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Catherine Ford is a recently qualified teacher and single mum of 2. She spent a lot of  her earlier years living on protest camps, and is now supporting displaced people. Here she blogs about her recent volunteering trip to Paris. 

Paris – the city of love?

As I stepped off the plane in Paris, I was immediately struck by the hustle and bustle, the business of so many people, who all seemed to know where they were going, and exactly how they were going to get there. By contrast, I felt rather lost, very aware of the inefficiency of my French and not very confident about how I was going to get to where I needed to be. But, I did have a place to go, regardless of how I was going to get there. I also had access to funds to help me, should my journey go wrong. Furthermore, there were people who knew where I was and where I was going to, and would notice if I didn’t arrive.

Any nerves I felt in this new city, I squashed, thinking how different this would be if I had no idea where I was going to sleep that night; if I had left my family thousands of miles behind me, in danger; if I was a child, travelling alone; if nobody cared whether I made it to safety or not. For thousands of people, this is the reality. These people are no less human than us, they feel fear, just as we do. And yet, every corner of Paris is inhabited by women, children, men and whole families, all with no place to go.

I could not help them all. I felt hypocritical as I walked past each person in need, all with a story to tell, and did not stop for each and every one of them. Sometimes, all I had was a smile for them. I wondered how my own children would feel to be sleeping on those streets at night.

Having navigated trams going the wrong way, expired Metro tickets, and an over-zealous man following me off the Metro, I found my place to stay for the night. The next day, I found the refugee camp at Porte de la Chapelle. As I turned the corner, narrowly missing stepping in dog excrement, I found the first people, camped out, literally on the side of the street. Some are fortunate enough to find a place under the road bridge, all slept amongst the rubbish, the traffic fumes and the human and animal waste. For those who had not made it into the official camp, there are no bins or toilets and no shelter from the elements. My heart broke to think of the journeys these people had made to find this.

Over the road was the official camp for arriving men, where, I was told, people stay between 3 and 5 days before they are processed and sent onto Reception Centres. Seemingly, every day 50 people leave, and are replaced immediately by 50 people who are waiting in the tents outside the camp perimeter, which is patrolled by police, security, dogs and hire wire fences.

The atmosphere inside is calm. Several groups work together to ensure the smooth running of the camp, and Utopia56 (who I was volunteering with) work hard to support those outside the camp as well. Every day, there is a free shop, from which residents can choose two full sets of clothes, each item marked on coloured cards to ensure all receive the same.

However, most of the residents are young men, with their own style and their own standards. Often the donations are not what they are used to wearing. One man laughed as I offered him some shoes – ‘These are old man’s shoes’ he said. I had to admit that they were. To those who cry ‘well, they should be grateful’, I say ‘why?’. Why should anyone be grateful for anything less than they deserve? Why should a young, proud man have to lose his identity, simply because he had the misfortune to be born in a country savaged by war? Why should we expect others to accept anything less than we would ourselves? Why should I have to say to these men, our future, ‘Sorry, you are only allowed 1 pair of underpants’?

Somehow, the long-term volunteers in the camp support our friends. Through a vast range of services from laundry services and bedding decontamination (from scabies, which is rife), to theatre trips and walks around Paris, these people work tirelessly alongside the official groups to offer the residents hope and respect.

We spent a morning clearing rubbish from the camp outside the official boundaries. With no drains, bins or toilets, the rubbish mounts up rapidly, all adding to negative feelings towards the residents. Volunteers clean up every few days, often assisted by residents, but it is not a good job to do if you are not sure of a shower later on in the day. I was told that the Mayor ordered a full clean-up of the area recently. This would seem reasonable, until you find that all tents, bedding and personal items were removed for the cleaning process, and never returned; official papers, lost forever. There are many positive stories about the support of the French police towards the camp residents to balance the negatives, but this is a situation that is not going to go away. Similar to our own homeless people when faced with homeless spikes, refugees cannot simply turn around and go home when conditions are made uncomfortable for them. For many, home no longer exists.

I was happy to be able to take out a small group of unaccompanied minors; glad to be able to offer them a new opportunity. Then I felt my heart drop as I realised that, as I worried about my 17 year old daughter getting in a taxi on her own for a 3 mile journey, here were these young men, the same age as her, alone, but for each other and the amazing volunteers who support them, having travelled hundreds of miles and endured, only they knew what. One quickly told me of his family, one in Canada, one in Germany, and ‘me, here’.

And then, on the journey home, the dreadful news of the fire at Grande Synthe. 1500 people stripped of everything, yet again, but equally, so much outpouring of love and generosity to bring them to safety. Amongst the horror and evils of the world, shine these ever-lasting rays of light.

I was proud to be a small part of the support offered in Paris, alongside other volunteers from France, England and Ireland, and also alongside local people who give time, money, bread (in abundance, on a daily basis from a local baker) and a whole host of services. But, as ever, this is just not enough. This huge migration of people requires more; it requires a complete reassessment of the way our world is run, and it requires our governments to care.

Perhaps I am naïve, but love really could conquer all if we were all in it together.

I am continuing my fundraising with a sponsored 42 mile walk, The Lyke Wake Walk, this summer. Proceeds will go to Utopia56 Paris who are supporting those in need in Paris.

Please share my link, or donate if you feel you can.

Thank you all for your love and support.

Part 2

We spent a morning clearing rubbish from the camp outside the official boundaries. With no drains, bins or toilets, the rubbish mounts up rapidly, all adding to negative feelings towards the residents. Volunteers clean up every few days, often assisted by residents, but it is not a good job to do if you are not sure of a shower later on in the day. I was told that the Mayor ordered a full clean-up of the area recently. This would seem reasonable, until you find that all tents, bedding and personal items were removed for the cleaning process, and never returned; official papers, lost forever. There are many positive stories about the support of the French police towards the camp residents to balance the negatives, but this is a situation that is not going to go away. Similar to our own homeless people when faced with homeless spikes, refugees cannot simply turn around and go home when conditions are made uncomfortable for them. For many, home no longer exists. I was happy to be able to take out a small group of unaccompanied minors; glad to be able to offer them a new opportunity. Then I felt my heart drop as I realised that, as I worried about my 17 year old daughter getting in a taxi on her own for a 3 mile journey, here were these young men, the same age as her, alone, but for each other and the amazing volunteers who support them, having travelled hundreds of miles and endured, only they knew what. One quickly told me of his family, one in Canada, one in Germany, and ‘me, here’. And then, on the journey home, the dreadful news of the fire at Grande Synthe. 1500 people stripped of everything, yet again, but equally, so much outpouring of love and generosity to bring them to safety. Amongst the horror and evils of the world, shine these ever-lasting rays of light. I was proud to be a small part of the support offered in Paris, alongside other volunteers from France, England and Ireland, and also alongside local people who give time, money, bread(in abundance, on a daily basis from a local baker) and a whole host of services. But, as ever, this is just not enough. This huge migration of people requires more; it requires a complete reassessment of the way our world is run, and it requires our governments to care. Perhaps I am naïve, but love really could conquer all if we were all in it together.

 

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2 Responses to “Paris – The City of Love?”

  1. Imran Khan

    I found this article hugely moving, thank you for writing and sharing it. Especially the part about people journeying and risking everything to find utter squalor. The general lack of compassion shown to them beggars belief.

  2. Imran Khan

    And yet we must remember all the kindness and love shown by people making huge efforts to help refugees experience compassion and to support them in bringing them and their families to safety.

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