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Soul Food in the Time of Corona

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

As one can imagine, for an organization that’s main purpose is exposing young migrants to art and culture all around Paris, this period of confinement has completely changed the way we function and the work we do. In a matter of 24 hours, multiple meetings about upcoming projects, cultural excursions and professional engagements for young members who participate in our professional development program were canceled. Not long after it became very clear that we were not just going to have a short break from Soul Food work, but that we needed to completely shift our focus. We’ve been in emergency mode ever since.

First, we started with the basics. We sent messages to all 90 young Soul Food members to ask them if they were ok and to let them know that they could contact us if they need anything. We sent them information on how to protect themselves and others (wash those hands & stay home as much as possible!). We warned them to be careful when they go grocery shopping, as we had already seen that people who panic-buy tend to purchase all the affordable foods like rice and pasta. We explained the rules about going out and in a separate message sent them the mandatory “travel certificate” that the French government imposed on everyone any time they left, without much thought for people who don’t speak French fluently, or do not have unlimited paper or a printer at home. We sent a simplified version, to make sure they fully understood it, and translated the simplified version to English for the anglophones. When the smartphone version became available, we sent another message with the link. We told them to be careful that they follow the rules closely because there have been reports about racial profiling by the police and the mistreatment of minorities. We also told them to call us if they ran into any trouble of this nature. We encouraged them to communicate with their friends, families and us, and explained the importance of not staying too isolated, even if we all need to stay home for safety reasons. We asked them to send us their email addresses if they wanted to receive cultural and educational resources online. We told them to tell us if they felt sick. We told them to tell us if they needed anything at all. Each time new major rules have been announced, we’ve sent out messages to all 90 members.

After these initial messages were sent, we were able to create a list of vulnerable migrant youth who we call to check on regularly. These include young people who responded to our messages, asking for help with things like finding food, or who have medical issues. Sometimes we’ve have to explain things like how much doliprane (paracetamol) they can take a day, or how to use a thermometer.

Each week in this time of corona has brought new challenges.

Some have been as devastating as a young member being homeless overnight (waking up to a message that a young girl is homeless is never good or easy news), and others as “normal” as trying to find new ways to motivate a young (teenage) member to “use this time wisely” (we try to keep a good balance between “do what you have to do to get through this crazy, scary, difficult time” and encouraging them to be productive enough to not fall too far behind since unfortunately, they don’t have the luxury to do so).

Photo © Soul Food / Kryssandra Heslop

Soul Food in confinement

In addition to actively supporting our young members, we've been staying busy with advocacy campaigns, research, strategic planning for the organization, website updates, and our blog. We've also responded to the pandemic by helping young migrants who are not part of Soul Food and by shining a light on others working day and night to help vulnerable people in communities around the world. It has been challenging but rewarding, and at times it has felt good to have more time to reflect and assess how we can best help young migrants moving forward. Now more than ever, we endeavor to lead with humanity.

Culture from home!

Each week we send emails to young members with links to various virtual museum tours, language-learning resources (English and French) and exhibitions. Over the last few weeks we’ve added geography games and math exercises. We also include music as much as possible and try to keep things diverse, helpful and interesting.

About a month into confinement we were contacted by volunteers who wanted to help. One calls a few young members in our English Club weekly, to do conversational English lessons over the phone. Another tutors two apprentices from our professional development program in math. We also started working with the artist Cécile Bouffard, who offered to do art workshops with our young members. They communicate through email and she helps them use what limited resources they have to use their imaginations and create from home.

Even though de-confinement has started in France, our young members will not be able to go to school anytime soon. It is not clear yet when we will be able to restart our normal activities (perhaps not until September) so we are already looking for ways to continue these types of initiatives over the summer.

Many times, we’ve witnessed the power of art and culture in bringing societies together and helping people express themselves. The current strange and devastating situation we are in very much warrants creative solutions to ensure that we all know that we are not alone. We are all connected.

At Soul Food, 99% of our activities take place in person, in public places. It’s one of the advantages of living in a city like Paris, where everyone has art and culture at their fingertips. However, even though that is not currently possible, we refuse to stop believing in this power. We refuse to stop feeding our souls, and encouraging others to do the same. We’ve learned a lot from the courageous young people we work with and just as they have done many times before, we will weather this storm. Together the Soul Food family is strong and through creativity, we will prevail.

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