It’s summer in Paris. After a long confinement period, many Parisians are happy to be out of their apartments, enjoying good food in restaurants that have reopened and good company after months of unprecedented isolation. It’s been a hot summer so far, and with many citizens from countries where COVID-19 is still rampant being banned from Europe, it’s easier to move around Paris and enjoy its charm and beauty. European summers are magical, with their long days that slowly fade into warm, rosé filled nights. In Paris it’s common to sit outside on terraces, and to picnic in parks and along the canals. Those who are lucky enough to live nearby can walk home afterwards. Since June 29th, anyone walking around the Canal Saint Martin and the 11th district will likely have stumbled onto a different kind of summer sight. There is a camp, full of unaccompanied migrant kids in that area, just across from some of those terraces and not too far from a popular picnic spot. The kids who have to sleep there are not enjoying the summer like the rest of us.
It’s been almost four weeks since Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the Midis du Mie, Committee for the Health of Exiled People (Comede), Timmy, and Utopia 56 have been supporting the young people who are staying there. This camp is unique because it’s not in a far-off working-class neighborhood, out of sight and mind, but rather it’s in central Paris, for all to see. These unaccompanied minors are not as invisible as the 300+ who are still scattered all around the Paris region, making it more difficult for French authorities and citizens to ignore.
During confinement, French authorities were notified by many organizations, lawyers and other children’s rights professionals, about the dire situation of unaccompanied migrant kids in the Paris region, but most authorities actively chose to do nothing. A system that is adapted to young, vulnerable people must be put in place, to ensure access to safe, dignified housing (not gyms), education, psychological care, and healthcare. The best interest of these young people, who have fled countries plagued by war and extreme poverty, should be at the core of this system.
Soul Food for Migrant Youth
This week we went to visit the camp with volunteers and young Soul Food members. We wanted to make a small donation (healthy snacks, pencils, markers and paper to draw), do an artistic activity with some of the young people there, and find out more about the camp and how we can help. We also thought it might be nice for the youth stuck in the camp to talk with some of our young members who have been through what they are going through and who are now more established, and closer to achieving their goals.
Some of the young people we met are clearly exhausted and frustrated by the situation. Some told us that they’ve been in Paris for 6- 9 months and while there are NGOs helping them and volunteers that come to do activities like yoga and theatre classes, it’s not enough. They want the protection, access to school, and proper housing they deserve. They want to live like “normal” teenagers. They want the chance to have a future.
We spent most of our time there trying to communicate and encourage them. It took a while,
but we were able to engage with several of the youth. We spent time just talking and listening to whatever they wanted to share. We met some who were busy creating signs for a protest the next day, with messages like, “But where is our future?,” “Black Lives Matter,” “What if it was your children sleeping in the street?,” and “HelpMIE,” which stands for “help mineurs isolés étrangers,” or “help isolated foreign minors.”
At some point we managed to find some space on a ping pong table, in between people creating protest signs and setting up the food distribution for that evening’s dinner. We had supplies for a drawing workshop with us, including pictures of
African masks to color, created by our young members at a museum excursion and leftover from the birthday event we organized in February. As soon as we started drawing with the couple of young people who were around us, others joined. We stood as we colored and drew, talking with our young members and the young migrants from the camp who were curious or interested in drawing too. More joined, while others preferred to watch. One ended up being very talented and excitedly went to his tent to bring other drawings he had done. We let them know we would leave some of the supplies so that they could continue later. It felt like a nice moment, a simple, friendly break from a harsh, devastating reality. Hopefully it felt like that for them too.
Now they must anxiously wait to see if all the media attention has in fact worked and if French authorities will finally find them the dignified solution they deserve.