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‘Khartoum-upon-Seine’: Sudanese refugees take shelter in wealthy Paris suburb

© Charlotte Boitiaux, France 24 | The Jaurès emergency shelter in the wealthy Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt is home to 123 Sudanese and Eritrean refugees

Text by Charlotte BOITIAUX

Latest update : 2015-10-16

Since September, 123 Sudanese and Eritrean refugees have taken up residency at an emergency shelter in the affluent Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt – much to the ire of local elected officials and some members of the community.

Youssef Anfi is a highly sought after man. His name could be heard everywhere on Wednesday, October 14 at the first-ever emergency shelter for migrants in Boulogne-Billancourt, which lies just outside of the French capital.

“Have you seen Youssef? We have a problem with Friday’s discharges,” one person said. “Has anyone seen Youssef? I need his signature,” inquired another. “If you see Youssef, can you tell him that I need to talk to him about the clothing drive?” asked a third.

Ever since mid-September, Anfi has been tasked with managing the Jaurès shelter. With his ear often glued to his mobile phone, he is at once the shelter’s director, crisis manager, administrator, interpreter and confidante.

“We’ve just opened. We’re still in the start-up phase,” Anfi explained in his office, where the door never stayed shut for more than five minutes. “I have to teach the staff and volunteers to be autonomous. So, yes, for the time being, I’m pretty much [operating] on all fronts.”

Boulogne-Billancourt ‘short-circuited’

One of Anfi’s biggest challenges so far has been reassuring Boulogne-Billancourt’s City Hall. Much to the ire of local elected officials, the shelter was opened in an old post office building in the heart of the suburb without their approval.

The mayor, Pierre-Christophe Baguet, was forced to comply after the prefecture ordered the city to welcome the refugees, who arrived in Europe earlier this summer.

Until as recently as last month, the majority of the shelter’s 123 residents were camped out in Paris’s 18th arrondissement. They have since been taken in by the non-profit organisation Aurore, which manages the shelter in Boulogne-Billancourt with the help of a small army of social workers and volunteers.

“The decision was pretty poorly viewed by Boulogne-Billancourt,” explained Anfi, who said he could understand local officials' apprehension. “The City Hall was surprised, they felt a little short-circuited. It’s also a social shock for the residents.”

The Boulogne-Billancourt City Hall has acknowledged receiving angry complaints from residents about the refugees’ arrival.

“We are getting some letters of complaint,” said a source close to Baguet, who is a member of France’s conservative Les Républicains party (formerly the UMP). “But [the letters] are from a minority of people.”

‘The police are often on patrol’

For now, it looks as though the concerns of Boulogne-Billancourt’s residents are completely unfounded. Since the refugees’ arrival, there hasn’t been a single disturbance, according to Aurore.

Anfi said that while the shelter’s inhabitants certainly attract attention “when they go downstairs to smoke 10 at a time”, no serious incident had been reported so far, either with neighbours or among the refugees.

“The police are often on patrol, [and] I play the game. Also, on our side of things, we’ve put in place a security protocol – we’ve hired guards at night,” he said.

Every day, the non-profit discusses a variety of logistical, security and sanitary issues concerning the shelter. Among the laundry list of things to do are: organising workshops, finding Arabic-language interpreters, taking care of paperwork, cleaning the first and fifth floor dormitories, toilets and communal showers, as well as preventing other migrants from crashing the centre.

Another part of Anfi and his team’s job is to help Boulogne-Billancourt’s newest residents adapt to a sedentary life.

“In their minds, they are still migrants. They have always lived provisionally. Some might leave and vanish into thin air. But we can’t tell them, ‘Now you have to stay here!’ It’s a lot of work. We try to keep them busy, to keep them from being idle,” Anfi said.

‘I am Sudanese, I live in Boulogne’

Of the 123 people now living at the shelter, only two or three have mastered the French language, while around 10 percent speak English. The vast majority of inhabitants, however, speak only Arabic.

In an effort to address the language issue, French lessons are given every day in a room on the second floor of the shelter. On the walls hang large posters with basic phrases written on them, like “I would like some coffee, please,” or “I am Sudanese, I live in Boulogne”.

Mozab, like most of the shelter’s residents, attends the classes faithfully.

“I will not find a job if I don’t speak [the] language,” explained the 28-year-old Sudanese refugee, who arrived in France on July 30 after a long and arduous journey across Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. “I am good here. I have a room and I can shower. I’m tired from having walked so much.”

Ali, one of Mozab’s “roommates”, agreed. “I study all day. I want to speak [the] language so I can stay here,” he said.

Since June, the French government has offered more than 2,200 spots in emergency shelters to refugees evacuated from makeshift camps in Paris. The operation has involved 34 reception centres in 22 different towns.

While those at the Jaurès emergency shelter in Boulogne-Billancourt applaud the initiative, there are also concerns for the future. The centre is scheduled to shut its doors on March 31, 2016.

“It’s our deal with the prefecture,” explained Anfi. “We don’t really know what will happen afterwards. So we’re crossing our fingers. We hope that between now and then, all 123 residents will have obtained residency papers and that they will all have a clearer picture of their future.”

Date created : 2015-10-16


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