[Postcard] | The Bubble Bursts, by Alice Whitwham | Harper's Magazine

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Having made it to paradise, refugees are stuck sleeping on Paris streets

Photograph by the author

On a cold night in the Porte de la Chapelle district of Paris, I walked toward the Humanitarian Center of Initial Welcome, an inflatable dome with yellow and white stripes that reminded me of a circus tent. It was 10 pm, and freezing. Municipal workers stood at a checkpoint decorated with a single band of Christmas lights. I didn’t see anyone enter, but a steady flow of people walked away from the structure and onto the highway, which was noisy with traffic and rain. I asked one man where he was going. “To sleep,” he said, tucking his chin in his scarf, “in the street, or under the bridge.” He carried a rolled-up blanket under one arm and a banana in his other hand.

Outside the barbed-wire entrance to the center, or “the bubble” as it was nicknamed by volunteers, a hub of refugees stood waiting, rubbing their palms together, breath like fog. Two white police vans were parked nearby, one officer with his feet up on the dashboard. Peeling off, the refugees arranged their sleeping bags and toiletries, barely earning a glance from people huddled at a nearby bus stop.

Near the edge of the crowd, a tall, striking man, wearing two woolen hats, a red sheepskin jacket, and mittens, cocked his head at me quizzically. Suldan, twenty-two, was from Somalia, and this was his fifth night in Paris. So far, he had slept in train stations, under bridges, and on the street. “I am strong, you know?” he said with a laugh. Back home, he told me, he’d been shot twice, once in the neck and once in the knee, by the Islamic fundamentalist group Al-Shabaab. Not long after that, he was arrested for managing a music studio and cinema and locked in a cell for a month, eventually escaping past a sleeping guard. Before arriving in France, he’d lived in Germany for eighteen months and Austria for six, his requests for asylum in both countries denied. “That is why I’ve come here,” he said, holding his arms out to the sides, palms open, nodding at the bubble. “I want to live free, you know?”

In 2016, I had volunteered at the Calais jungle, a makeshift camp on the coast in which some 8,000 refugees from the Sudan, Syria, Eritrea, and Afghanistan lived in deplorable conditions. It was dismantled by the police in October 2016, forcing many refugees to make their way to other cities, several thousand to Paris. And I was curious what had happened to them. That same fall, another ad hoc, open-air camp sprang up around the arches of Paris’s Stalingrad Métro, swelling to 4,000 people. Just as they had done in Calais, riot police arrived in the early dawn, carrying shields, teargas, and batons to clear the area.

Built on an old railway site in the eighteenth arrondissement, the humanitarian center was an emergency response to the proliferation of such encampments. Launched by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo and two NGOs, Utopia 56 and Emmaüs Solidarité, in November 2016, the bubble was designed to provide immediate shelter and help refugees begin the asylum process. Those who make it inside are given food and a warm bed and submit to an administrative evaluation. If eligible for asylum, they are relocated to one of 450 welcome centers across France, where they wait for their applications to be processed.

In the year since it opened, however, the bubble seems to have aggravated problems it was designed to alleviate. According to Utopia 56, there are between two and four thousand refugees sleeping on the streets in the Porte de la Chapelle area alone, a number hard to pinpoint because they live in hiding from increasingly hostile police. The only other center like it is the Porte d’Ivry in the south of Paris, dedicated to women and children. Last year, France saw around 100,000 asylum claims—three quarters were rejected.

On New Year’s Day, I met Chrystel Laurent, a volunteer at Utopia 56, outside a cream-colored decommissioned parking garage where the NGO has its office, and she explained to me that the group has since split ways with the humanitarian center. She said the center’s limited capacity—it has just 450 beds—and disorganized operating protocol exacerbated tension between refugees and police. “People were sleeping in the road to try to get a place in the building at 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning,” Laurent said. “It was a mess.”

Laurent had set up vats of coffee on a picnic table next to an empty soccer field. About a hundred refugees stood in groups, eating biscuits and baguettes. Laurent explained that one of Utopia’s major concerns with the bubble was its policy of mandatory fingerprinting, which put refugees at risk of deportation if they had already registered fingerprints elsewhere in Europe, as the Dublin Regulation requires that refugees seek asylum in the first European country they enter.

Since leaving the welcome center, Utopia 56 has concentrated its efforts on the streets, distributing food, clothes, and sleeping bags, and partnering with local families who agree to host refugees, on a sofa or in a spare room, for free. But the NGO’s network, so far just one hundred families, can accommodate only a fraction of the refugees scattered across Paris.

Standing in front of the parking lot, I could see the yellow tip of the bubble above a highway overpass, under which police had piled boulders to block refugees from setting up camp. I was about to leave when I bumped into the man I’d seen outside the bubble a week before, the one carrying a blanket and a banana. Sipping coffee with three other men, he shook my hand.

Introducing me to his friends, he pointed in different directions. “This guy lives here, and I live here. That bridge and that bridge.” One of the men, wearing a hat with the word “sport” stitched to the front, was especially aggrieved. Only hours ago, he told me, the police had taken everything he owned. “I have a blanket. Gone. I have a tent. Gone. I have a sleeping bag. Gone. Everything. My gloves, my pack, my clothes.”

Nonetheless, Noor, twenty-six, was friendly and talkative. He’d left his home in Darfur two years ago, he told me, after the government burned down his village. “My family and I fled. We moved to the mountains. Then I moved. I just keep moving.” To get to Europe, Noor spent three days traveling from Libya to Italy by boat, wearing just underwear and shorts so smugglers could cram 135 people onto the deck. “You can’t sleep,” he said. “It’s nothing except water and fish and sky.” Before crossing, he’d been locked up by smugglers for four months, somewhere near Tripoli. “We were kept in a hidden place,” he said. “They transferred us to different places, and gave us different names.” Noor recalled threats, being forced to shake hands with a skeleton, and the smugglers’ final instructions: “Go. Get in the boat. Get to paradise.”

Noor had been in Paris for eight days, sleeping on the streets, eating donated food, waiting, like hundreds of others, for a bed and some sense of his future. The center in Porte de la Chapelle is set to close at the end of this month, and it’s unclear if anything will replace it. “Usually they move our tents, but this morning they hosed them with cold water, so we can’t use them,” Noor said. “They see us and they tell us: ‘Go. It’s time to go.’”

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