Migrants strain resources, stoke fears in France
PARIS | Children going back to Guillaume Bude Junior High School in central Paris last week got a look at Europe’s worsening refugee crisis firsthand.
In late July officials turned an unused school building across from Guillaume Bude into a refugee center.
The juxtaposition of the operating school and the center is stoking the tensions in the neighborhood — tensions mirrored across France, and throughout Europe, as hundreds of thousands of North Africans and Middle Easterners have sought to escape to a better life in countries that are reluctant to accept them.
“I am worried, especially in the evenings,” admitted Marine Samama, a 29-year-old mother of two children who attend the junior high school. “There are many youths outside, and I am with the children. I am afraid. I have to wait for my husband to escort us back home. I don’t know whether they carry diseases. That worries me.”
For months migrants had been illegally occupying the abandoned facility — formerly the Lycee Jean Quarre for hotel management — after authorities evicted them from makeshift camps elsewhere in the French capital. In late July city officials decided to make the school an official migrant center.
In the run-down building around 400 migrants, mostly men, crowd together on four floors. Former classrooms strewn with mattresses and blankets are shared by migrants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Syria and other impoverished or war-torn countries.
Tall green wire mesh fences off the migrant center’s playground. Inside, laundry hangs to dry and mountains of donated clothes sit unsorted. Young men play soccer, basketball and cricket.
“I have made a lot of Afghan friends here,” said Rafi Shirzad, a 20-year-old Afghan who arrived in Paris two months ago, speaking in flawless English with a British accent. “We are staying together. We are about 20 men living together in one room.”
He looked across the fence at the junior high.
“I would like to join a school, because I want to learn French,” said Mr. Shirzad. “I think if you’re living here, you have to speak the language. It’s very important. But I don’t see anyone to help me register in a school. I would love to join a school.”
The strain on resources and the potential culture clashes will only accelerate in the coming year after French President Francois Hollande announced last week that the country would accept another 24,000 refugees over the next two years, in addition to the 9,000 the government had already agreed to take in. The city of Paris also said last week it has provided 1,450 beds just since early June to handle the influx, and is preparing another 460 temporary beds in the coming days.
But those efforts may still be strained given the determination of refugees likes Mr. Shirzad, who fled his Afghanistan homeland — twice — in search of a better life.
In 2008, fearing retaliation from members of his family who had joined the Taliban, Mr. Shirzad’s mother encouraged him to leave. He reached England after an eightmonth journey on foot, riding in the back of trucks and trains and slipping through desert and mountain border crossings.
He attended British schools for three years before enrolling in a three-year carpentry program. “I did Level One and Two. I couldn’t do Level Three,” he said. “The police caught me and evicted me back to Afghanistan.”
Back in Afghanistan, Mr. Shirzad still felt in danger, so he fled again. This time he settled for France. His experience has been difficult.
“France is not such a generous country. In other countries I crossed, refugees were fed, but not here,” he said. “Those helping us now are local people, but not the government.”
Private offers of help
Many Parisians have spontaneously come to the center to offer help, providing bags of clothing or food.
But food donations are not always enough. Sometimes fighting erupts during food distributions, and some migrants are left to find sustenance elsewhere.
“If I didn’t have to spend so much time looking for food, I would study French in a library, but I don’t have the time,” said Mr. Shirzad. “If you are hungry, you cannot learn.”
Although some volunteers also offered French classes to migrants, Mr. Shirzad finds they were not helpful. “There is too much noise here,” he said.
Mathilde Boudon Lamraoui, 22, and Clarisse Muchnik, 25, have been supporting the migrants since July, when police cleared a makeshift camp in their Parisian neighborhood, leaving many migrants with nowhere to go.
Ms. Lamraoui and Ms. Muchnik volunteered to shelter some of the migrants in their homes until they found a place in the Lycee Jean Quarre. Eventually the two activists formed a support group online.
“In the beginning, many people wanted to help, but they didn’t know how to, so a few of us created this support group,” said Ms. Lamraoui. “It was basically a Facebook page. It soon grew very big. People contacted us to bring them material or physical help. It all happened very fast.”
That group has been crucial to the migrant center.
“There are some 100 people helping on a regular basis,” said Ms. Lamraoui. “Often people drop in with donations.”
Both young women condemn the government’s weak humanitarian response to the crisis. Despite the difficult conditions, the residents of the former lycee are among the more fortunate ones: Many migrants haven’t been lucky enough to find empty buildings for illegal squatting.
“Had these people been handled correctly by the French authorities, they wouldn’t be sleeping in the streets,” said Ms. Muchnik. “It’s inhumane and unacceptable.”
Parents of the Guillaume Bude Junior High School students are less enthusiastic, but Damien Doucet, the dean of Guillaume Bude, contends the fears are overblown.
“Since the start of the year, all is going well,” said Mr. Doucet. “We ensure a presence at the entrance to the school. We are just a little more careful than usual.”
On their way to class recently, three 6th graders at Guillaume Bude — Aisha, Souhafa and Haji — stopped to call on Sabrina, a 3-year-old Chadian girl playing alongside two young boys in the playground of the migrant center.
Haji wondered if she could donate her toys to the little girl.
“It’s obvious they are bored,” said Haji. “They don’t have much to play with. Maybe it could make them happy.”
The use of an operating school as a refugee center is stoking the tensions in the Lycee Jean Quarre neighborhood — tensions mirrored across France, and throughout Europe, as hundreds of thousands of refugees seek to escape to a better life.