Jess en France: Working with Refugees

There is an amazing association at my university that is entirely student run and incredibly well organized. It’s called the Refugee Help Association. I went to their orientation, which was big enough to fill an entire lecture hall, and was impressed by how motivated and passionate the leading members were in making a difference in the lives of Paris’ refugee population. There are five main teams: Administration, Asylum Aid, Material Needs, French Lessons, and Social Activities. I am administrative coordinator for one of the five Material Needs teams.

Essentially, my team is composed of about ten people, and each week we have different tasks we have to complete. On the first week of the month, we have to email, call, or meet with different hotels or other businesses across Paris and ask for any toiletries they may be able to offer us. We put together care packages on the second week, and, on the third, we distribute these care packages at a place called “Porte de la Chapelle,” which is where many refugees congregate on the outskirts of the city.

I decided to join Refugee Help not just because it serves an important cause, but because I felt I needed to contribute more than simply give a few Euros to homeless refugees from time to time. It’s hardly satisfying to give out the spare change in your wallet knowing it’s only minimally helpful. The Refugee Help Association is systematic and organized so that each helping hand has a fundamental purpose in making sure plans are executed and refugees can get the essentials they need to subsist in a place as paradoxically difficult to live in as Paris.

Paris is a place where life happens in abundance, so it’s a provocative image seeing a family of refugees camping outside a place like Louis Vuitton to sleep for the night. The refugee camps in Paris are too full, so only women and children are prioritized. The rest of the refugees are generally men who are then often found roaming the streets. There’s almost a sense of guilt I feel having the life I have when someone who’s already traveled an enduring journey to escape persecution, in whatever manner, is being given the bare minimum, if not nothing, to establish their life in some place ostensibly better.

But this is what’s so rewarding and necessary about the association I’m a part of. Last Sunday, I went to the general weekly distribution where I served tea and coffee to a group of refugees. On occasion I’ll have the chance to ask for their names and where they’re from. Many, I’ve found, are from Afghanistan, Sudan, and sometimes Syria. Like any other group of people, you have the jokers, the shy ones, or the smiley ones, and quite often they only ask for half-full cups because they don’t want to take too much. Even after having lost their homes and likely all their possessions, they still don’t want to take more than what they think they need. Granted, this is my own experience, and I can’t speak for everyone. But at every distribution, I meet a normal yet all the more exceptional group of people; I just wish popular discourse could reflect that sentiment.

There’s another distribution coming up soon, and, despite it being midterm week and quite busy, I’m looking forward to taking a break and serving warm drinks to some familiar faces. It’s not always easy to communicate with the refugees, as there are a myriad of languages spoken in these camps. But when they can’t find the word for what they want, I always ask, “chai?” I’m not sure what language(s) I’m speaking, but I know it’s a more universal word for tea. A smile often spreads across their faces at the sound of the more familiar term. Maybe, it reminds them of home.

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