Today I went to see a mental health professional who was very helpful, for the most part. But as our time was drawing to a close he said to me point blank, “You need to leave France. There is nothing for you here.” It was highly inappropriate, yet well-intentioned and perversely delightful in its utter Frenchness. He went on to say that there are no jobs here, that life is getting more difficult for everyone, and that I’m all alone, which is no good. Then he joked, “Everybody wants to leave France and you’re coming in. You’d have to be crazy to want to stay here.” Pretty fast and loose for a head doctor.
Anyway, that’s not the point.
Yesterday, I was doing a volunteer shift at the refugee / migrant center in the 18th arrondissement. I signed up with an interest in serving Syrian women and children, but it turns out the shelter only houses men, and most of them are from places in Sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I go about once a week, and though it feels good, there’s also always at least one moment during which my heart hurts for these strangers in a strange land, who are penniless and without possessions, who are mostly traveling alone, and who may never see their families again.
When I do daytime shifts I work in the laundry and when I do evening shifts I work in the “restaurant.” Both are frequently hectic and understaffed, so while I serve clients directly, I don’t often get into long conversations with them. But last night, one young man, Ousman, stuck around past dinner to chat in very, very broken English with the staff member running the space. He was half-joking about how he was not going to budge from the shelter, even though he was on a very long list of people who were due to be transported the next day to more long-term facilities throughout France. He said he didn’t want to leave Paris and he looked like he was going to cry.
I started asking him questions since it was clear he wanted to share. Turns out this was a boy of 16 years old who left Pakistan when he was 11 to work in Turkey. After five years there, he moved on to Germany, where he stayed for half a year before coming to France. He had been living in the shelter for three months. In a soft voice he murmured, “I want to go back to Pakistan.” The staff member asked him why he didn’t, since that could be arranged. He said he had to stay in France for six years first, to get his papers. He had a lead to somewhere he could live in Paris, where rent would be 1000 Euro a month split between three unknown others. Whether it was a full apartment or just a room was not clear. By this point I had noticed that his face bore an uncanny resemblance to my nearly 3 year-old nephew’s, and I had to turn away to regain my composure.
Apparently Ousman’s nickname is Bambino. When I come back next week, he will no doubt be gone.
[Photo: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho]