.