Underneath the Sign “Life`s Good: A Stark Contrast

Still in the doldrums about the crappy ending of a fairy-tale Parisian romance. The best way to shake off the blues is to help someone else, so I washed my face and went with CC to serve tea to refugees at Port Chappelle.

Port Chappelle, in Northern Paris, is a hood that some consider a “no-go” zone for women. (See Note) Here thousands of refugee men, mostly Muslims from Afghanistan and Sudan, sleep under bridges and on the streets in squalid and unsanitary conditions.

They have almost no access to water, sanitation or food. The area is also home to crack addicts and hookers. Added to the mix is the animosity between Afghani and Sudanese refugees, which periodically leads to fights.

CC is one of the managers of Solidarithé, an organization that serves 600 cups of tea a day to refugees living on the streets, and provides information about where to find basic necessities, learn French and start the process of claiming asylum.

These are tough volunteers, working with tough men, in a tough area of Paris. The work is physically and emotionally exhausting.

“Nobody said it was going to be easy.” CC shrugs.

“But I get to go home,” she adds as we pass a junkie smoking crack, “It`s nothing compared to what these guys live every single day.”

I grabbed a trolley of tea supplies and set off, stopping a moment to watch two hookers fight. One of them, crazy-eyed high on something, leaps on top of a car stopped at the light. She jumps up and down on the roof, ranting and rocking the car with its frightened-eyed passengers. Their opened mouths make them look like fish.

My fairy-tale romance seems a million miles away.

All of a sudden, I am awake. Alive in every fiber of my being.

We set up and began to serve tea and coffee. Hundreds of refugees appear.

The survival of the men who live here lies almost entirely with volunteer and aid groups that deliver food, warm clothes, and medical supplies to the men.

They have lost everything. They live at the mercy of others. Most are young. PTSD is the norm. Nothing in their village lives has prepared them to survive on the streets of a city the size of Paris.

They miss home.

More than just something to drink, the men are hungry for any shred of normalcy, any social remnant from their past lives.

“Salaam alaikum” (Peace be upon you), they say politely.

“Alaikum salaam” (And upon you), we reply.

“Chai o gawah?” we ask (Tea or Coffee?), although we can guess because Sudanese drink coffee, while Afghanis drink tea.

“Shukran” (Thank you), they say.

“Afwan” (You are welcome), we answer courteously.

The scene on the street changes before my eyes as we work. The men stand around sipping beverages. I hear laughter. A guy comes up and asks me to check his homework from his French language class. Someone begins playing a musical instrument.

I learned something yesterday.

I learned how to pour tea with an open heart.

And that is better than any fairy tale.

NOTE: The “no-go zone” appellation is a controversial issue. Recently, two neighborhood associations, SOS La Chapelle and Demain La Chapelle, launched a petition asking the government to step in to reduce harassment and discrimination of women, petty theft, drug trafficking, the accumulation of garbage, and public intoxication in their neighborhoods.

The petition gathered thousands of signatures. Although neither neighborhood association is affiliated with any political party, the petition caused a political controversy.

Elisabeth Badinter, France’s highly-regarded feminist, weighed in. According to Badinter, there has been an “unquestionable” regression in the status of women in France, particularly in poorer suburbs. “Try going out in a dress in certain areas,” she said in an interview with Le Point magazine.

Refugee activists maintain that feminism is being used to hide what is, in reality, a racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim political agenda by conservatives.

Both sides have validity.

Meanwhile, the refugees languish on the streets. Being granted asylum can take years. Without papers, they cannot work, they are in limbo. The refugees don´t want to sleep under the bridges any more than the residents want them there.

Love Like Fishes and Loaves

Several years ago, instead of going to an expensive restaurant for                        Valentine´s Day, I invited the man I was seeing for dinner at my house.                     I asked him to wear old clothes and bring along a few items of clothing that needed repair.  After dinner, we chatted on the front porch while he put a fresh coat of paint on the flower boxes and I rocked on the porch swing and mended his clothes.  We gave the money we saved to Leaping Stone, an organization that is building a school in Ghana.  On that day, love multiplied like fishes and loaves.

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