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Paris - the City of Love

Paris was a full-on few weeks. We arrived laden up with stuff from Basel HilftMit, loaded up at their out of town warehouse by another incredible human Fabiola. I'd mistakenly picked up her gloves, and without hesitation she gave them to me on the spot. We were totally ill-prepared for the winter weather, she kitted us out and then some. Thankyou. 


We arrived and knew we were in Paris at the numbers of people in the shadows at the side of the road. We found the street, messaged Heather and she responded immediately and characteristically with a short voice memo on Messenger. Soon Kelvin was helping us reverse into the basement of a squat that was a hive of activity in the heart of Paris, artists and activists working side by side. We were there to support Paris Refugee Ground Support in any way we could, a mobile distribution and coordination team working to alleviate the suffering of displaced human beings. 


The next few days we got stuck in, learning the ropes quickly about storage rooms and delivery systems. Quick learning curves essential because the need is immediate; distributions of bedding, tents, clothing and food parcels happening every night in multiple locations across Paris in collaboration with the "marauders", the volunteers distributing aid arriving from around Europe and friendship night on night.

Order for a gentleman from Sudan, delivered by the team at Paris Refugee Ground Support, December 2017

The reality was desperate and shocking. We took it in turns to support the distributions, out until 5am every night, cold, freezing. desolate. Hundreds, if not thousands of people, were living in the shadows of Paris, hidden under railway arches, under bridges, road flyovers. People from Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and more.  Every single person who had had dreams of arriving in one of the largest cities in Europe - the city of love - to find safety. As we talked to new arrivals, eyes are still bright and filled with hope. This soon changes. The grassroots humanitarian army of people volunteering on the ground a lifeline in the truest sense of the word. 


We saw with our own eyes the dangers from numerous means, of living in these horrific conditions: locals looking to pick up cheap sex and organised crime targeting people including CHILDREN who were vulnerable to the higher risk of exploitation. Some people had their papers already, or had legitimate claims to get papers, some there for the second or third time after being shipped back to Italy under the Dublin rule. 

It’s been a tricky few days. The police have been slashing the tents of displaced people. Heather filmed this on International Human Rights Day and the video has gone viral. It feels like the front line of the resistance. Earlier in the week there were hundreds and hundreds of people on the street - it is shocking and heartbreaking to see and meet people - and now after a Macron policy to clear the streets by Christmas, people are being rounded up by the authorities - it seems with the belief they are starting their asylum process in France, but that instead the Dublin convention is being enforced and they are finger printed to be deported back to country of arrival. Still new people are arriving, last night a 21 day old baby.
— Personal email to a professional colleague, 13.12.18
We then went under the flyover and turned to the left to where there were more Gendarmes moving small groups of refugees north in the pouring rain. We headed south under the Bd Périphérique proper. Here there was a covered space and approximately 30 pop up tents. I looked around and saw that every single tent roof had been slashed with something sharp.
— Sparky, December 2017

But then, much like any big city, this was a place where displaced communities were also welcomed. Just half a mile away, a different world played out in the other event that I attended while in Paris. The graduation of the PLACE Programme, for entrepreneurs from Refugee communities took place one afternoon with a keynote from the Mayor of Paris. Their hashtag #innovatorsdonthaveborderstheyhaveplaces says it all.  This visionary programme demonstrates in practice what can happen when people are welcomed: incredible music, dancing, food and entrepreneurial ideas were vibrant in this dynamic community of change-makers.


One another day, wandering through the streets led us to an abandoned corner of Paris which had been revived by l'association 'la table ouverte' / the open table. The corner plot of land already had chickens and fruit trees were being planted including a baby lemon tree. These contrasting worlds were so far apart and yet so near. At the workshop hosted at the PLACE event, we  discussed the barriers and opportunities to ensure that EVERYONE who arrives in Paris is nurtured, can access support and is able to thrive 🌱


Our recipes of HOPE from Paris are simple foods that really tell the story of resistance. The chocolate brownies and lemon cakes sent to the basement, baked by volunteers unknown to us, but enjoyed and so gratefully received by volunteers and people forced to live on the streets. Frites Mayonnaise, the go-to takeaway, easy and filling comfort food before a 10 hour stint distributing on the street. Afghan Eggs, contributed by Heather, as one of her favourites, but which also reminds us of the incredibly kind man from Afghanistan who fixed our van when it broke down in the basement. Food rescued before the bins at the Parisian Markets was also a source for our meals, kindly shared by the artists inhabiting the rest of the disused carpark. 


Christmas in the Chamonix Valley 

It was with heavy hearts that we left Paris, but our journey continued in France to the Alps, where we found a complete change of scenery and the largest snowfall in ten years.