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Syrian refugees await asylum at makeshift camp in northern Paris

Amara Makhoul, FRANCE 24 | Nearly 100 Syrian refugees are now living in tents at a makeshift camp at the Porte de Saint-Ouen in northern Paris

Nearly 100 Syrian refugees are currently staying at a makeshift camp in the Porte de Saint-Ouen in northern Paris, where they live in squalor while awaiting asylum. FRANCE 24’s Amara Makhoul-Yatim reports.

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“We just wanted a roof over our heads,” murmurs Khadra, 24, her eyes full of tears. In her arms, the young woman holds a small baby swaddled in a blanket. The little girl is no more than three weeks old.

“This is no place for her or the other children,” she says, watching her sons playing in the distance. Khadra left Syria with her husband and children two years ago. “We had a good life, before the war,” she remembers.

For the last two months, however, she has been sleeping in a tent on the dirty pavement near the Porte de Saint-Ouen in northern Paris. Tents first began appearing at the site, which lies near a busy motorway, in March 2014, but were cleared away after the government granted papers to Syrian refugees living there. Since then, a new camp has sprung up in its place, with about 80 people now living in a few dozen tents on a traffic island separating the street from a bus lane. Some refugees have been there for months, others have just arrived.

A crossroads for Syrian refugees

Over the past 18 months, the Porte de Saint-Ouen has become a crossroads for Syrians fleeing the civil war back home. Many come to France illegally, settling at the makeshift camp before applying for asylum or trying to reach another European country.

1. Donate your time

While it’s easy to give money, one thing that many organisations working with refugees and migrants really need are volunteers. There are a myriad of places where you can do that in France, including the Croix-Rouge, CIMADE, France Terre d’Asile and Secours Populaire Française. For a more complete list, check out this map by French daily Libération.

2. Donate your money

If you don’t have time to volunteer, then dig into your pockets. A number of organisations are asking for donations to fund programmes specifically aimed at helping refugees and migrants.

3. Donate your old belongings

Instead of throwing out your old belongings, why not donate them? There are a number of organisations, such as Emmaüs, that will be happy to take your unwanted things off your hands. Sleeping bags, tents, old phones, clothing, tools, books, children’s games…Call ahead to check if they are in need of any particular items.

4. Host a refugee

If you have the space and are willing, host a refugee in your home. There are a number of groups that help connect individuals with refugees in need of a place to stay, such as CALM.

“Everyone knows that there are Syrians at the Porte de Saint-Ouen, it’s our spot,” explains Dounia, 19, who planned her journey using Facebook. Despite the hardships she has endured, the young woman is hopeful for the future. “For the moment, we live here however we can, and one day our situation will improve,” she says.

The road to France from Syria is a long one. Instead of following the notorious Western Balkan Route, Khadra and Dounia – like many refugees at the Porte de Saint-Ouen – went through Melilla, a Spanish enclave on the coast of Morocco, after flying into Algeria from Turkey or Lebanon.

Despite the arduous journey, both women have had children since leaving their homes. Dounia’s now two-year-old son was born in Algeria, while Khadra’s daughter was born just three weeks ago in Belgium.

While refugees at the Porte de Saint-Ouen have received help in the form of food and clothing donations, Leila, a 24-year old mother of four, says that what they really need is help applying for asylum.

“I left my little ones in Syria with their father, who doesn’t dare leave the country because he is in hiding – he’s been called up to join the army. I need to regularise my situation so they can join me,” she explains.

‘We regret coming here’

The process of applying for asylum in France is  challenging, especially if you only speak a few words of French. Although refugees at the Porte de Saint-Ouen have received some help from organisations and individual volunteers filling out the paperwork, many don’t have a permanent address where they can receive mail – a requirement if they want to complete their application.

“There are some people who are willing to receive mail at their home,” says Ahmad, a refugee at the camp. “But they ask us for money in exchange.”

“In Syria, we had a certain position, and here we are forced to beg in order to eat or pay for a night in a hotel,” says another refugee, Bilal.

“I sold spare parts for cars and I also have a license to drive large trucks and lorries,” he explains, showing his membership card to the chamber of commerce in Banias, a coastal city in northwestern Syria.

Bilal submitted his asylum application eight months ago and is still waiting for a response from France’s refugee agency, OFPRA.

“It’s a long [process], and in the meantime, we’re living in misery, homeless and without the right to work. Why?” he asks.

“We chose France because it has always said that it is a friend of the Syrian revolution, but we all regret coming here, where they treat us like animals,” says Bilal, insisting that the only thing he wants is the right to work.

He added that he and the rest of his family at the camp are now thinking about seeking asylum in Belgium. There are rumours at the Porte de Saint-Ouen that Syrian refugees are treated better in Brussels.

Just last week, French President François Hollande announced that the country was prepared to welcome 24,000 refugees over the next two years. The news came as a surprise to many at the Porte de Saint-Ouen, who found it astonishing that shelter has been promised to new arrivals – many of them Syrians coming from Germany – when they are still homeless despite having applied for asylum weeks, if not months ago.

The interior ministry has said that all asylum seekers already on French soil prior to Hollande’s announcement will be included in the resettlement plan, on the condition that their application for asylum was submitted in France.

“There aren't two systems,” the interior ministry said. “We’re going to find the ones who are already here.”

The interior ministry also acknowledged that the previous system to welcome refugees was “notoriously sub-par”, with only 4,000 new places added to the country’s reception centres for asylum seekers in 2014, and 4,200 added in 2015.

Although the interior and housing ministries announced plans in June to create lodging for 11,000 people by 2016, there is still not enough room to shelter the influx of refugees arriving in the country.

In pictures: Syrian refugees await asylum at makeshift camp in Paris
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