Voices #16: On privilege and activism (Part 3)
This is the third and last part of a long piece. You can find the beginning of the story here. Part 3 – Repercussions
We made lists, lots of lists. Lists of families, lists of people, names, ages, compositions, nationalities. We transferred all the necessary information for the buses to come and pick up the five families who hadn’t been able to get on the bus that Wednesday. But when Friday morning came, there was only space for one family. Four people, our of the 23. That family left, but was informed on the bus that they would be dropped off at “a stadium in a place where only single men are sheltered”. The problem is that, on the buses, there are no translators. So the families (and ourselves) can never really know whether there’s a miscommunication or whether that’s actually what they are headed towards. At any rate, they got scared by that information and left the bus to return to Emmaus that same day.
So during the weekend, we were at the same stage. Still 23 people. The thing is, when we took everyone from in front of the sous-préfecture it was cold and dark. By then, everyone was tired from the day and upset of not having had a spot on the bus. So we weren’t going to start filtering through who would be sheltered and who wouldn’t: everyone was taken to Emmaus. But in the group, there were some single men who weren’t part of any families. And during the days when they stayed in Emmaus, tensions rose.
It started with light tensions and disagreements. But quickly turned into fights and threats. Providing shelter might sound like a straightforward thing to do, but it’s incredibly difficult. To what extent is mediating conflict possible? Does there inevitably come a point where everyone cannot cohabit? Must you exclude some for the benefit of everyone else? What sort of legitimacy do I have in deciding who will be included and who will be excluded of receiving shelter? I keep on telling myself that these aren’t questions I should be asking myself, because the responsibility of sheltering people shouldn’t be on my shoulders: it’s the role of the state. But that makes no difference to our current reality of people sleeping outside, in terrible living conditions, with very few alternatives, if any.
On the Saturday night, the police got called in, because a fight had escalated too much in the Emmaus community between a family and one of the single men. This is where privilege comes in again. The police was struggling to communicate with people who were there, and to decide what to do. They were visibly upset at having been called for an internal dispute. They weren’t sure who was responsible for it all, because all those present were saying contracting things, in Kurdish, English and French. But then I started speaking, and they realised I was French. And even though I can’t speak Kurdish and only partially understood the situation, I felt like they were ready to take for granted anything that I was about to say.
This happens a lot. People who live in the camps, and sometimes volunteers, get stopped by the police. Sometimes they are asked for IDs, sometimes interactions are conflictual, even at times violent, and can result in people being taken to the police station. Needless to say this happens on a daily basis for displaced people in the camps, but it also happened this summer to Women’s Centre volunteers. It never happened to me. The moment I get my French passport out and chat with the police people, the mood changes. Maybe it’s my nationality, my language, my tone, my age or gender, the way I look or the way I speak. Probably all of it. But what’s certain is that my experience with the police in Northern France corresponds to none of the ones I hear about from colleagues and people we work with.
Eventually, the two policemen in Emmaus told the single man to leave the community and not to return, and they in turn left as well. From that night on, the city hall hired a security agent to be placed in Emmaus for as long as the families would be there. Thankfully, from there on, there were no more major issue in the community with the families.
Until the start of the next week. On the Monday, everyone was waiting for the promised buses, which never came. On the Tuesday, the buses only had enough space for eight people: a couple and a family of 6. Emmaus could no longer shelter so many people, in the living space of the companions. So the city hall decided to open a building for anyone left in Emmaus, which has in the past been used several times for the families: the Centre de Culture Populaire (CCP). Whilst they placed the three families there, they couldn’t take in the two single men who were staying in Emmaus, and who therefore stayed there.
We thought that was a really positive turn of events. Until the next day, a bus from the sous-préfecture came to pick up the families at the CCP. It all became even more confusing. The families thought they’d be able to stay, the city hall thought they’d open the building for the winter, but the state preferred not to have medium-term living spaces on the coast, and thus was there to bring the families inland, to accommodation centres.
None of the families were expecting this. But still, they packed their luggage and went into the bus. On board of the bus, there seems to have been a miscommunication – yet another consequence of the lack of translators – and the families understood that they were being taken somewhere 8 hours away. This spread panic inside the bus, people wanted to get out before being driven far away from Northern France. The people working on the bus, to ensure that everything went well, weren’t sure how to react. One of them called the police. It aggravated things.
The bus stopped in a village. The police arrived and surrounded the vehicle. The families became even more panicked. They called volunteers to share images and started filming. It was all very blurry and we couldn’t make much sense of it. We saw some police people with batons, seemingly hitting things or people. One father was isolated and taken separately. He was placed in a police vehicle and driven to the nearest retention centre. Probably to make an example out of him.
When things calmed down again, from anger and panic to sadness and renunciation, the bus carried on taking the families to the accommodation centre. It turned out that it wasn’t going terribly far. The families were placed in a former hotel, which has since been reconverted into an emergency shelter, not far from Lille. The father, however, is still today in the retention centre.
As you might imagine, new families have in the meantime arrived, and we continue to work with the state to improve the system of people being placed to accommodation centres. We try to be a bridge between the authorities and the families, to make sure they have the right information as they get into buses, and we communicate with organisations who manage different accommodation centres to help better the living conditions there. It’s a long windy road, and I think we can only make it happen by working together.
Why am I still here, in Northern France, two years on? Most volunteers stay for a few days, sometimes a few weeks, and in some cases a few months. But I don’t want to go anywhere else, because I can’t imagine of a better way to make use of the privilege I have. Sure, being here is itself a privileged situation: I can volunteer here on a stipend for a long time, because I have many safety nets. I have parents with a home I can always return to, I have university degrees and lots of skills with which I can find a job, I have a passport which makes me eligible for financial support from the state, I also have free medical insurance and a solid network of people whom I can lean on. All of those things are in the back of my head, and enable me to be exactly where I want to be, doing what I feel in my guts is what I should be doing. And I couldn’t be more grateful.