A Refugee Reality: Fight! Fight!


I have a hate affair with anger. I simply cannot bare to watch violence up close. But I’ve seen it erupt quite a few times in France, far too often. So not to sound self-righteous, when I think of anger I have to admit that it has at times burned in me. I know what it feels like to lose perspective and control. We’ve been told it is good thing to express your anger. I am not sure its a licence to go nuts though! Nonetheless, there are some things that should make us angry and we need to express it with conviction. Injustice is one of those things, it should elicit a strong sense of emotion and then action in us. Yes, we can be angry without becoming aggressive and hateful. All anger and wrath that leads to harsh words or hurtful actions is what we all, every human, should put away.

I’m writing about anger because I don’t want to forget what I just experienced. You are undoubtedly aware of the refugee crisis. It’s worldwide. However in Paris the amount of asylum seekers living rough on the streets begs an answer. The large group of refugees and asylum seekers that came today for the feeding program that includes a simple baguette and tea and instant coffee was staggering. Lines of waiting people were longer than usual. And the patience of some wore thin. Then a fight broke out. One man who had cut the line numerous times to pick out a piece of bread was shoved by another and it escalated. They were from different countries and that might even have made things worse. I found myself jumping to action squeezing between the two and temporarily shoving them apart. It was impossible to stop the anger. One took off his shirt to show his sculpted muscles and I knew this was not good. That’s when I took an errant fist to my chin by the other. It wasn’t hard, but it rang in my ears for a bit and my jaw ached. So many people came to stop the two and common sense took place and the muscular one laughed and the two stopped. That was fight one!

The second fight occurred about five minutes later and was even crazier when one of the asylum seekers snatched a knife from the bread cutting station and chased another who had offended him. Luckily there are some refugees that hate violence too. And a few strong refugees were able to wrench the knife away. Soon after it was calm again. But one of the leaders of the Association was telling everyone that if they continued this stuff they’d close down shop!

In a way I was glad that my visiting six young men and women from Quebec saw this. It was a reality shock for them. I had asked them to organize activities with the men and they planned accordingly to do so with this same group of men. However after the fights there were second thoughts. I was wavering too. I wanted the asylum seekers and refugees to have fun. I talked to a Palestinian woman who volunteered as a lawyer to help these men figure out next steps about what just happened. We discussed the trauma of living rough in Paris especially for those who had seen so much violence and hardship in their homelands, not even counting the arduous and dangerous journey to get here. My heart was being stirred again.

Thankfully, in the end the atmosphere calmed down and the Quebec team felt safe enough to play a quick game of soccer with some of the men. I sat while they played with four afghans in the park. I tried to figure the game of cards they were playing. While we politely chatted exchanging names they put away their cards. They wanted to talk. They described to me how in the last week two of them had been separately robbed while asleep in their tents. This is far too common a story with people living rough. Tents are often ripped open with a knife and bags stolen without the sleeping one even hearing a sound. Sadly for these afghani men, all their valuable papers were gone. The smiles were gone, it was a moment of despair. Now this, I say, is exactly what should make us angry! And in that moment I felt deep compassion and righteous anger, I guess, stirring in me again. “Next time”, I said, “If you have really important documents, give them to me, I’ll hold them for you!” They appreciated the gesture.

Our little world is brimming full of anger because of repeated injustices inflicted on the helpless, including, or especially on the asylum seekers. Paris has made me realize once again that many thousands have little in life. Over one hundred thousand people applied for asylum in France last year, a record. Once here is nowhere else for these men to turn. They left their horrible situations with hopes of a better life. The journey to get to Europe was fraught with danger, hard and rough. Not all who attempt to cross the sea make it alive, the latest statistics say every day six people drown trying to cross the Mediterranean! The ones who finally made it to Europe, to what they thought was salvation, discover this is no heaven here. It is lonely. It is dangerous. Its is poverty. It is disdain. It is a loss of dignity. It is almost without mercy. No wonder fights do break out; its surprising there aren’t more!

Photographer: Yannis Davy Guibinga

As I write these words, I need to call out, ” Peacemakers come forth!” We may be hesitant to get between two fighters, but the real call is to leave the safety of our comfort zones and bring encouragement, practical kindness and love! Maybe you are one of those? My jaw doesn’t ache now, but my heart still does, for my Parisian world, and for all those other distant places where dignity is stolen by war, poverty, culture, religion and racism, places like Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, Guinea, Chad, and Syria and……. and ……. where peace is almost non-existent.

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