Mi­grants strain re­sources, stoke fears in France

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY MAYA VIDON-WHITE

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.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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