Credit: Mehdi Chebil

A day in the hellish life of migrants at Porte de la Chapelle, Paris

Julia Dumont
By on 2018/08/22
In the La Chapelle neighborhood in the north of Paris, hundreds of migrants live in deplorable conditions. There are many young men among them, but also minors and families with little children. They live alongside crack addicts who were themselves displaced when police cleared their makeshift encampment earlier this summer. This is the account of a day in a neighborhood marked by despair.
Afghan children, who arrived in Paris a little over three weeks ago, are watching an addict near the Porte de La Chapelle. The children (from left to right): Sana and her twin brother Mortaza, aged 4, and their younger brother Amir, 3 years old. They are accompanied only by their mother and their big sister | Credit: Mehdi Chebil
9 am: Migrants encounter an addict
Afghan children, who arrived in Paris a little over three weeks ago, are watching an addict near the Porte de La Chapelle. The children (from left to right): Sana and her twin brother Mortaza, aged 4, and their younger brother Amir, 3 years old. They are accompanied only by their mother and their big sister | Credit: Mehdi Chebil

There is already a line in front of 56 Boulevard Ney, near the Porte de la Chapelle metro station. Dozens of migrants are waiting for breakfast to be handed out when meal preparations are disrupted by an aggressive young addict.

A few meters away, Nilab, 19, is waiting to be served with her three brothers and sisters. The family fled Afghanistan three years ago. Since they arrived in Paris three weeks ago, Nilab, her siblings and her mother have been bouncing from temporary accommodation to temporary accommodation. They spend their days on the streets.

Mortaza and Sana, four-year-old twins, and three-year-old Amir, seem accustomed to eating their breakfast while standing on a sidewalk. The menacing addict, however, leaves them stunned.

Last week, Nilab had cut her little sister’s hair short so it would stay clean despite the lack of hygiene. "I'm afraid my brothers and sister will get sick on the streets," she says.

For several weeks now, the 700 or so migrants living in deplorable conditions at La Chapelle have been existing alongside the drug addicts whose makeshift shelters, located a few dozen meters from theirs, were dismantled at the end of June. Since then, NGOs have warned of a dangerous mixing of populations, where misery rubs shoulders with misery, and people high on crack wander among young migrant children.

At the end of July, unable to cope with the growing level of violence and the presence of the drug addicts, the group Solidarity Migrants Wilson, which had been in charge of distributing meals, threw in the towel. The city of Paris hired another organization, Aurore, to take over.

9:30 am: A peaceful breakfast

Breakfast distribution is calm. Aurore hands out between 600 and 700 breakfasts every day between 9am and 12pm. Migrants receive the same daily platter, consisting of a hot drink, two rolls, a few squares of chocolate, a box of fruit juice and a compote.

 Mehdi an Afghan migrant in his twenties comes to have a breakfast during the food distribution organized every morning by the Aurore association Credit Mehdi ChebilIt's almost a miracle that the distribution goes smoothly—a few days ago there was nothing but tension at the site. Addicts and migrants have already come to blows. "Sometimes drug users arrive, get upset and knock over all the food on the tables,” Slimane, a volunteer, told InfoMigrants in July. “To avoid problems, we have to serve them first.”

But today the situation is quiet. Barriers separate the migrants from the addicts. Once the migrants get their food they settle on the low railings that surround the yellow patch of garbage-strewn grass in the center of Boulevard Ney. Some are still half asleep, others talk to each other. A young man is lost in a book about South Sudan and Darfur.

10 am: Medical treatment on the street

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has set up a mobile healthcare clinic on the sidewalk across the street. The NGO will be there every Tuesday from 10:30 am to 4 pm through the end of August. Starting in September, consultations will be held on Thursdays.

MSF offers consultations in a mobile clinic every Tuesday near the Porte de la Chapelle Credit Mehdi ChebilMigrants can get basic medical care in the mobile clinic. "The people we see come to get treatment for everything that life on the street can bring," from superficial wounds to headaches and toothaches, a member of the team says.

MSF isn’t the only organization providing medical assistance. The volunteer collective FAST (First Aid Support Team) has set up just next to the water taps installed by the city, and also provides the migrants with basic care.

Elena is a nurse. She explains that the migrants she takes care of tend to suffer from dehydration and malnutrition, but also from problems related to the poor hygienic conditions in which they live. She's sitting on a bench with a young man and explaining how to correctly take the painkiller he’s been given. Beside her, another nurse is listening to a patient’s lungs with a stethoscope.

11 am : The Afghan’s shelters

The distribution of breakfast continues. Volunteers from Solidarity Migrants Wilson hand out hygiene kits and clean clothes. A crowd quickly forms. Migrants suffer from the lack of hygiene inherent in life on the street, especially since the public showers on Boulevard Ney are closed during the summer.

A little further down the boulevard, about a hundred people – mostly Afghans – have built shelters using metal construction barriers. The nationalities don’t mix much here. Afghans stick to each other and keep their distance from the migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, who are usually from Sudan, Chad or Mali.

Since the dismantling of the refugee camps at Porte de la Villette and those near the Canal Saint Martin in the spring, migrants who were not given places - or did not want places – in shelters, regrouped here.

Khan Mohamed Chamran 25 comes from the Daykundi province in Afghanistan Its been two weeks since he arrived in Paris and he occupies one of these makeshift sheds with three other people He regularly tries to call the OFII to ask for asylum but cant get through Credit Mehdi ChebilThe Afghans traded their tents for shacks made out of construction barriers. These makeshift shelters don’t protect them from bad weather - when it's hot they turn into furnaces and when it rains water trickles onto their belongings - but they allow the migrants to create spaces where they can have a little privacy.

This late morning, some of the Afghan migrants are trying to call the OFII (French Office for Immigration and Integration) to get appointments and register their asylum applications. But their efforts are in vain—the OFII tweeted in early August that the phone number the migrants are using is no longer in service.

Hassan Bobacar, a 15-year-old Chadian from the Lake Chad region. His parents were killed by jihadists from Boko Haram. His brother was killed during their trip to Libya. He sleeps near the ring road, between the Porte de la Chapelle and the Porte d'Aubervilliers | Credit: Mehdi Chebil
12 pm: Sleep on a cardboard box
Hassan Bobacar, a 15-year-old Chadian from the Lake Chad region. His parents were killed by jihadists from Boko Haram. His brother was killed during their trip to Libya. He sleeps near the ring road, between the Porte de la Chapelle and the Porte d'Aubervilliers | Credit: Mehdi Chebil

Samadjita and Hassan-Bobacar also need information. The childhood friends, who say they are 16 and 15 years old respectively, left Chad together. They arrived in Paris on August 5 after fleeing the jihadist group Boko Haram, which murdered their parents. As minors, they are entitled to protection but they don’t know how to start the formal process.

For the past ten days they have come to eat the breakfast that Aurore hands out. They spend their nights in Aubervilliers, near the ring road circling Paris' inner city. "We're cold because we only have a small box to sleep on," says Samadjita.

Two Chadian minors Samajita 16 and Hassan-Bobacar 15 show where they sleep while waiting for asylum The two childhood friends left the Lake Chad region together to escape the deadly exactions of the jihadist group Boko Haram Credit Mehdi ChebilThe two young boys say they have never had a problem with drug addicts at Porte de la Chapelle, but they have had issues with the police: "They prevent us from sleeping the whole night." Between the police and the cold, the boys only get an hour or two of sleep a night.

Since the dismantling of several refugee camps in May, police have been ordered to prevent any new ones from popping up in Paris. Migrants who gather to get a few hours of sleep at the Porte de la Chapelle and the Porte d’Aubervilliers are systematically woken and dispersed. Only the little Afghan camp made from construction barriers has been allowed, at least for the moment, to stay.

Portrait of Samadjita a 16-year-old Chadian migrant who has been in Paris for about a week The teenager from the region of Lake Chad where the jihadists of Boko Haram sow terror sleeps in this public park near the ring road between Porte de la Chapelle and Porte dAubervilliers Credit Mehdi Chebil1 pm: Calm restored

The breakfast distribution is finished, Boulevard Ney has emptied and the rats have stormed the lawn in the central median. The two Chadian teenagers go to the MSF mobile clinic because Hassan-Bobacar has a bad toothache.

A member of the NGO is going to take the boys to DEMIE, a Red Cross facility that gives assistance to migrants who are underage.

A migrant waits in a park in Aubervilliers for Utopia 56 to find emergency shelter for her family | Credit: Mehdi Chebil
6 pm: Giving shelter to families
A migrant waits in a park in Aubervilliers for Utopia 56 to find emergency shelter for her family | Credit: Mehdi Chebil

Every evening, the same ritual takes place at Porte d'Aubervilliers. Starting at 6 pm, dozens of people flock to the Anaïs-Nin Garden, where volunteers from Utopia 56, an organization that works with migrants, try to find housing for as many unaccompanied minors, single women and families who couldn’t find places in a shelter as possible. The group operates a network of ordinary citizens who agree to open their homes to migrants for a night or two.

"We find shelter for about 70 people every night, but we can’t always accommodate couples,” says Alix Geoffroi, project coordinator for Utopia 56.

Among the families waiting to be given lodging are Kiraz, her husband and her six children, who are between the ages of 3 and 17. The family left Syria in 2015, after their neighborhood in Idlib was bombed. Little Youssef, six years old, still bears the marks of the attack. He was badly burned on his wrist and stomach. The family has already been in Paris for eight months and is desperate to get asylum and housing. They spend their days on the streets.

Close-up of a burn mark on the wrist of six-year-old Youssef Hamza The young Syrian migrant and the rest of his family are still homeless eight months after their arrival in France Credit Mehdi ChebilThey eat in the evening thanks to the dinner provided by an organization called Restaurants of the Heart. Meals are distributed in the Anaïs-Nin Garden at 8 pm every evening from Tuesday to Friday.

Tonight, the line is already long. "The atmosphere is always tense on Tuesday," a volunteer from Restaurants of the Heart says. "We are not here on weekends or Mondays, so people are hungry when we come back."

Kiraz is surrounded by her twin daughters Fatima and Amina 3 and a half years old Credit Mehdi ChebilKhadija, 13, Kiraz’s eldest daughter, has been tasked with keeping watch so she can tell her parents when the meals start being handed out. After dinner, around 10 pm, the family will be accompanied by someone from Utopia 56 to their accommodation for the night. Kiraz is tired of sleeping in a new place every day. "Sometimes we don’t even sleep in a room; last night we were in an office," she says.

While members of the Utopia 56 team are making sure that everyone will have somewhere to stay for the night, other volunteers have lit a few candles on a cake to celebrate a birthday. The children all come running. Everyone sings, and slices of cake are handed out along with little packages of candy. For a few brief minutes, the young migrants at the Porte d'Aubervilliers are children again.

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Credits
Text : Julia Dumont
Photos : Mehdi Chebil
Editing : Charlotte Boitiaux
Translation : Monique El-Faizy