by Elaine McCarthy

When I came back to Paris towards the end of 2017 (after six years in S.E. Asia), I knew my neighborhood would be near the tent camps used by refugees. The famous Calais “jungle” had been dismantled, millions of Syrians were still fleeing war, and Frenchman Cedric Herrou had been found guilty of helping Eritreans cross the border from Italy. On the metro to visit my son, I’d look down on a string of tents along the Canal Saint-Martin. All winter, that sight would make me feel guilty about not being engaged in some way that might provide some small measure of relief.

Our UUFP fellowship was already a member of a coalition of churches in Paris working with the Association of American Women in Europe Refugee Task Force.  Beth O’Connell asked me to join their monthly meetings, and my “refugee education” on French procedures and conflicts began. If I had to put it simply, I would say that France is proud of the number of refugees it took in, but the State considered those who had already entered other EU countries—or those who arrived with no papers at all—to be illegal. Meanwhile, the mayor of Paris, a socialist, visited the tent camps early in 2018 and resolved to provide more humane treatment. One result was a city-subsidized program that provides breakfast near the large encampments in the north of the city. It’s run by The Salvation Army, with donations from hotels and restaurants and their own supplies, material and volunteers, plus “bénévoles” like me, and it’s been in operation seven days a week since January 2018.

Whenever police evacuated a tent camp (or held a drug raid), the camp would move and the city program, Petit Déj’, would, too. However, the most recent one seems definitive. President Macron announced that France would “crack down” on illegal immigration, and the next day, on November 7, 1600 people were put on buses and taken to temporary shelters to be processed. We knew it was serious because this time all the tents were destroyed. Before then, an NGO had arranged to save tents and backpacks. Until this happened, we served 650 breakfasts a day on average. Last week, we served less than half that.  Yet that means there are still large numbers of people, mostly young men from Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, etc., with nowhere to go.

Things I’ve learned include how very important it is to show “respect” to each person coming down the line, to make eye contact, to offer choices. I also learned the fastest way to make six jam sandwiches a minute. It seemed to me there were “waves” of people coming by, and I would just begin to recognize the “regulars”… and then they’d disappear. I wonder what happened to the men who put their hands on their hearts in gratitude or the one who called me Queen Elizabeth because he thought I was English.

Two who did not disappear were young Afghani men who “graduated” from being on one side of the table to working on the other, helping to serve. One is now “in the system,” hoping for “exile” status; the other is hoping for a French family to take him in. I only “work” two mornings a week, but I’ll keep going as long as they do—or until the city or the Salvation Army admits defeat.