Updated: Apr 3, 2020
Photo © Soul Food / Kryssandra Heslop
I thought that this inaugural Soul Food blog post should be an in-depth explanation about Soul Food itself, for those readers who would like to learn more about us, what we do, who we work with, and why we do what we do. The population we work with is a vulnerable one and the difficult situations they face are complex, so without getting too academic, I will do my best to explain the context that we are working in. Perhaps in a future blog post, we will get more into the technical details for those who are interested in diving deeper into the legal, political and cultural complexities of migration.
For now, here is our story, the story of how Soul Food was born:
To start, I’d like to give you a little background information on the two co-founders of Soul Food. My name is Kryssandra and I have a mixed background in psychology, international relations and diplomacy, children’s rights, art history, and disability rights. I speak four languages and I’ve always been interested in art, music and working with children and youth. I’ve also always been fascinated by different cultures and so when I first moved to Paris in 2011 to earn a Master’s degree, I looked for multicultural issues to focus my research on. I have been working on issues concerning young migrants since this period. I also ended up writing my Master’s thesis on unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors in Italy. I later published an article using this research, and I have been volunteering with migrant youth for about 4 years in Paris.
François, the other co-founder of Soul Food, has a legal (environmental law) background, as well as a background in music. He is a drummer and a percussionist in an Afrobeat band called Bim Bam Orchestra. He also speaks multiple languages and is interested in art and culture. He started volunteering with me about three years ago. Since he is a jurist, he was easily able to put his legal skills to good use (more on that later).
Almost two years ago (February 17, 2018 to be exact) François and I took a group of unaccompanied minors (migrant kids/youth who are under the age of 18 and without their guardians for various reasons) to a Bim Bam concert. We decided to try taking a few of them to a concert in part because we love music and are fully aware of the joy that music can bring people, but also because through our volunteer work, we were able to understand the situation of migrant youth in Paris, and what is really lacking in terms of care, services and resources for them.
A little background information:
In France, when you are under the age of 18, you have the same rights as any other minor (the right to live in a safe place, go to school, etc.). However, accessing these rights is a very complicated and long process (as are all French administrative tasks unfortunately). Where I have been volunteering each Monday night for almost 4 years (ADJIE), we help with this by interviewing young migrants to learn more about their individual situations. In the interview we listen to their stories, walk them through the legal procedure and explain their rights to them to ensure they are as well informed as possible. We also write to lawyers and judges on their behalves, connect them with other professionals who can help them with other issues (health, social, etc.), register them for the placement exam they must take in order to enter into the French school system, and basically help with any problems or concerns they have, however/whenever we can. Sometimes we bring in things like donated clothes, coats, fruit and other healthy snacks to distribute, as we know that most of these young people are not given healthy food to eat, even once they are off of the street and living in a relatively safe place. A great deal of them are only surviving off of the kindness of others.
It is within this context that we realized that even after these kids are being cared for by the French child services, they are still forced to wait months and sometimes years before they are allowed to attend school. During this time, they sometimes attend a few hours of French and math courses each week, which are free and given by volunteers around Paris, but otherwise, they do not have access to stimulating activities.
That is why we had the idea to create Soul Food. We wanted to fill in these gaps of wasted time, with something meaningful that could feed their souls, give them hope, encourage learning, help them integrate in a positive way, and bring them joy.
After that first concert almost two years ago, we went to a few others. Each time the young migrants we brought seemed to come out of their shells. Some were generally more outgoing and got into the music right away. Others started off shy, sad and reserved, but ended the night dancing with their new friends. The musicians and venues who helped us by giving us free tickets were always very enthusiastic about our initiative and the kids seemed eager to come back next time with friends. We realized we had something special going, and that we should expand it.
Photo © Soul Food / Kryssandra Heslop
Next we started going to museums. We were already going to see exhibits on a regular basis, as we are both art lovers. Luckily in Paris, as in many places in Europe, most national museums are free the first Sunday of the month, so we thought that would be a great activity to share. Going to museums was also a wonderful experience and we realized that through these excursions, it was the first time that most of these young migrants were able to experience Paris the way we do. This really inspired us to start something more concrete and so, the official Soul Food was born.
It’s been over two years since that first concert and we’ve greatly expanded our activities! Our excursions are divided into two main categories: those that allow us to observe art (film screenings, museum tours, concerts, meals at the Refettorio Paris, etc.) and those that allow us to participate and create art (dance workshops, drawing activities in museums, photography and film workshops, etc.). Whenever possible, we try to give young migrants the opportunity to create and express themselves, as we recognize the importance this has. We also have a book exchange program to encourage reading in their spare time, and an English Club for those looking to improve and/or learn English.
Along with cultural outings and activities, we’ve also been able to put a professional development program into place, for those youth who are interested in jobs in cultural fields (fashion, culinary arts, etc.). We connect them with prestigious, rigorous but fair professionals with meaningful projects, who are willing to work with our young members. Before introducing them to their potential supervisors, we meet with them to discuss their aspirations and to determine ways that we can help them grow professionally and integrate positively, such as helping them to create and use an email account, and teaching them how to use the calendar in their phones. This part of Soul Food’s activities is important to us, as it is a way to help these young people have a higher quality of life long-term. Following this philosophy, we only look to work with people who are either the best in their field or who have a meaningful project, such as one that includes sustainable practices or fair trade. In doing this, we expose young migrants to prestigious opportunities that they normally would not be offered.
Et voilà! That’s our story, the story of how we strive each day to better the lives of others through art, culture, education, and kindness, feeding their souls, as well as our own.
We will endeavor for our blog posts to be informative but also interesting. They will cover a wide variety of topics related to migration, art and culture, and will be written by different people. Of course you will also find more information on our website and social media accounts, where we also post photos of our excursions and activities. You will notice that we often find creative ways of showcasing these, as we do not post photos of minors’ faces. We do this both out of respect and protection of minors who do not have their legal guardians here to give consent to have their faces all over the internet. Please feel free to send us feedback and reach out if you’d like to contribute in anyway.
Due to COVID-19, we have decided to move the date of our blog launch forward. We have been curating posts for over a year, determined to ensure that we have enough compelling content to post regularly. Given the current situation however, how we work has completely changed. Advocacy and emergency help have become larger parts of what we do. We will therefore use this space as a platform for that, as well as a way to share what we are up to under confinement. We will do our best to keep you well-informed and share ways you can help young migrants and vulnerable people in your communities during these difficult times. We will also be sharing online artistic and cultural resources that anyone can use from home. As we all wait for the day when the world becomes explorable again, and we can re-enter public creative spaces, we invite you to join us, use art and culture as a much-needed distraction, and feed your souls. #SoulFoodForMigrantYouth