Reza Jafari was only 13 years old when he arrived in France as an unaccompanied minor. Over a decade later, the young Afghan has become a fervent defender of undocumented migrants living on the streets of Paris. He has set his sights on politics and is running as a candidate for The Greens in the upcoming French regional elections .
Every time Jafari meets with young Afghans living on the streets of Paris, he feels like someone is holding up a mirror to his face, showing him his own traumatic past. Born in Afghanistan, he arrived in France in 2009, after spending most of his childhood living in exile in Iran.
Today, the 25-year-old is a naturalized French citizen and the president of the migrant children’s rights group "Enfants d'Afghanistan et d'ailleurs." Jafari, who is also the proud father of a two-year-old girl, is convinced that the way he was received by France as an unaccompanied minor back in 2009 has helped him become the man he is today. "When I arrived, I received great support and was held by the hand all the way," he says.
For Jafari it is therefore unbearable to see how his Afghan compatriots are now living rough on the streets of the French capital. He has made it his life mission to try to improve their living conditions. For the past few months, Jafari has been involved in a series of activist and humanitarian efforts: From the migrant tent occupation of the central Place de la République, to food distributions and the provision of legal advice.
After taking on the role as the main spokesperson for Afghan asylum seekers, he started to regularly run into members of France’s Green party (EELV) while out in the field. In February, after some 200 migrants, including women and children, occupied an abandoned school building in the capital’s upscale 16th arrondissement, Jafari was invited to meet with Julien Bayou, the party’s national secretary and main candidate for île-de-France in the regional elections in June.
"We talked about his group's efforts, French foreign policy and the situation in Afghanistan. Reza was at a point in his activist career where he could see that public policies could work as an outlet for his activism," Léa Balage, Bayou’s campaign director, who participated in the February meeting, explains. "That's when we thought it would be a good idea for him to join [our election list] as a candidate."
'France has become my home'
Jafari underscores the importance of a former Afghan refugee becoming involved in French politics. "If you want things to change, you have to get involved. You can’t be afraid. Today, France has become my home. I need to defend its values, and by tradition, France is a welcoming country," he says.
"We’re very proud to have a former refugee among us, it’s part of the DNA of The Greens," Balage says, and points to the party’s efforts to improve France’s reception of asylum seekers, including the building of a humanitarian camp in the northern town of Grande-Synthé in 2016. The camp burned down in 2017, however.
Jafari makes no secret of the fact that his environmental convictions are recent, but points to the link between climate change and humanitarian crises. "As climate change drives people out of their homes there will be even more refugees," he says.
But for the moment, his primary focus is on improving France’s reception of asylum seekers.
'What do you expect from us?'
"When I met Julien Bayou, he asked me: 'If we win the regional elections in île-de-France, what do you expect from us?' The first thing I asked for was a reception center" for immediate arrivals. "This is the most important, because we want to put an end to the make-shift camps in the streets," he says, noting that "getting a good reception quickly is key to successful integration."
"We also talked about the training of educators and social workers," Jafari says, adding that refugees are often given erroneous advice by social workers who lack the appropriate competence to guide them in their administrative processes.
Jafari, who vividly remembers his teen years as an unaccompanied minor, also wants to help to prevent migrant delinquency by ensuring that young migrants waiting for their statuses as minors to be ruled on receive the appropriate support to survive during this waiting period. Today, youths waiting for their statuses as minors to be ruled on, are left to fend for themselves on the streets, without access to childcare or other social services.
"These youths are often picked up by organized gangs who know that they have no family here and who try to take advantage of them to the max. We are seeing more and more traffickers circling Le Demie [evaluation center for unaccompanied migrant youths. Eds note] to try to pick these youths up," Jafari says.
The Greens are also proposing the creation of a "regional citizen card," modeled on New York’s municipal ID cards, which gives holders the right to public services regardless of whether their statuses have been recognised or not.
'Not looking to become a regional councillor at all costs'
Whether Jafari is elected regional councillor in the June elections or not, he says the Greens have promised to keep working on his migrant projects. "That’s what interested me the most. I’m not looking to become a regional councillor at all costs," he says, noting that since his name appears only in the middle of the Greens' candidate election list, he could lose out if the Greens decide to merge its list with other left-wing parties to form a coalition in the second round of the elections.
According to a recent poll conducted by Ipsos Sopra/Steria for Radio France and France Télévisions, conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse is forecast to win the first round of the elections with 32% of the votes, compared with Bayou’s 13%, and is predicted to win the second round regardless of any left-wing alliances that may, or may not, form.
But despite the outcome of the upcoming elections, Jafari already has new projects in mind. "I’m currently setting up an NGO where the climate is a central part of the action plan. In 50 years from now, the world will be in a really bad place if we don't do anything. It’s just as important as humanitarian efforts."