Categories
Society

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 https://domasile.info/en/

Categories
Society

Velvet LeNore: pandemic has been challenging for drag queens, but we persevered 

The pandemic has been brutal for everyone, but performers who make their living doing live shows have suffered immensely. Draftsy talked to Miss Velvet LeNore, a newly crowned Miss Florida Female Impersonation At Large, about the community coming together to support the artists during the lockdowns.

A gorgeous drag queen with 27 years of experience, Miss LeNore is well known and respected in South Florida for building recognition for the LGBTQ community and supporting other artists.

Draftsy: Miss LeNore, how did the pandemic affect your art? Was it a negative influence, did it affect your ability to be in shows and support yourself with your act?

LeNore: Fortunately, I am one of the ladies who are not afraid to save the money, so I personally was ok, but the pandemic had hurt many people in the drag community. Many performers were scared and did not think they could survive it. Thank God for our community and the fact that we were able to do shows online from our homes. We had so much support during the lockdown. 

D: Online shows? That must have been a significant change. 

L: Yes, we found a friend who was computer savvy and helped us get online and link all the performers from their houses. We got all the ladies together and started doing shows. People were very supportive and paid us through instant money transfer apps. 

D: Being in the lockdown, how did it challenge or change your art and creativity?

L: Because of the pandemic, I took a step back and thought about the fact that every artist, no matter what art they are creating, must grow and help others. I decided to take people under my wing who wanted to become performers but didn’t know where to start. Many guys want to try a career in entertainment, but there is no platform for them. So, I made my own platform and called it “The Boylesque Show.” It allows new performers to do drag, and it is going really well; the show is blowing up in South Florida!

D: What was the most important feeling in those months during the beginning of the pandemic? What kept you going?

L: What kept me going was knowing that I would be able to see my family and my kids again one day. Not being able to see everyone for a while has made me realize that we need to love each other more, tell them how we feel every day, and spend more time with family. We must make memories with people. 

I lost someone to Covid-19 recently, a friend of mine who used to do drag to raise money for kids. We did a benefit in his name, and thousands of people came out. That broke my heart – he was so healthy and strong. For him to be taken from us like that has opened my eyes to the fact that we have to be there for each other in life. You just don’t know what’s going to happen and what tomorrow holds. 

D: Do you think the art was more important than usual in the past year and a half? 

L: Oh yes, absolutely. When the bars opened back up, I felt like the community embraced us a lot more. Things are actually even better now than before the pandemic. I am working more than I have ever worked. I think the public appreciates us more because they see what we had to go through. They are giving us the love back. 

People were in their houses for so long, only able to watch television. They could not wait to go out and see live entertainment once the restrictions were lifted. Every show has been sold out. People want to get out and experience life again. Drag shows are a way for locals to have dinner with family and friends, laugh, celebrate and have a good time. The club where I work has been packed every night.  

D: In your opinion, is there an imbalance of people leaning on art in hard times, and at the same time, artists going through difficulties because society is not giving them the means to support themselves?

L: I personally think that the community has done everything to support us through this time. A lot of people were giving the performers gift cards for Publix (local grocery store – ed.). They found ways to help us raise money, kept reaching out every week to see if we needed anything at all.  Local restaurants were cooking dinners and giving them out for free to artists that could not afford to buy food. 

I feel that the community really did give back to us. They supported us more than ever before. It just shows that people care, and they understand that we had no way to make money. A lot of girls live from show to show, so it was difficult for them. Not everyone was able to save for a rainy day. We were sharing everything and helping each other out. At times like these, we must stick together. 

Categories
Society

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. 

Categories
Society

How ordinary Russians help the homeless and the poor

Credit: Ta-Tev

Private charity focused on helping the homeless and the poor have always existed in Russia. Before the revolution, it was customary and honorable for wealthy citizens to help the homeless, build almshouses and hospitals. During the Soviet era, the state took upon itself all the obligations to help those in need, and yet I remember how adults in my family would always tell me, then a little girl: “the hand of the giver shall never be empty,” when we saw beggars at churches or in metro stations. We were not a religious family, so I think that was more about the Russian spirit of giving to those who are in need, without asking for justification.

My mom and grandmother explained to me from a very early age that we all should always help others when presented with an opportunity. Regardless of what kind of story a person has. The sheer number of small private charitable groups in Russia, which are found in almost every city, suggests that many Russians hold the same position.

I found out about Yulia Khakimova from my friends in Kazan, where she lives as well. Growing up, I have spent every summer there. Yulia has been helping the homeless and poor in the capital of Tatarstan for over ten years. Nowadays, she has a page on Instagram that shares the news of people in need and helps find funding for various projects. Yulia goes above and beyond in helping others and is often the last resort before a family loses their rental flat for unpaid bills or a retired grandma runs out of groceries and medicine.

The story of one of the people she had helped has gone viral in Russia. An elderly Soviet officer Vladimir Alekseevich ended up in a Kazan shelter for the homeless with a severe disability and without documents. After desperately trying to help him, Yulia invited the old man to live in her own house and was able to raise funds for an expensive surgery, which restored the veteran’s eyesight and hope for life.

Yulia agreed to give Draftsy an exclusive interview about her work.

D: Yulia, how did you start helping people?

Y: We have been helping those in need for the past 12 years. I wanted to help kids, so I started going to orphanages, eventually, friends and like-minded people have joined me. At the very beginning, our work consisted mainly of trips to nursing homes, boarding schools, and shelters. We brought the essentials and basic medicine to lonely veterans and helped low-income families with home repairs and groceries.

In 2014, the war began in Donbas (Russia-Ukraine conflict – Ed.). I remember we were sitting in a cafe, having lunch. The news was playing on TV, with reporters saying there was a shooting in Ukraine, bombs have exploded. Residents could not leave the country, because the banks were closed, and it was impossible to withdraw money for a ticket.

The server brought me a check for lunch. I looked at it and realized that for the same two thousand rubles that I have spent right there, someone could buy a train ticket from Donbas to Kazan. I was dumbfounded that while we eat at the restaurants and have our lives generally go on without a change, people in Ukraine live under bullets and have no way out from the country. From that day on, my family and friends began to save money and help Ukrainians in whatever way they could.

My children even opened their piggy banks, gave me the money that they were saving for the summer holidays, and asked me to transfer it all to Donbas.

We then sent all the funds we had to civilians that we found through online chats. How we transferred money to them is a whole different story. We sent funds through other cities and middlemen, who all took a fee for their services.

At first, all those who came from Donbas stayed in my house and with our friends. Then, when we had too many people and not enough houses, I had to look for other accommodations. We have organized a free cafe and a clothing distribution point. I will never forget the women who were coming to us, saying that their families had finished their last groceries and they have no money or means to get more. It was a terrible time; I have never seen so many hungry people in my life.

Of those who then came to Kazan from Ukraine, most remained in our city. They found work and received citizenship.

Afterward, not only refugees from Donbas but also local people in need began to come to our help center. We began to realize (with much surprise) that town officials often sent people to us, saying, “go to this organization, they will help you”. At the same time, we did not receive any state support or funds for our social work. We helped people with our own money, and when the funds ran out, we sold our cars. At that time, we only accepted food and clothing from those who wanted to help. We did not ask for donations or money in general.

At some point, we had too many people coming in for help, and we could no longer keep up. We had to close our Help Center and go back to normal life. However, it was impossible for my team and I to return to our main jobs (Yulia owns a small business producing cemetery monuments – Ed.) and leave charity behind. People still found us and asked for help, and there was always someone who had no one but us to rescue them. Since then, we have all been combining our main occupations with charity work.

D: What problems do you face most often?

Y: The main problem, in my opinion, is the attitude of society towards helping those in need. When we find a person or family who desperately needs help, we share their story and call for action, beg people for support. They give it to us, feel like they accomplished something good, and move on. Unfortunately, this emotional response and the desire of people to help both disappear very quickly and everyone except us forgets about the person in need. But a lot of people require financial help and assistance for weeks and months. Some veterans that can barely survive on their pension remain with us for many years.

We cannot leave someone until their life is back to normal and they can go on without help.

Our workload is growing, we have more and more people that need our assistance. We are always looking for new opportunities to find support from others.

D: Do the local authorities help you, is there enough social support in general?

Y: In my opinion, Tatarstan has a good system of social assistance. These are shelters for the homeless, soup kitchens, and centers that provide groceries for low-income citizens. People on the streets can get food and a roof over their heads.

The needy themselves are different as well. Some people end up homeless but do not want to change anything in their lives. They go to the soup kitchens, beg and continue to live on the streets.

Some have a normal pension, a good apartment, and grown-up children that help them. But they still go to support centers, come up with tales about their misfortunes and take whatever they can, in any way possible. I will never know why they do it.

Some people in difficult situations receive help and quickly get back on their feet. After a month or two, they themselves come to us with an offer of support, they want to help someone else get out of the same tough spot.

There are people who really are in dire need, but they are very ashamed of their poverty. They are afraid that someone will find out that sometimes they don’t even have food in the house. They will not ask for help, they will not go out into the streets to beg, and they will endure the unendurable. We help this particular category of people the most.

They trust us because they know that we will not share their stories on social media, we will not show their faces and not try to pry into their private lives. We will simply give them a bag full of groceries and ask how else we can help. Sometimes it is enough. Other times people open up and share their struggles and pain. We try to do what we can to make their lives better.

To sum up, we try to help most people on our own and contact government agencies only in extreme cases. We always receive support from the authorities and solve the problems together, when necessary.

D: Why do you think we are returning to private charity to help the homeless and the poor?

Y: There have been poor people in Russia at all times, no matter the government and the regime; as well as private benefactors striving to help them. In previous years, the homeless and the needy may not have been so visible, because there were fewer places where they could get help. Now there are many more support centers, soup kitchens, and people willing to help. Naturally, underprivileged citizens who take advantage of these services have become much more visible. Social media also helps to draw attention to this issue. With Instagram, it is easier to spread the word about people who urgently need help. It also helps us inform our followers about what has already been done. Positive examples of other people doing charity work are contagious, others see it and want to join in. It is the spiritual responsiveness of people that sometimes moves me to tears.

D: Yulia, what should happen to make your work with the homeless and needy a little easier?

Y: Our work can become easier if people start to notice those who need help and not pass them by. I wish we would not need an Instagram post to bring our attention to an underprivileged family or an older neighbor that could use some help. We have had dozens of cases when someone brought food for those in need, and we ended up taking the donations to the veterans living in the same building with these benefactors.

Yulia continues to help the homeless and poor of Kazan and refuses to give up in the face of any obstacles. Vladimir Alekseevich, once a homeless disabled officer and veteran, still lives with Yulia and her family. He teaches her children what he knows about wild herbs and surviving in the forest. Vladimir Alekseevuch had become a real grandfather to them.

Yulia says that help with new cases mostly comes from friends and acquaintances. Social media (Yulia is active on Instagram) helps to attract people who want to help volunteers with food, building materials, or money.

If you want to help those in need in Kazan, you can transfer funds to PayPal: radif–gazizullin@mail.ru or send funds to a Sberbank card via the number +79872963373 (inside Russia only).

Categories
Society

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”.

Categories
Society

What is home for a traveler and an immigrant?

It is interesting trying to consider what home means to me at this point. I have lived in two different countries and for the past ten years have moved around the US and only recently settled down and bought a place to call my own.

I often ponder this when people ask me about my origins and story. I come from a proud Ukrainian man that didn’t think to teach me his language and an even more proud Russian woman. When she saw my blended smoothie of DNA test results that had put my roots all over Eastern Europe and some Western parts of the continent, she said quietly, “well, that’s all from your dad’s side, my people kept to themselves”.

I have moments when I feel myself to be a proud American, seeing all the good things that this land has going for itself, being grateful for how my life turned out. (Oh, the Americans want the new arrivals to be grateful here, for sure. But that might be a topic for another time)

Other times I feel distinctly different and separate from the rest, sometimes proudly and sometimes desperately.

I don’t mind being the other, being different. My own name has separated me from the crowd early on and I have grown to like the sensation. It is unusual here in the US, but even in Russia it was rare. One of those old names that no one remembers anymore.

I have always wanted to escape the everyday routine. My little town in Siberia, the life I knew, the company I kept. My father taught me early on that I was destined for bigger things. (He was most definitely wrong, and this is the shit I have to pay my therapist for discussing). But right or wrong, I have always wanted more. I still do, I suppose.

So, when the world is your oyster and you can travel and live everywhere and anywhere, what is home?

Is it the place where we grow up? Is it space where we find ourselves, no matter the age when it happens?

Is it more about the geographics or the people that fill up that space and make it ours, make it special?

I want to believe I have made a home for myself and others in many places I have inhabited over the years.

I want my home to be where my mother is, but I am not sure that fits the bill anymore either.

Is my home in a tiny cabin where my family lived since the 1920s and where I spent every summer growing up, learning how to do chores, making friends, and growing into the person I am today?

Or is my home an apartment on the second floor of a standard soviet design apartment building in a small Siberian town, where I spent the nights reading when I was a kid?

That apartment was where we went for a drink of water on summer days, after playing outside for hours. Its kitchen with the courtyard view is where my mom watched me get my tongue stuck to the freezing cold metal pipe a second time because apparently, the first time was winter before, I could not believe it happened, and I had to try it again. Like a scientist, I had to repeat the experiment to see if the end result would be the same. It was. It took a lot of warm water to get my tongue unstuck.

That little town in the middle of the forest was beautiful in its own right, but always felt like a cocoon to me, a chrysalis that I was ready to burst out of. I dreamt of the ocean and strange, beautiful lands. If someone told 12-year-old me that one day I will be living in sunny Florida, ten minutes away from the sea, that little girl would probably not believe it’s possible, but also secretly think “this is exactly where I need to be!”.

I took a job in aviation for a few years, motivated by the same search for the unknown. Hotel rooms were where I found myself on most nights for almost four years. I was happy to wander the streets of different cities and often traveled alone when I could not find anyone to go with. All that traveling made the world seem a bit smaller and more accessible, but also full of unexpected wonders. After every trip, I came back to my tiny apartment in Florida and could not wait to repack my bags for the next adventure. I have rarely stayed home for more than two weeks at a time.

Meeting someone I fell in love with has changed things. Coming back home now meant coming back to him. Maybe having someone who is waiting for you to return is what home really is.

Then the pandemic happened, and “home” was the only place everyone could really be in. Never have I experienced the reality in which I was so confined to my house. I know we had it better than many other places around the world (my high school classmate had to quarantine with three kids in her 13th-floor apartment in Siberia). But it was still a big change. I do think it made me appreciate my home more and taught me to find joy in being here, instead of planning the next trip.

I think what home means will change again, once I have my own children. Then home will be the safe space where they can grow up. Maybe they will have two homes, like two languages. Here in South Florida and in Russia, where they can go for the summer to come back every fall with crazy stories.

But for now, home is where my loved ones are – my partner and our little dog. It is where our quarantine project garden is growing with the first harvest of mangoes, figs, and passion fruit. It is where I hope to bring my mom one day. Make her a Cuban coffee and take her for a walk around the neighborhood, spend an afternoon at the pool. Home is where I feel happy and at peace.

Agrippina