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“I would rather go to college than stay here”: in the east of Paris, 300 people whose families survive in a camp

From a dozen people last January, there are nearly 300 today living in this informal camp located in Pantin, in the Paris suburbs. Inside the small tents, the vast majority of Afghan asylum seekers live, without any resources. They survive alongside several families, on the streets for months.

A smell of wood fire suddenly fills the atmosphere. At the end of the afternoon, a small group of young people fan the flame of a worn barbecue, in the middle of the makeshift shelters. Once the embers are red, one of them places a large black teapot on the grill. It’s teatime. For several months, this ritual has been punctuating the daily lives of some 300 people living in this informal camp in Pantin, east of Paris. Most of them from Afghanistan, these asylum seekers have spent the winter in this space wedged between the facade of a hotel, a concrete wall and a wire fence, with the only roof above their heads. , a canvas tent.

“The first arrivals came here in January”, explains Nicolas Laureau, from the “Pantin Solidaire” collective, which carries out marauding in the camp. “In the early days, there were only six tents. Today, there are nearly 200.” No shelter is provided despite the ban on “fixing points” (informal camps) wanted by the French government. So the occupants survive as they can, often depending on the generosity of the inhabitants of the neighborhood who take turns to bring meals, blankets…

The majority of the occupants are from Afghanistan. But in recent weeks, Iranian and Iraqi exiles have also come to settle in the camp. Credit: InfoMigrants

Arsalan*, 30, has been living there for three weeks. This Ile-de-France camp is the final stage of his journey of exile, which began in 2014. That year, the young man left Afghanistan for Pakistan. Then he crossed Iran, settled in Turkey for a few months and then joined Bulgaria, the gateway to the European continent. He will spend 42 days there, in prison. “After that, I fled to Hungary. There, I lived in the metro,” he says in French, fiddling with a sheet of paper. In 2015, he finally reached Germany, where he applied for asylum. After two years of waiting, he finally receives the response from the authorities: “negative”.

Hence his departure for France, where he landed in 2017. Since his arrival, Arsalan has alternated between makeshift shelters, sofas and guest rooms, or hotels affected by the 115. But for six months, he has no longer nothing. “I spent all winter on the street, with nothing. Well, with that, anyway,” he breathes, pointing inside his tent to a duvet, a sheet and a small pillow. Living here was “the only option” he had left. “But it’s hard. Sometimes I think that prison in Bulgaria was easier. I feel like I live like a dog.” At the end of his story, tiny pieces of paper are strewn over the small board at the entrance to his tent.

“For the children, it’s a disaster”

For the past few weeks, Arsalan has had Sana and Abdelaziz as “neighbors”, a Moroccan couple from Tangier. Two other tents are posted next to theirs: those of their four children, aged 17, 15, 14 and 2 years old. All left their country for the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. After a 14-hour sea crossing that Abdelaziz prefers not to remember, the family set foot in Spain and then joined France on March 3, 2019.

Arsalan has been on the road to exile since 2014. For six months, the young man has been on the street.  Credit: InfoMigrants
Arsalan has been on the road to exile since 2014. For six months, the young man has been on the street. Credit: InfoMigrants

Three years later, daily life is still just as difficult. “In Morocco, I worked in construction. When I wanted to do the same thing here, I realized that it was impossible. Without papers, nobody wants you”, says Abdelaziz. Finding a home for his wife and children is also an obstacle course. “I call 115 every day, there is never room. They always tell me ‘call back later’. And then, nothing”.

The only glimmer of hope for Sana and her husband is the schooling of their first three children, despite the constant travels throughout Ile-de-France to find a roof over their heads. The eldest goes every day to his high school in Boissy-Saint-Léger, 25 km from Pantin. The other two teenagers, including Douaa, are enrolled in a college in Marolles-en-Brie, more than 30 km away. At the end of the day, in Pantin, she walks her little sister Aya in a pushchair in the alleys of the camp, wrapped up in her pink down jacket. This week, no school, it’s the holidays. “But I don’t really like it actually. I’d rather go to college, be in class with my friends than stay here. I can’t wait for the start of the school year”.

His older brother still hasn’t come home, as the day draws to a close. But his father Abdelaziz is not worried. In the afternoon, “he goes to see friends, he plays football, elsewhere. And then he can recharge his computer to do his homework. Here, it’s impossible. It’s a disaster for the children”.

exile after rape

A little further, at the far end of the camp, other families live. They occupy a well-defined space, where the vegetation of nettles and weeds seems to be reasserting itself. Karima*, 47, has difficulty moving between the tents. His left knee is supported by a brace. “He broke on the road to Europe. I wanted to treat him but there is not much to do,” she explains.

Karima lives with her 18-year-old son and other families deep in Pantin camp.  Credit: InfoMigrants
Karima lives with her 18-year-old son and other families deep in Pantin camp. Credit: InfoMigrants

If her fracture is clearly visible, this Afghan mother is actually hiding a deeper wound. Eight years ago, while working in a psychiatric hospital in Kabul, she was raped by one of the establishment’s directors. At the time, she wanted to file a complaint. But her rapist’s ties to the country’s authorities dissuaded him. Feeling threatened, she left the country, with one of her sons.

After a long journey to Europe, Karima settled in Sweden and asked for asylum. Like Arsalan, the three-year wait ended in a refusal. So the young woman hit the road for the second time, heading for France. But there too, the asylum application was refused. Karima is now in appeal, and had an interview with the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (Ofpra) two months ago.

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After several years of seeking protection, Karima is completely exhausted. She now suffers from various psychological disorders, which make her daily life even more difficult. “I don’t sleep at night, and I’m always angry, I have tantrums. Often, my son doesn’t understand why I’m in this state. But he’s very patient with me. He tells me: ‘I know that you’re sick mum, I stay with you'”, she says, wiping her tears with her colorful scarf.

“In hotels, on the street or here in the camp, we are always forced to be together, so he has to bear my anxieties. In Sweden, at least, I could isolate myself. I would go to the forest and I shouted with all my might”.

*,Names have been changed.

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