When people think of Paris, certain images flash through their minds: the splendor of the Eiffel Tower; the culture of the Louvre; the expensive shops of Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Dior sparkling along the Champs-Élysées. They fantasize about sampling crêpes and coffee while celebrating French ideals of freedom, justice and beauty in the City of Lights and Love.
We were walking down the street in Northern Paris on our way to attend a dance workshop when we passed through a neighborhood on the street Halle Pajol.
Lav, Marjorie and I were hurrying along, excited to learn Bollywood dance moves, when we walked through dozens of mattresses lined on either side of the road. People were squatting on the mattresses, their few belongings piled or folded neatly next to them. As we walked a little farther we came to a nice cafe sitting in the sunshine. The outdoor tables were filled with young, smiling people enjoying the fresh air and food. I looked back at the people on the mattresses literally 100 yards away and asked Marjorie what was going on.
She shook her head. “I’m not sure. Maybe they are immigrants that the government doesn’t know what to do with.”
When I looked into the situation further I found many of the migrants came from countries like North and South Sudan and Eritrea, fleeing long-term war and violence. The global refugee crisis has grown larger with over 60 million people forced from their homes worldwide. With so much movement and the intracacies of bureacracy, many have not had the time or resources to fill out the necessary paperwork to receive refugee status or aslyum. When you’re trying to escape a bombed-out city you don’t always have time to grab your birth certificate.
The refugee issue is affecting many European countries with stories about sunken ships and racist legislation filling the media. Many politicians feed on locals’ fear of the other and paranoia of terrorism to polarize them against immigrants searching for refuge. By creating a common enemy or scapegoat, the politician can become reelected by showing they can protect and insulate the people from the immigrant problem.
We’ve seen this anti-immigrant sensibility throughout history. I’ve studied the stories at various Holocaust museums through our trip including in Berlin, Belgium and D.C. For example, during WW2, ships of Jewish children were turned away from the U.S. as they sought refuge from the Nazis.
When I looked into the stories of the people on Halle Pajol, I found many immigrants had been expelled from other neighborhoods around Paris. When they tried to seek safety at a historical church, they were forcibly removed. On June 8, the day we visited the Eiffel Tower, immigrants, and politicians and locals standing in solidarity with them were treated to tear gas by authorities.
If I wanted to move another country, it would not be too difficult for me. If I want to visit another country I usually don’t even need a visa. If someone from Sudan escaping genocide wants to move, they have to overcome massive hurdles just to protect their family.
History cycles itself and until we can let go of our fear of anyone who is from a different place, we will not move forward as a society. Paris is hailed as the most beautiful city in the world, but for some visitors it’s just another place where they’re made to feel like they don’t belong.