Migration is indispensable for the progress of humanity

To honor International Migrant Day, Draftsy discussed the issue of migration with Sarfaraz Khan, project coordinator at Dom’Asile, the association located in Ile-de-France. Founded in 2000, the association helps people who ask for asylum in France. In this exclusive interview for Draftsy, Khan Sarfaraz talks about how migrants are welcomed in France and what struggles they are going through.

Legal consultation by the association Dom’Asile

D: Could you briefly describe what Dom’Asile does for migrants?

SK: Dom’Asile is an association that provides administrative help (domiciliation) to people in exile who do not have a stable accommodation or are excluded from public services and helps them access their administrative and social rights.

We have nine domiciliation and help centers in six departments of the Ile-de-France region, two specialized centers dedicated to helping people to access their social rights, and a support center for people in Parisian camps, in partnership with other associations, active citizens, and lawyers. These centers are entirely run by volunteers to provide people with an administrative address and help them with procedures and social rights.

Let’s clarify the term ‘immigrant.’ This term is used very broadly to include all categories of people who come to live in a foreign country. But the reason or the motivation for it can be very different. Some people leave their homelands in search of a better life, better career, or job opportunities. Others are forced to leave their motherland because of wars, conflicts, and the unlivable conditions threatening their lives. These people have no choice but to flee their countries to seek protection.

Dom’Asile, in fact, works for the rights of this category of persons; that is, it helps people who are in the situation of exile in France. We have different projects. In addition to several domiciliation and help centers in Ile-de-France, Dom’Asile runs an online multilingual and multimedia platform to provide information to asylum seekers, refugees, and people whose asylum requests have been denied. This platform provides information in articles, videos, and audio material. It has an online service to answer questions in different languages to accommodate immigrants that do not speak French. We have projects to help migrants become self-dependent and obtain their rights through our “do it yourself” video tutorials and collective information workshops in different languages.

Moreover, one of the essential activities of Dom’Asile is the advocacy and interpellation of the public authorities. We work with different organizations to monitor institutions’ abusive practices and find the solution to the various administrative blockades these people face.

D: With migrants from which countries do you work most? Are there specific trends that you see?

SK: We help people from many countries. But most of the migrants in our centers are from Bangladesh, Tibet, Soudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Congo, and Sri Lanka. The number of Afghan and Tibetan refugees needing help had recently gone up.

As we work with a specific category of ‘migrants,’ that is, the people who flee their countries to seek protection, it is difficult to talk about trends – in this case, they depend on the political situation in the countries. For example, the top five countries whose citizens applied for protection in France were Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Guinea, and Ivory Coast in recent years.

D: What are the main difficulties that the migrants and asylum seekers are going through in France and Ile-de-France specifically?

SK: Unfortunately, they face a lot of difficulties. France follows international and national laws which confer very well-defined rights to asylum seekers and refugees. For example, an asylum seeker has the right to get quick access to the asylum process, get a subsistence allowance, accommodation, and other basic needs. Once the asylum seeker is recognized as a refugee, they have the right to receive language training, get a resident card, a travel document, and the option to bring their spouse and minor children to France.

Those whose asylum request has been rejected also have rights, including getting a minimum free health care service (called aide médicale d’état), a reduced-priced transport card if living in Ile-de-France, and the right to get their children enrolled in a school.

But, in reality, it’s very difficult to obtain these rights. The first hurdle is the language and the lack of information. A large population of immigrants does not speak French, and they have no idea how the French administration and its jurisdictions function. This makes them utterly dependent on the help and support of humanitarian organizations and volunteers.

Then there is a political unwillingness to provide the refugee assistance services with adequate means to receive these people in good conditions. Take the example of the procedure for applying for asylum in Ile-de-France. Since 2018, the Ofii (the French immigration office) has put in place a system of appointments by telephone. The newly arrived asylum seekers can no longer go directly to an asylum reception center but must call a special number to get an appointment first.

It is very difficult to get through to the operator of that line. People wait 40 to 45 minutes each time they call. They try to get through several times per day, for weeks and sometimes months, in order to get the appointment and start their asylum process. And these calls are not free; they cost migrants money.

As a result, the impossibility of getting a quick appointment creates a lot of stress and fear. They are scared to get in trouble with the police if caught without proof of being an asylum seeker.

Another example of the issue that migrants face is the implementation of dematerialized administrative services. It is a major obstacle for asylum seekers and refugees. Services such as the application for the renewal of the residence card and the récépissé, applying for the family reunification, or to obtain social rights, or getting an appointment, are accessible only through the internet. They cannot come to a reception center to submit an application or ask for an appointment. This has created a huge problem for these people.

On the one hand, having minimal computer and French language skills, they have difficulties understanding the administrative procedures. They have to be able to work on a computer, scan documents, and email them to the administration’s websites.

On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to get an appointment online because there is a very limited number of appointments available. These difficulties make an already challenging situation even worse. If migrants fail to take the necessary steps for their legal and administrative procedures to be done in time, they might face suspension of their social rights, not to mention the loss of their job or trouble with the police.

These people eventually turn to the organizations to seek help, but the organizations are not prepared to provide them with help concerning the new online procedures. Dom’Asile and other organizations are currently fighting with the prefectures to make them increase the number of available appointments and set up at least a few reception points for people who cannot do their paperwork online.

D: How did work with migrants and the way they are treated in France change in the past 10-15 years?

SK: I started working with Dom’Asile in 2004. Much has changed in these years as far as asylum seekers’ and refugees’ rights are concerned. The asylum and immigration law has been reformed twice in the last five 5-6 years: in 2015 by the François Hollande government and 2018 by Emmanuel Macron. Each reform has made the condition of immigrants in France more difficult.

For example, before 2015, there was no fixed time frame to apply for asylum. In 2015 a new law required that people ask for asylum within 120 days, once they have arrived in France. In 2018, it was further shortened to 90 days.

If applied after 90 days, the applicant’s file is examined under a «fast track procedure,» which gives a serious procedural disadvantage for granting the refugee status. Furthermore, it deprives them of any accommodation and asylum seekers’ allowance rights. This makes them extremely vulnerable.

A few years ago, the asylum seekers used to get the subsistence allowance through a bank account, which they could use as they wished. Today they have no bank accounts. They get the allowance through a prepaid card which they can only use in certain commercial stores to buy basic needs. There is no option to withdraw cash from these cards. This has put them in different types of trouble.

One of the problems is the loss of accommodation. More than half of the asylum seekers are not housed by the government in France. They find some kind of private accommodation where they have to pay a small rent. As the landlords can’t receive the rent by card, they ask migrants to pay it in cash, which they can’t do. As a result, they end up on the streets.

Many examples show that in the past 10-15 years, the government’s perception and attitude towards immigrants and asylum seekers have changed for the worse. Migrants are thought about as people who come to France solely to take advantage of its social benefits. Often the asylum seekers are categorized as ‘real’ or ‘fake’ refugees. This change in the perception and attitude reflects clearly in the new asylum and immigration laws. The new reforms have made these people’s lives more difficult as far as the administrative process or their social rights are concerned. The Dublin process (which obliges the asylum seeker to apply for asylum only in the European country in which they arrive first) causes huge suffering to people because if the administration finds that the person had traveled through another European country, it refuses their asylum application to be processed in France. The person is often sent to a detention center to deport them to the country they first arrived at.

There are also a few positive changes in the recent laws. Good measures have been taken to attract talented and qualified immigrants like the introduction of the «talent passport» and the deliverance of multi-annual resident cards.

D: What do you think the French government should do to improve how the country accepts and treats migrants? Is there something that can be done on the European level?

SK: I think Europe does not have to make an extra effort to save the lives and dignity of these people; it just has to live by the rules that it has set for itself. Europe, France, and the whole world had agreed to protect the refugees if they arrived in their countries, so they have the legal obligation to do this under international law. They should create a system by which people who need protection can come to Europe without further risking their lives, an option to arrive legally, instead of making crossing the borders by refugees more difficult by erecting the fences and walls.

It is completely against the international convention of refugee protection, which every country has signed. As far as France is concerned, it has always defined itself with certain values like fraternity, equality, liberty of all kinds, and in every aspect of life. Above all, it claims to be ‘le pays de droit,’ the country of rights. Yet, it fails to protect those rights and assure that more vulnerable people have access to them. I think France has a lot to do to live up to the idea with which it defines itself.

D: How is the activity of Dom’Asile perceived by the government and society?

SK: I think the work of Dom’Asile, as well as all the humanitarian organizations, is much appreciated in France. Many people care about this issue. It is a part of French tradition to speak up against injustice or take to the streets if the rights of people are not respected. In general, people show solidarity with humanitarian organizations. They support them financially or through volunteering.

But they do it silently. That is why you do not see these issues discussed in the media. We get a lot of support from people in the form of donations and through their participation as volunteers in our centers. In fact, all our help centers are run by volunteers. At Dom’Asile, we work with around 200 volunteers who accompany almost 10,000 asylum seekers. The coordination team has only four staff members. Our volunteers do the entire work of our association.

As far as the government is concerned, they are aware of the importance of the work we do, particularly in the domain of domiciliation for people who need an address and the help and information that we provide them in their languages. Still, I think that we often make them dislike us because we do not hesitate to denounce the illegal practices or their inefficacies to provide the exiled people decent essential services.

D: What is your prognosis about the future of migration in France?

SK: Migration is a reality not only because it is inevitable, but also it is indispensable for the progress of humanity, development, and enrichment of countries in terms of economy, culture, art, and science. One of the significant concerns for Europe in general and France, in particular, is its aging population. Attracting the economic migrants, be it for seasonal or highly skilled jobs, should be a genuine concern for people who make policies for France and for Europe.

The fact is that immigration has been a very hot issue here for a long time. Particularly during the elections, the politicians try to polarize the French people around this question. The deliberate prejudices are created against the immigrants. Biases based on fear, anger, and hate can change the behaviors and attitudes of people. We can easily observe it today in France. That is why, although people understand the need for immigrant labor and skilled workers for the development of their country, they seem reluctant when it comes to welcoming migrants.

To learn more about asylum procedure in France follow the link


Nelya Rakhimova: “We are heading to the hell of climate change on a train without the brakes”

Nelya Rakhimova is a founder of the Open School of Sustainable Development, based in Germany but focused on working in Russia. In her exclusive interview for Draftsy she talks about the sustainable development of society and hope for a better future despite the impending ecological disaster.

Credit: Galina Gavrikova

D: Nelya, you are the founder of the Open School and a sustainable development activist and coordinator of the Coalition for Sustainable Development of Russia. You are an undoubted expert on this topic. Which definition of sustainable development seems to you the most accurate and modern?

N.R.: Sustainable development is a concept that describes humanity’s existence on the planet. We can live in harmony with nature while satisfying our economic and social needs so that future generations can also fulfill their own.

In Russian, it would be more logical to say balanced development, which means that we live in balance with both nature and future generations. This is not just some theory. The concept of sustainable development has received wide political recognition. Various declarations have been signed in this regard by U.N. members.

D: You live in Germany, but the activities of the school and the coalition are primarily aimed at the Russian society. What is the reason for this, and what difficulties do you face while living in one country and working in another?

N.R.: I would not say that the school’s activities are aimed only at the Russian society, but rather at the Russian-speaking audience that stretches outside of the borders of mother country. The coalition activities are focused on Russia, but we work with a wider public. The main challenge for me is inability to attend certain events in Russian Federation. Many events take place in Moscow, not all of them are remote. When I fail to physically get there, it means losing opportunities, contacts, and funding. However, even though I am not in Russia, I am recognized as an expert, and often invited to speak at conferences.

I know that if lived in Russia, I could have done more. However, considering safety of activists in the country and lack of freedom of speech, I do not know what circumstances I could find myself in. Perhaps I would have to suspend my activities. It is challenging for me to talk about living in my native country in the subjunctive mood.

D: Are there analogs of the Open School in Russia?

N.R.: A lot of environmentally oriented organizations and projects have recently appeared in the country. Sustainable development and education organizations are most often our partners. They use our materials and link their activities to the Open School. There are also companies that focus on climate change and sustainable business. However, there isn’t a one for one analog of our Open School in Russia. We remain a partner and a teacher to many initiatives that share our goals – we are often invited to lecture at eco-schools; they use our materials and graphics. I understand that I am still a narrowly focused specialist.

Unfortunately, involving civil society in the sustainable development agenda is still very difficult in Russia. We created the Coalition for Sustainable Development to help with this process. We managed to attract rather large organizations to our cause due to the fact that the Open School is known in certain circles.

D: Nelya, your school has existed for eight years. It is known in Russia and abroad. You conduct seminars and meetings, speak at conferences. In your opinion, are there any noticeable shifts in Russia in the field of sustainable development?

N.R.: The primary changes are taking place in the business sphere, primarily due to global competition. Investors want to work with environmentally and socially sustainable companies. Ratings of businesses are created, and investors prefer to invest in “green” companies. Despite political isolation, Russian companies are beginning to focus on international business practices. Otherwise, they lose out on partnerships and lucrative contracts. As a result, business in Russia is at the forefront of the sustainable development agenda, but, of course, it is not that simple.

Leadership in accountability and awareness of doing business in harmony with nature and society does not always mean that specific business practices change, which is very sad. To be honest, I still feel uncomfortable working with commercial organizations because I often think that there is nothing behind their words.

Therefore, I believe that sustainable development is the responsibility of the government. It should determine the standards and limits for how the corporate world operates. There is certain progress on this front, but it is not as fast as we would like it to be.

A Council of the Ministry of Economic Development has been created in the country, and Russia has finally recognized the fact of climate change due to the actions of humanity. However, if we look at the actions of the ministries and the Russian legislation in general, nothing is changing. As a result, there is still stagnation in this area and a rollback to old ways of doing things, despite the significant number of meetings and forums on the topic of sustainable development.

The same goes for civil society. Of course, there have been some shifts, but they are more formal in nature. For example, if we look at the human rights, freedom of speech, and gender equality, Russia is experiencing a complete degradation to outdated views on these matters.

D: You coordinated the first Citizens’ Review on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals released in 2020. What was the purpose of the review? How was it met in Russia? Did the authorities take note of the report?

N.R.: The objective of our report was an independent analysis of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in Russia by civil society experts. Our report was attended by both individual activists and influential non-profit organizations, and representatives of the academic community. The final result of our report was significantly different from the state report, which was also released that year. The draft of the official report was very extensive and included a lot of important information from specialists, but then it was shortened, and only what was needed was left. Our report openly talked about the acute problems of Russian society.

D: Have you read the official report?

N.R.: I even participated in its development and was a member of at least three working committees. Participation in the remote format was then impossible. At that time, all meetings were mostly face-to-face, and my colleagues rarely used online meetings. As a result, the problem with the official report was that the regions were not included in the work.

We made a different choice. When we started working on the Civil Review, we tried to include regions in the process, to make everything open and accessible. We decided not to filter the participants, not to hold closed meetings. Any citizen wishing to take part in the discussions could register. We posted information with an offer to participate in the development of the report on major social portals. We wanted to give an independent assessment of the situation, and I additionally set myself the goal of representing Russian civil society at the international level.

Europe still doesn’t know much about Russia. Europeans rarely work with our region and Eastern Europe, because all attention and resources are focused on the developing countries of Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

I believe that our goal of representing Russia has been achieved. We have received feedback from various international agencies.

It is difficult for me to judge which aspects of the report were taken into account by the government, because we do not have effective communication on this topic. We were, of course, thanked for our active position at several international events. The most positive thing we got from the state was Chubais’s reaction. He has openly made statements that our review should be considered in parallel with the official report on sustainable development.

D: In a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humankind was given a bitter verdict: our activities are causing significant damage to the planet and some changes in nature and climate are irreversible – at least in the next hundred years. In your opinion, what should be done by the governments of states in order to somehow reduce the effect of the approaching catastrophe?

N.R.: They should at least do something!

D: Will this “something” be enough?

N.R.: This is a difficult question. We are heading to this hell on a train with no brakes. But we shouldn’t give up either. It is necessary to set hard limits on the impact of industry on the climate. Russia is one of the countries that do nothing to prevent an environmental catastrophe.

Our country recognized the reality of the irreversible process of climate change and expressed a desire to act. But again, everyone understands that all the goals that the government sets, either have already been achieved or will be achieved without the intervention of the state. What does it mean? To comply with international standards, industrial emissions need to be reduced by a certain percentage, based on the 1990 level. The Soviet Union had a very high level of industrial emissions. After the collapse of the USSR and the beginning of economic regression, all production stopped and, accordingly, emissions decreased.

Russia still uses the fact that we have not returned to the 1990 level as evidence of a reduction of the impact of industry on the climate. When we are told that we are the fourth country in the world in terms of emissions (the first three are the USA, China and India. If we unite all the E.U. countries, Russia will be in fifth place), we answer that we have already reduced them. Arguments are often heard: “Look at the United States, they do nothing at all. Why should we do something?”

I cannot say that I am a climate expert, but the global industry needs to be transformed. It is necessary to decarbonize the economy, which includes three main components: transition to renewable energy sources wherever possible; electrification and the conversion of all technologies that run on fossil technologies to electricity; and industrial energy efficiency.

Nowadays, there is a lot of talk about green hydrogen. It can be used like natural gas, but when it burns, water is formed. It is completely carbon neutral. But we need a lot of energy to produce hydrogen. If we find a way to produce green hydrogen using renewable energy sources, we will arrive at the global goal of energy conservation.

Speaking about the transformation of the economy through renewable energy sources, electrification, and energy efficiency, it should be noted that the process should be guided by the principle of a just transition. Decarbonization should take place with social considerations. For example, if tomorrow France decides to abandon nuclear energy, and Russia stops using coal and oil, then the states must provide employment for all citizens who have lost their jobs because of this reform.

D: How can we, the ordinary citizens, help our planet?

N.R.: There are two possible ways to make a difference. A person can be a rational consumer and behave in society with sustainable development in mind, observing the principles of social equality. A citizen can also get involved in work with the local governments, trying to influence politics in various ways.

One of the ways to influence political reforms is voting in general elections. For example, in the German capital, elections were recently held, and the Green Party came in second with a minimal margin over the more traditional Social Democratic Party. Serious changes in society can begin with legislative reform.

D: If you could send a message to the future, what would you write to our descendants?

N.R.: I think it is better to write to those who are in the past and call them to action. I am probably not ready to write a letter to the future yet, because I am in the process of a fight for the better tomorrow. If the moment comes when I realize that I can’t do anything else in the present, then I’ll sit down to write something like this: “Dear future generation, I did everything I could, but the results are not great. I’m sorry, we did our best!”


A basket of fresh vegetables to save the organic farming: my experience in AMAP

Credit: Ta-Tev

AMAPs exist in almost every city in France. The abbreviation stands for “Association pour le maintien d’une agriculture paysanne”, which translated from French means the Association for the maintenance of farm agriculture. First amaps appeared in the country in 2000. They allow city dwellers to buy fresh vegetables, bread, eggs, and meat directly from the farmers, and farms get the funds and help they need in return.

Joining an amap starts with signing a contract with a local farmer. Everyone involved wins: having many subscribers helps to ensure the farm’s financial stability during the year, and members get fresh produce weekly – organic vegetables, grown without pesticides.

In Paris, a farmer can work with one, two, or three districts, depending on how many people his harvest can accommodate. In some areas of the city, several amaps coexist, with different farmers in charge of each. I had a chance to be a member of amap in Ile-de-France.

At first, I was skeptical about the proposal to join the amap. I’ve heard a lot about this association, and some of my friends have expressed mixed reviews. Among the inconveniences of this system, people most often remarked on the fact that vegetables need to be picked up regularly, once a week, at the same time. This means that on the evening of the amap meeting, the person has to be there and is forced to plan their life around it. By signing a contract, people also agree to help farmers from time to time: participate in the distribution of vegetables and help during the harvest.

Another disadvantage is the fact that the harvest is not always predictable. Some weeks the farmer may have less vegetables, so subscribers can’t fully depend on getting everything they need from the amap. They might have to buy the necessary products in regular stores, which can be annoying if the family is trying to stick to getting 100% organic produce from the farm and uses it as motivation to join the amap.

Amaps in Paris rarely offer fruit (the variety of crops depends on the farm and its location). One of the important principles of the system is to support the consumption of seasonal products. In the summertime, the farmers will bring tomatoes and cucumbers, while during the winter amap will have different types of cabbage, potatoes, carrots, onions, lettuce, celery root, and black radish.

After much thought, I finally decided to sign a contract. My main motivation was to support local farming and sustainable agriculture practices.

When I went to the first distribution of vegetables, I was amazed by the number of people supporting this system. The crowd was very diverse: couples with children, older citizens, and young people. I saw a friendly face right away – our neighbor turned out to be one of the members.

After talking with the farmer, I learned that about 40 people are registered in the amap of our district (and this was far from the only amap in the area). The farmer at that time had no more space and even had to refuse some people who wanted to sign up.

I was impressed by the friendly and cheerful atmosphere at the meetings. As it turns out, every week, those charged with distributing the vegetables (a task all members have to take turns on every six months) bring pies, drinks and throw a small party. Some people pick up the vegetables and immediately go home, while others stay to socialize. Participants discuss organic farming, alternative energy production, waste reduction, and supporting local farms. During these evenings, people exchange views and experiences.

After several meetings, I realized that the distribution of vegetables from 7 to 8.30 in the evening falls on the time when the French are normally having dinner. Members were multitasking and using the meetings to socialize and have a meal with friends and like-minded people. At the end of the night, when everyone gets their baskets of vegetables and the dinner is over, distributors can take leftover produce home.

The most abundant times for amaps are summer and fall. During that season, our farmer brought the freshest vegetables: juicy tomatoes, fresh onions, cucumbers, eggplants, zucchini, and fragrant herbs.

Once a year, the most active amap members organize a big meeting, to which all subscribers are invited. They discuss organizational issues and main trends in agriculture, participants vote for innovations and exchange opinions. In addition to these annual meetings, the city’s amap network often hosts conferences and screens documentaries on organic farming.

Perhaps the most memorable part of the amap membership for me was the trips to the farm. Each time it would get together about twenty people. Working on the farm turned out to be a very educational process. On the one hand, I learned a lot about farming and was able to see with my own eyes how it is done in France. On the other hand, during potluck lunches at the farm, when everyone shared something they cooked at home, I was able to meet interesting people from different cultures and parts of society, united by love for the land, desire for a change, and the search for alternatives to the modern consumption system.

Digging in the ground, picking vegetables, having that pleasant tiredness in the evening – it all reminded me of my childhood when I helped my parents in our countryside Russian «dacha». Back then I couldn’t appreciate the pleasure of growing my own vegetables. Working in the garden seemed to me a pointless waste of personal time because everything could be bought in the store. Helping our farmer now, I had the feeling that I, too, make some contribution to the cultivation of vegetables, and even more, a contribution to the development of subsistence farming.

I got a different point of view on local farming. I tried new vegetables, the ones I never bought at the store before since they were unknown to me. I plunged into a world of solidarity not only with farmers but also between amap participants. There was a tradition among the members: those who cannot come for their basket of vegetables can ask someone to pick it up and hold it until the next day. At times, especially in winter, when it is dark and raining outside, it is difficult to motivate yourself to go to the amap for vegetables. But every time, I managed to overcome my laziness and went to a meeting.

I never regretted my decision to join amap. When we moved from Paris, I had to leave the association and now, when I try to grow my own vegetables, I fondly remember this invaluable experience. Thanks to the amap and the people I met there, I have the hope that through the solidarity and responsibility that awakens in each of us as we work together, we can contribute to the better future of our planet. Even if this contribution starts with a simple basket of fresh vegetables.


Julius and his community garden

Julius is an architect. He lives in the heart of the 19th district of Paris. Several years ago, together with many other people that live in his enormous building, Julius planted a community garden. From that day, it remained a passion project for him. The garden, labor, and fruits of which are shared by all the participating neighbors, allowed them to create an island of nature surrounded by the stone jungle of Paris.

In this interview for Draftsy Julius agreed to tell us more about his garden and how it changed the life of the building.

D: Julius, what was your motivation to create the community garden?

J: Well, the “garden” part came first, and the “community” came later. My primary motive was the simple pleasure of watching a seed grow into a plant and bear fruit, watching a visiting bee, the rain, and the sun do their part in it. Experimenting with tomatoes in my own 12th-floor balcony for a few years was enough to satisfy this pleasure. I guess this sort of intimate engagement with nature is the first and necessary element of our ecological being as a society. At the same time, I’ve also been looking for opportunities to shatter social norms, historically associated with urban green spaces, which are exclusively decorative and recreational in their purpose.

What do you do in the parks of big cities? You admire begonias, you jog, you have your picnics on the grass with friends, and you take care not to stain your nice clothes with grass and dirt. In a way, you treat it like a big veranda with flowerpots, attached to your living-room. Parks are full of signs forbidding you to do this and that which is far from the freedom you have while being in a forest.

My first idea was secretly planting some “unsightly”, rural vegetables in those beautiful flower beds all around Parisian parks. This subversive idea brought me to the “community” dimension because the urban space and social norms are unthinkable without sharing, without living together. You can’t undo big cities, but you can try changing them. This is how my connection with nature shaped into a sort of love triangle: nature, society, and the individual. I discovered many like-minded people in Paris, and in fact, this grass-root movement has been going on all over Europe for some time now. Some are moved by the return-to-roots motivation, others – by the looming ecological disaster, the collapse in the bee population, and the climate change.

The idea is to reclaim the urban green areas nearby, leaving the choices of how to make their urban environment greener for private citizens. Some of those reclaimed areas are tiny left-over spots: in German cities, and recently in Paris, people started “adopting” a three square meter area around a sidewalk tree, and planting wildflowers, pumpkins, and whatnot. Others temporarily squat the sites of demolished old buildings. The municipal authorities started following this essentially grass-roots trend and now provide assistance – something that was unthinkable twenty years ago. There are many such initiatives around Paris, and communal gardens are nowadays often included in new housing projects.

I am lucky to live in an apartment building with a large adjacent green area and share it with some like-minded neighbors. We asked the landowner to allocate us a plot for urban gardening. He gave us a go. Partly because, for better or worse, the ecology nowadays is an asset of fashion for housing companies, and partly because this way he saves on lawn maintenance costs.

Now we have a 600 square meter garden, which is rather big for a city that is one of the most densely built spots in the world. This is how our garden came into being, and we just gathered the third harvest.

D: What were the first steps for you and your neighbors to make it happen, once the decision was made, and everyone was on board?

J: The first steps were us trying to agree on what we want to do, how do we want it to happen, and deciding on what is the endgame of the project. This (still ongoing) discussion didn’t magically make the garden materialize but it’s still worth mentioning. France is a country with very strong traditions of social consciousness, and a tiny communal endeavor as this can quickly devolve into hot debates on social and political order. The idea of allotting land for individual use was discarded from the outset. Are we going to be a collective garden or a shared one? This question would perplex a person from some Nordic country, but the disagreement on it was nearly fatal for our group.

Credit: Julius

The steps that did advance the creation of the garden were getting up from the table in the middle of the discussion, going to our plot, building wooden frames, and working the soil. With time, we procured some funds to buy wood and tools and to replace the infertile soil. We learned to enjoy together what we used to enjoy privately in our balconies: watching the flowers and vegetable plants bloom, start to smell, ripen with fruit. There’s a very particular kind of pleasure in taking the elevator down to the garden to fetch some salad greens and cucumbers for dinner – in the middle of Paris! 

D: Who was helping you? How many people participated in the project? How much time do you spend working in the garden now?

J: The landlord – who is a semi-private social housing company – gave us a budget for our bigger expenses: the wood, irrigation pipes, and the new soil. The plans, workforce and logistics came from our group exclusively. This involved all kinds of know-how, ranging from carpentry to plumbing. Our group is very diverse profession-wise, but nearly all come from a white-collar professional background. There are opera singers, mathematicians… We had to rely a lot on my professional expertise as an architect. A lot of very specific knowledge, especially when it comes to gardening, comes from online resources, from YouTube, and so on.

We started with about 30 members in the beginning, but today the regulars count 5-10 devotees. Since we have extremely diverse skills and capacities, some work with the soil, others organize events, do paperwork or take photographs for the archive. Since we’re still in the “investment” stage, putting everything in shape takes a lot of time, but unlike the day job, the amount of work largely depends on the biological calendar, naturally. We are looking for outside funding, and this year the French government created an all-country financial assistance specifically for urban gardening. I’m counting on it to help us buy some trees and wood for the garden furniture.

D: How do you share the responsibilities of taking care of the garden and the harvest?

J: We never established a more tangible “constitution” of the group. There are however a couple of “red lines”: no individual appropriation of land, and no power hierarchy (except for my being a sort of unelected leader). We compensate for the lack of structure by playing by ear. I guess that puts us somewhere within the anarchist camp, but we don’t pigeonhole ourselves in political definitions. There’s an unwritten agreement though that we will keep with the ecological practices and philosophy.

As a general observation, there’s a big gap between the time and effort that people tend to invest into what is a hobby, after all, and the real needs of a well-managed garden, which will simply perish if you don’t water it the moment it needs to be watered. We have a WhatsApp group to quickly react to the weather and call for reinforcement when needed. Sometimes nobody’s available, and the plants take the toll.

While we have no hierarchic structure, we do have supervisors of technical areas: some are responsible for flowers, others for vegetables, for budget, for the compost, and so on. Most of those initiatives come spontaneously, and the person who introduces an idea is usually responsible for overseeing its realization. This makes the choice of the supervisor by voting somewhat irrelevant because it’s rare for several people to author the same idea. Some voices were calling for using voting to arbitrate every little decision, but this proved to be as time-consuming as counterproductive, mainly because gardening involves thousands of small choices that are purely technical. For example, a group can vote very evenhandedly for planting peas together with onions, but those two cultures will never grow well together. Some choices are less obvious because there are various philosophies of gardening. We are still divided over the question of whether we should mow our lawns the “English way” or let it grow wild in the spirit of “French garden”. We’ll have to hear the pros and cons and put it to vote.

Since the land is used commonly, we share the fruits of the garden in the most equitable way possible. The harvest is not big enough to set a quota for sharing, so eating the fruits is a largely symbolic act of sharing. Being- and having fun together is a very distinct dimension of the group, although this has little to do with its ecological purposes, properly speaking. But urban gardening and ecological consciousness have a strong social bond, almost a kinship. Even within the population of our high-rise residence overlooking the garden, our group and its activities are subjects of curiosity and talk. In this sense, our activity is very different from that of an agricultural professional, tending to his or hers obscure rural garden: it’s inevitably a theater stage for other townsfolk to watch. This may sound a bit negative, but at the same time, it’s a form of direct action in transforming the traditional urban mindset. All our new recruits joined us after seeing us through the window. On a broader scale, there are about fifteen similar garden projects in our district alone, which amounts to certain visibility in the city and its municipal ecological politics.

D: What do you usually plant? Did you have to change it at all in the process of trial and error (some plants did not work well, others made more sense, etc.)?

J: In the beginning, we were reduced to a narrow range of plants that could grow in our silty substrate that only had 1.5% of organic matter. Things got better after we added 40 cubic meters of rich soil. Now, besides the usual European-climate friendly vegetables, we grow various tomatoes, even Italian bell peppers. For the exotic peppers, we’ve built a greenhouse. Due to having no formal training in the field, we use the trial-and-error method. This year I tried growing the southern melons in the greenhouse, but in a humid greenhouse the mildew devastated the plants. Tomatoes do very well, although this summer was extremely cold. With flowers, we have the usual pleasure-garden beauties, but in general, we chose the most bee-friendly flowers.

D: In your opinion, will community gardens disappear in the future, or will they become even more common?

J: The urban community gardens can’t possibly disappear because their emerging follows similar reasons that back in the nineteenth century forced the authorities of big cities to create public gardens at the expense of the built areas. The trend is not only a matter of fashion but also an absolute ecological and social necessity. Unlike public parks though, the urban community gardens have lots of limitations: they appear where an empty spot in the built-up environment becomes available. But more and more city planners include such gardens in new housing projects. It’s becoming a norm with benefits.

D: Do you think the creation of community gardens in the big cities could be an alternative answer to the future problems with food?

J: Interesting question. There’s certainly a lot that can be done for cities to be able to provide themselves with agricultural produce, but there are certain limitations to be taken into account. The vegetation footprint in Paris is gradually spreading on the flat roofs, even on the walls, but it will always have to share space with other components and functions of the city. Sunlight is another thing to share. Certain vegetables and fruits are easy to grow even in the city but very difficult to transport from remote places. For example, fresh raspberries. There is a company in Paris that cultivates them on the rooftops and provides them directly to restaurants because a massive amount of berries goes bad very fast and can’t stand transportation. The same is true for salad greens and many other vegetables.

D: If you could have the power to make it happen, which other alternative do you think has the ability to improve the ecological situation in the big cities around the world?

J: Outside the lack of vegetation, there are dire ecological problems in the city that should be treated as quickly as possible, for instance, the transport and thermic insulation of buildings. If your question is more about the nature in the city, I wish I could transform flat rooftops into a real layer of thick greenery floating above the city, with occasional footbridges and small animal overpasses across the streets. It would be a new space for the same population, but it would have different norms of being together. Utopians of the nineteenth century called for combining the best of the city and the countryside, but the idea ended up with sad fenced suburban condominiums. So, this would be my shot. But that would require massive changes in building by-laws, construction codes, and even in the concept of land ownership. French people say Soyons réalistes, demandons l’impossible!

If you want to learn more about community gardens in the 19th district of Paris follow the link . The garden of Julius and his neigbours is under the number 24.

Topic of the month

Volume III – Ecology

In the first two volumes, we wrote about the meaning of home and freedom. When considering the topic for September, it seemed to us that ecology would be a logical continuation of this conversation.

In the recent report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the humanity received a harsh verdict: we are causing immense harm to the planet, and some of the changes can be considered irreversible for the following centuries to millennia. Scientists from 66 countries have worked on the report. Their conclusion is rather pessimistic and does not leave room for hope to solve global warming issues any time soon.

What is happening to our planet today is the result of catastrophic, insatiable human greed. Humans’ desire to take advantage of the Earth’s resources till the last drop, and our irresponsibility and cupidity to dominate nature have led to the reality in which the forests around the world are burning, new diseases appear, and various species of insects, animals, and fish disappear forever.

We act as if we have an extra planet somewhere, a new, clean home. Unfortunately, humanity has no other planet besides the Earth, so it is time we face what we are doing to it. With the ecological catastrophe already happening, it is possible that in the future, it may cause social disasters associated with the restriction of human rights and freedoms.

Today, we have a choice to make. On the one hand, we can pretend that everything is fine, the planet’s resources will be enough for our generation, and say “our grandkids can deal with this problem.” Or we can choose to act – on a personal level and by influencing global corporations who are causing the most pollution and changing the face of the planet.

This month, we would like to talk about various environmental initiatives and discuss what we can do to help the planet.



Sex trafficking in France: how migrant women end up in modern slavery 

Credit : Ta-Tev

When I think about the freedom of women today, I think about it in the most literal way – as freedom of migrant women that I have worked with. They come to France in search of a better future for their families but instead find themselves involved in sexual exploitation.

Sex trafficking is a controversial topic, surrounded by stereotypes, myths, and tabus. It raises a serious problem of the exploitation of women’s bodies by men, challenges the patriarchal society that makes this exploitation possible, and in some countries even legal and regulated. Sexual exploitation brings into question female’s freedom of choice. Does it exist for women caught in the grip of modern slavery? 

In this article, I will mainly talk about women who have been victims of trafficking and prostitution. Men also fall into this system, but much less often. All the information is based on my experience of working with victims of human trafficking and sexual slavery, professional courses I have attended, as well as the literature I have read. This topic is very extensive, so for this discussion, I will outline only the basic facts about how human trafficking and the rehabilitation of victims takes place in France.

Human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation in the modern world is a developed and well-functioning system, supplying women to Europe, the US and Canada, and Russia. Women and girls are brought from poor countries with unstable political and economic situations. They come from Africa, where the main traffic of people comes from Nigeria; Eastern European countries including Albania, Romania, and Bulgaria; and more recently Latin American countries.

What happens to women brought to Europe? Do they manage to get out of this sexual slavery? Can they rebuild their lives in the new country? To answer these questions, consider the situation of victims of trafficking and forced prostitution in France. 

France is a part of Europe, but not all European Union countries have the same stance towards prostitution. France is a neighbor to Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Ireland, which all support the neo-abolitionism approach. This means clients are punished and fined, pimps can face a long prison sentence and a huge fine, but women who engage in sexual relations for money are considered victims of the system of prostitution.

Since 2011, prostitution has been perceived in France as violence against women and equated with crimes such as rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation. Since 2016, buying sex in France is punishable by law. The client, creating a demand for the service, thereby participates in the human traffic for sexual exploitation and violence against women, which runs counter to the gender equality policy in the country. 

The women are brought in from different countries, depending on the expectations of the clients. Most are lured to France by fraudulent means. Girls are forced to engage in sexual relations with clients against their will, through blackmail, threats, and violence. Since it is illegal to buy sexual services, these women are victims and not subject to the punishment sex workers face in the countries where prostitution is prohibited and illegal (for example, in Russia and some countries of Eastern Europe).

How do women become victims of the prostitution system and what do they go through? 

The story of every trafficked woman is unique. However, certain situations can put women at increased risk of falling victims to sex slavery. It is important to understand that women who have been trapped in this system and found themselves in France are mostly migrants who decided to go to Europe to work, not knowing what kind of work awaits them. Forced to migrate to feed their families, many of them leave their children with relatives and hope for a better future abroad. 

Others are young girls who have experienced violence in their own country (molestation at a young age by family members or sexual assault by strangers); some are victims of forced marriage; others are forced into prostitution in their home countries. 

Depending on the country the women are trafficked from, the methods of attracting them are different. Often, women involved in prostitution against their will have an unstable income and a history of sexual abuse. They come from extreme poverty. Many did not have or do not have access to education and information. Most, deciding to leave their country to work, do not know what awaits them on that path.

For example, women from Nigeria mostly go through Libya, where they become victims of physical, mental, and sexual abuse. For several years now, journalists and international human rights organizations have raised the alarm, telling the world community that people in Libya are being sold and bought while trying to get to Europe. Migrants are regularly sold into slavery, tortured, and killed. Women who manage to get through this hell, end up on boats that transport them to Europe. Not everyone survives at sea. Once in Europe, women have to pay back the money they spent traveling there. However, instead of the expected job as a nanny, a worker in a nursing home, or a hairdresser, they are forced to “work” on the street and sell their bodies.

How do women leave prostitution?

There are several well-functioning systems for transporting, selling, and exploiting women in Europe. It is very difficult to get out of those systems, but it is possible. Every girl (the victims can be also minors) and woman involved is controlled by pimps and other participants of the process, who have a huge impact on victims of trafficking. Criminals use various methods to control and intimidate victims: psychological manipulation, blackmail, threats of violence against the women and their loved ones. For example, women from Nigeria are forced to take an oath of obedience before leaving. During this ritual, the hair is cut off from different parts of their bodies, mixed with nail clippings and parts of the skin, and made into a Voodoo doll. If women refuse to obey, they are reminded of the oath and the punishment that awaits them. 

At some point during sexual exploitation, a woman may be faced with a situation that will influence her decision to flee from a pimp, despite the threats and serious consequences of disobedience. Most often, she decides to take such a step when faced with serious health problems, after being brutally attacked by a hot-tempered client or after finding out that one of her family members was murdered by criminals. Sometimes women simply no longer have the physical or mental strength to continue such a life. It is at this point that they have the courage and strength to seek support from organizations that help victims of sex trafficking.

How can organizations help victims?

Several organizations in France support victims of sexual exploitation on their way to a normal life. They employ social workers and educators, psychologists, lawyers, and other professionals. Some women turning to these organizations just want to tell their stories and rehabilitate their bodies and souls. Many need help with legal issues, some simply have nothing to eat and need help to get food and housing. Whatever issue a victim of sex trafficking may bring to these associations, the central problem for them is the experience of prostitution in itself.

Many women don’t know how to cope with the past and deal with the psychological trauma caused by constant violence against their bodies and souls. They want to start a new life but are not sure how to live with the eternal fear that they will be found and forced to go out on the streets again. At the same time, they are facing the fear of not surviving this new “normal life” without traditional work, knowledge of the language, and support.

Organizations working with victims of sex trafficking help them find solutions for these issues. They support women and help them build a new life filled with positive emotions and experiences. 

The path to normal life for victims is long and difficult. Breaking free of sexual slavery, women find themselves face to face with psychological trauma and fears for themselves and their families. By contacting organizations that support victims of sex trafficking in time, they can receive psychological help and talk with social workers, which allows them to speak about their problems and process what happened to them, and gain access to information about their rights. In addition to psychological problems, victims of the sex trade can have serious, wide-ranging health problems that must also not be overlooked. 

At the same time, women are faced with the problem of survival. They must find ways to feed themselves and figure out where to live. There are a few organizations and associations in France that help them with basic needs. Women can get temporary housing by calling Emergency Number 115 for the homeless; various charities help the needy and the homeless with food. All this social support keeps women afloat for a while. However, for the most part, women find themselves without papers, money, and knowledge of the language, in the country the bureaucratic system and cultural codes of which seem to them (at least in the beginning) a complete gibberish. Many of them, after applying for asylum, are rejected by the authorities and risk being deported, which for many (especially the women from Nigeria), can mean a return to sex slavery and violence from pimps demanding backpay.

There are women who, at their peril and risk, go to the police and write a statement against their pimps. While their case is being investigated, women receive a temporary residence permit. If the investigation does not identify the perpetrators and reaches a dead-end (which happens very often), that residence permit is not renewed, so women, again, face deportation.

France has a state program for women affected by sexual exploitation, called “Exit Prostitution”. The program lasts two years, supports women financially, and gives them access to intensive courses in French and the labor market. However, the program is not perfect. Depending on the area, it is not always easy for women to access the program. Once the victims join the program, it can last longer than two years, which in itself becomes a difficult test for women. Many of them want to forget the past, start a new life and look with hope to the future, yet they are forced for years to speak about their trauma and remember it. 

Is it possible to leave prostitution for good? 

Many women escape and never go back. Those who return do it for various reasons, but this is a topic for another article.

In Russia and France, one can often hear that prostitution is the oldest profession, and if women are engaged in it, it must be their personal choice. No “job” in the world causes as much psychological and physical trauma as prostitution. That’s why for me, sexual exploitation cannot be considered a profession, it is constant violence against the body and soul of a woman. No women dream of becoming sex slaves to men that make money by selling their bodies. For the vast majority of women immigrants in France, prostitution is not a free choice. 

I believe our society needs to rethink its views on prostitution. As long as we consider such phrases as “prostitution is a profession”, “because of prostitutes we have fewer rapes”, “it is their choice, they like it” normal, there will be no real equality between men and women. Equality means the female body is respected and not sold for profit against a woman’s wishes. Equality means the women are protected from being beaten up, humiliated, and raped. 

Book Reviews

Bad feminism and Ngozi manifesto : review

Credit: Ta-Tev

The subject of freedom of choice for women is immense and always relevant. In my opinion, it is especially important nowadays. To explore the topic of freedom this month, I turned to books written by two female writers who were born on different continents but were connected by a desire to be free and happy. These books invariably provide important ideas for reflection and open the dialogue about the place of women in the modern world and feminism in general. In these works, one can find the explanation for the fight for women’s independence and learn how to raise our daughters happy and free to choose the future they want and deserve.

Roxane Gay “Bad Feminist”, 2014

Roxanne Gay is an American of Haitian descent. Through her own experience as a woman, writer, and professor, she discusses serious topics that are relevant for any country and any society. The book was published in the United States of America in 2014 and consists of several essays. It begins with a short introduction, in which the writer discusses feminism and its many faces, as well as why she perceives herself to be a bad feminist. 

Roxane Gay’s work consists of a series of articles in which she analyzes books, TV shows, movies, magazine and newspaper articles, social media posts, and contemporary events taking place in the United States. All her essays are united by the question of whether a modern woman has the freedom of choice: what to do with her body, be thin or fat, decide if she wants to become a mother, or not have children at all.

Roxane Gay talks about what it means to be black in the US and how African Americans have been criminalized in the country over the years. The writer discusses slavery and its portrayal in Hollywood films. 

Roxane Gay’s book is a treasure trove for those who want to understand the contemporary culture of the US and learn about the problems of American society and heated political debates often centered on women’s rights. The writer skillfully analyzes films and books, draws parallels between different works of art, which allows the reader to look at them from a new point of view.

Roxane Gay expresses an important idea about overweight people, saying that there is always a reason for their condition. Weight gain is often preceded by serious or tragic events that cause the person shock and pain. This can be the death of a husband or the loss of a child, divorce of parents, the absence of a father in childhood, or sexual abuse. In such situations, often only food can give a person some comfort and create the illusion of control.

“Bad feminist” also discusses sexual violence and how trivial it had become in American society. Roxane Gay gives an example of the reaction of the American media to a gang rape in Cleveland, TX, to show how backward society looks at sexual violence. While discussing this tragedy, the media did not care about the fate of the victim, an eleven-year-old girl who was repeatedly gang-raped but focused instead on the fate of 19 young men and teenagers who, due to the publicity of their crime, would not be able to graduate from school or university. 

Speaking about how early sexual abuse can affect the body and psyche of a child, Roxane Gay opens up to the reader and talks about the gang rape she was a victim of at the age of 12. This event changed her life and influenced the way she saw herself. Roxane gained weight over the years because she thought that if she is “big and strong,” it would protect her from the new assault.

At the end of her book, Roxane Gay calls herself a bad feminist because she as a woman is made of contradictions. The most important thing for her is to be herself. She says it’s better to be a bad feminist than not to be a feminist at all. I am sure that you will get real intellectual pleasure from reading the “Bad Feminist” essays.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions”, 2016

In response to her friend Ijeawele’s question about raising her baby-daughter to be a feminist, Nigerian writer and speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a Feminist Manifesto. It consists of fifteen suggestions. Each of them is dedicated to a specific topic related to women and their place in modern society. In her manifesto, Ngozi talks about the importance of teaching children about gender equality from an early age. She believes we should not impose blue color on boys and pink color on girls, and offer girls the same toys as boys, and not just dolls and vice versa.

The writer pays a lot of attention to how to prepare girls for the future and give them more professional opportunities. Ngozi discusses the important issue of raising girls only for marriage, as is customary in Nigeria. In Nigerian society (and many others), girls are expected to know how to cook and clean the house, be polite, obedient, and gentle. They are expected to sacrifice themselves for the sake of marriage. The fate of the girls comes down to “waiting for the prince” who will ask for their hand. This is considered the height of success for a woman. At the same time, boys are brought up in a completely different way. Professional ambition is rewarded, young men are expected to strive to prove themselves and build a career. For young men, marriage is not the main achievement in life. The result is an imbalance in marriage and society as a whole. Men have a consumerist attitude towards relationships and women in general, while women sacrifice everything to be with a spouse.

Ngozi talks about the importance of words and gestures. When a man cooks, cleans the house, or looks after the children, society says that he helps his wife. It creates a belief that everything related to housework and childcare is assigned to the woman and not the man. The writer insists that women and men should share household work and care for children because they are both parents.

Ngozi invites her friend Ijeawele to encourage her daughter’s love of reading and support her interest in sports. She suggests it is important to teach the girl to ask questions and have her own opinion and show her that the world is diverse and wonderful and that diversity and inclusion are what makes it rich. 

The Manifesto touches upon important issues of raising children free from prejudices and pressure from society. Upon reading it, it becomes clear that all the suggestions are suitable for raising both girls and boys because the author brings up important issues of gender equality and offers solutions to pressing problems of society. Ngozi’s work helps teach kids how to use critical thinking, be able to reflect and be empathic towards others and enter life courageously. With the support of the manifesto, parents can raise their kids as feminists, no matter the gender of the child. 


A walk along the river.

I am home. The familiar outlines of the river, the recognizable smell of Siberian summer, and the noise of the city which didn’t change, the music of which once never stopped to inspire me. I feel like I am walking back into my past, and yet it is slowly changing before my eyes.
Walking down the street, I see the familiar places, buildings, benches, trees, and storefront signs. One side of the river has changed completely. Wild and rebellious in the past, it has turned into a beautiful and clean boardwalk where couples, families with children, and old people walk. The tree towering over the river, which was a witness of my student years, is no longer there. And now everything around here is polished concrete. Maybe the change is for the better. On the other side of the river, it feels like time is frozen. It seems as if the river divided the space into the new and the old city, into the future and the past. Although I know for a fact that on the other side, the construction of new buildings is already actively underway. Soon everything will be concrete there too.
The walk along the river feels like a dream. As if from the river, through her eyes, I look back at the city. Familiar and already changed places are slowly passing by, and some I am discovering for the first time. I look at the sky, where the clouds have remained unchanged, lush and airy.

I seem to be home, but it seems that my home is no longer here.  

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Tyumen, summer 2012


Homeless people in Paris

Credit: Ta-Tev

I first came across hotline #115 for the homeless people (ran by the organization Samusocial de Paris) when I was a volunteer in an association helping Russian-speaking refugees. This number works throughout France and is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In 2016, I was offered a job there, and after much deliberation, I agreed.

I knew that working with the homeless people in Paris by phone would be difficult and exhausting. But the desire to understand the system that helped people on the streets, and the problem of homelessness in this country, which was now my home, won over all doubts. I wanted to plunge into the world of human stories and be useful.

The work began with a week of theoretical and practical training, but despite this, in reality, everything was much more complicated. I quickly learned that while talking to the homeless on the phone, it is very important to listen carefully. This skill determines the understanding of the person’s situation, guides the search for solutions, and helps to accept the emotions on the other end of the line.

Every day I was faced with the whole spectrum of emotions coming from people who expected support from me in return, – from anger to tears and despair. I needed to quickly learn how to respond to insults, crying and threats, most often caused by misery and deep loneliness. No training will teach a specialist how to over and over tell a desperate person or family that there are no places left for them to sleep. But the worst reaction on the other end of the line for me was the absolute lack of emotion from the caller. This most of the time meant that a person resigned themselves to their fate and stopped fighting.

One of the most important principles at Samusocial de Paris is “unconditional welcome”. Anyone homeless or in trouble can seek help by calling the urgent number 115. The principle is good in theory, but in practice, it is almost impossible to provide temporary housing for all homeless people. Starting work at 115, I could not imagine how difficult the situation is with the placement of homeless people in Paris.

Why are there so many homeless people in the French capital and why are there so few places for them to sleep? Why does Samusocial de Paris fail to accommodate homeless men, women, and families?

To understand the essence of the problem, it is necessary to trace the history of the development of the organization. 

The Samusocial de Paris and the urgent number 115 for homeless were created in 1993 by Dr. Xavier Emmanueli. The bulk of the homeless population at that time consisted of men – old tramps and marginalized people who found themselves on the streets for various reasons but had one thing in common. They lost the connection with society and were leading lives on the verge of survival. The Samusocial de Paris created mobile teams that went out into the streets and offered help to those who were “no longer asking for anything”. Special accommodation centers were created for the homeless men, and there were enough places for everyone in those early years.

Since 2006, the number of homeless women calling the hotline 115 began to rise. In 2016 – 2018, Samusocial de Paris could still find accommodation for 50-60 men per day of receiving calls. During the same period, out of 50 women who called, only 3-4 could hope for temporary housing. The system, built for a particular type of homeless person, no longer could cope with the influx of women and families on the streets. The centers created for men could not accommodate the diversifying crowd.

The profile of the homeless who called the 115 hotline continued to change dramatically. At the end of 2015, the so-called “migration crisis” began and in France, as well as throughout Europe, the number of migrant families increased. Each country resolved the issue of housing for newly arrived families in different ways. In France, the entire responsibility for the accommodation of families who have not yet started the asylum procedure or have already received a refusal of asylum fell on the shoulders of the Samusocial de Paris.

The organization struggled to cope with so many homeless people, including families who came from Syria, African countries, the former republics of the USSR and Russia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Albania, and many other nations. As a result, in the summer and autumn, newly arrived families with children of all ages lived on the street, waiting for their turn to get a place in the hotel. This wait could last longer than a month. At the beginning of the winter, magically, the number of places usually increases, additional centers and gyms are open to accommodate more people. And yet, even in the winter months, there are not enough places for everyone.

The system of urgent housing has become so maladaptive in the last ten years to the changing profiles of Parisian homeless people that it was scary to realize that all the callers were in one big boat slowly sinking to the bottom.  

For me, the biggest shock during my work for the hotline was the very system of providing accommodation to people, especially for the homeless without children. When a person calls for the first time, a social operator conducts a long and detailed interview with them. Based on the information received, the employee turns to the coordinator with a request to provide a place for the caller. Oftentimes, there is only one place left, and several operators have people on hold, waiting for an answer. In that case, before providing an overnight stay for one of the homeless, the coordinators check all the information about their age, health problems, and how many nights they slept on the street already; if they have friends, with whom they can spend the night, any financial resources, and so on. Samusocial de Paris found itself in a dilemma, when from the crowd of fragile and sick callers they were forced to choose the most fragile and sick, refusing everyone else. As a result, some homeless people try to get through to 115 all day, and when they finally reach the operator, they receive a negative answer.

The situation is no better with the provision of places for families who call 115 daily. Several years ago, Samusocial de Paris, as a rule, chose a hotel for their wards and could easily change it if the family did not like something. In recent years, hotel owners have realized that they can choose to work for Samusocial de Paris or not, and have begun to dictate their terms, which has made it difficult to find new hotels for the homeless. Families who are finally accommodated in hotels stay in this temporary accommodation for a long time. More often than not, people do not have a residence permit to start working and rent normal housing. As a result, there are even fewer places for the new homeless families. 

The whole system of accommodating homeless families in hotels is scandalous and absurd. Samusocial de Paris pays a lot of money for rooms, and most often these hotels are located in the distant suburbs of the Ile-de-France area, where the commute is difficult and the public transportation tickets are expensive. There are very few charity organizations in the area that usually come to the aid of homeless families. The conditions in the hotels themselves are not ideal either. In many hotels there are no kitchens to cook at, hotel owners and neighbors are not always friendly to the homeless. People live in unsanitary conditions and despair. At the same time, the cost of paying for a week in a hotel for one family is equivalent to paying for a two-three-room apartment per month in the suburbs of Paris!  

The vast majority of the homeless in the Ile-de-France region are migrants who have never lived on the streets in their homeland. Once in France, they are faced with a very complex bureaucratic machine and the brutal reality of the stone jungle. Samusocial de Paris annually issues reports and runs advertising campaigns, writes about the difficulties of their work and the lack of places to receive the homeless, and requests additional funding from the state. The new French government, which came to power in 2017, has promised that in the coming years there will be no homeless people on the streets of Paris. Many social organizations write reports and carry out actions in an attempt to draw the attention of the public and government to the problem of homelessness, while the number of deaths on the street continues to increase.

I worked on the Samusocial de Paris urgent line for the homeless for two years. The most difficult thing for me was to explain to the callers how our organization and the housing distribution system worked when I myself considered them absurd and in which I no longer believed. During this time, I realized that working with people who have lived on the streets for most of their lives requires patience, lack of judgment, and the belief that there should always be light at the end of the tunnel.

In two years on the hotline, I learned that people living on the street die more often in summer than in winter. During the winter, as a rule, their bodies wear out, and in summer they cannot withstand the extreme heat. I realized that no matter how many accommodation centers, hostels, and hotels open, the number of homeless men, women, and children will continue to increase, because the current system of consumption and capitalism in which we live, as well as migration policy, are conducive to the development of poverty and social injustice.

Over the past two years, I have heard thousands of human stories on the phone. I heard tears and pleas for help, threats to commit suicide, and promises to blow up Samusocial de Paris. But there were also calls full of joy and gratitude when a temporary accommodation was finally found for a person. Long telephone conversations with people without a home left a deep imprint on my memory and forever changed my vision of Paris.

I wrote down some quotes so as not to forget and especially not to get used to the fact that people live on the street. Because when we get used to it and begin not to notice the homeless on the streets of our cities, we can get used to other realities of life, which are unacceptable and embarrassing for our society.

Homeless of Paris:

“She slept next to me at the station. Her death came suddenly and violently, on the pavement. I don’t think I can make it through this winter”.

“I came here and I feel that I will die here. I should have stayed at home”.

“I can’t hold on any longer … I sleep three to four hours a day. I feel like an animal. I have no special requirements, I just want to keep my dignity and find a safe place. I’ve never lied to anyone before”.  

“I am so tired, I walk a lot and do not sleep well. I can’t fight anymore, and I want to throw myself off the bridge”.

“I lost everything in two years, my family and my home”.

“For the last three winters I have resisted because I am young. But there are people who will die this winter”.

“I can’t sleep anymore, I’m so cold”.