WordCamp Refugee

During WordCamp Europe 2017 in Paris I stayed at a hotel at Porte de Clignancourt, a 25 minutes walk from the conference venue. Each of the three days of the event, I would walk past improvised refugee shelters with no sanitary facilities whatsoever, as well as refugees camping out on the bare concrete underneath a freeway junction. On my third day, I had the opportunity to learn a valuable lesson, and this is how it happened.

Refugee shelters in the north of Paris. (Photo: the author, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The smell hits hardest.

I have never smelled anything like this. During the years of social service in my twenties, I cleaned away a literal shit ton of human excrements, but this is different.

This is not the old-age, slow-decay, near-death kind of smell that your younger self may have been able to wash off with a proper amount of soap and a six-pack in the evening, telling yourself the poor souls you have helped making it through yet another day of 90+ years on earth will soon be going to Jesus anyways.

This smell is not like that. It does not offer comfort. It is warm, and vivid, and foul, and it instantly melts away the last inches of inner distance your instincts may hustle to put up between your own sense of your self and a reality outside of yourself your senses are not prepared to take in.

It is the smell of incomplete, of wrong, of something terribly out of control that should have been safe, protected, peaceful, happy, and healthy.

Lives lived, not lost.
Youth shone, not shot at.

I walk into Kristin* and Roland*, journalists from Norway. They are looking for a young man from Afghanistan, Zahid*, who apparently sleeps in the blue tent across the passage way. We are standing under a freeway junction in northern Paris, it is 8:00 in the morning, and the noise is beyond words.

Hundreds of refugees—young men almost all of them, few families to be spotted —sleep in the gaps between the freeway lanes. A water supply has been installed across the street, as well as what seems an all too modest number of portable toilets; I count five or six from memory.

Temperature is well up above 24°C already at this time of day. An early crowd has gathered over at the mobile lavatories. Dark skin rinsed, clothes washed, bits of chit-chat. One guy shaving another one’s face in arm’s length of Paris’ rush hour traffic.

Zahid’s tent stands where the void between the lanes forms a square of about 20×30 meters, right next to a howling 24/7 air supply (for the Paris Metro, I am guessing). Sleep seems impossible, deafening unconsciousness from total exhaustion more likely.

Kristin and Roland know Zahid from Norway. He had arrived there as a 16-year-old, that was two years ago. From the bits I hear of his story, he seems to be a sensitive young man who loved camping out, go fishing, enjoying the peace and quiet. No explosions.

A couple of weeks ago Zahid made it down to Paris. He has just turned 18.

Norway, Kristin says, tolerates under-aged illegal immigrants, but as soon as they turn 18, they are sent straight back home. Such is the policy for Afghanistan, at least. With home being a war zone.

She and Roland have talked to Zahid just yesterday. He mentioned he could not sleep in that noise. He also seems to have a sort of abscess on his foot, it did not look well. Where would he go next? In this dirty pair of jeans he could not go anyway, he had replied.

I ask them if money and proper medical treatment would possibly help. Not that I am able to provide either, but I am on my way to a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar conference funded by gracious sponsors, and I happen to be a face in their community and their market. Sending paramedics and a couple of hundred euros in Zahid’s direction seems doable. It would probably help, Kristin says.

I ask for their phone numbers and leave, thinking. A hundred meters later I send a text asking for a photo of Zahid, and a selfie of both of them, Kristin and Roland. If I am going for an ad hoc fundraiser, I figure, I’d better have a face for the money to go to.

They are kind enough to send a selfie and a picture of Zahid from just yesterday.

He looks worn out. His hair has grown long (which Kristin mentioned he did not like at all), and his jeans look everything else than presentable indeed. On the photo his face seems that of a young man who has seen way too much and knows way too little to make sense of it all (whether or not that might be even possible).

I reach the conference and start working my means. Medics are priority, I guess. Jenny—in her ever earthbound, keep-calm-fuck-off-panic kind of kindness—helps me sorting out the details. No, his illegal status will not be a problem. I will need to provide a street address for them to come to. I can ask for a translator when I make the call.

Meanwhile, it dawns on me I should go and actually see Zahid, before getting the medical cavalry on his tracks. This is when I get a text from Kristin. They met him again, he factually lives in that tent. His foot looks much better. Sounds like no cavalry needed.

I make my way back down to the freeway junction to meet him and see what help he might actually want. This is a young man, possibly orphaned, who has been travelling on his own under extreme conditions for years; I figure the last thing he needs is an over-protecting German trying to helper-syndrome all over him.

The tent is empty. I spend 30 minutes walking around the area, feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic in my clean clothes, among hundreds of displaced humans. The smell has become noise already.

No luck finding Zahid, so I wander back up to my tribe. Time and space have gained unexpected significance, and I re-think my strategy.

After all, if he needs a travel budget and I am going to raise it for him, I have until 4:00pm max to convince sponsors to donate cash (cash!), and create a way to pass him the money without raising attention amongst the crowd around him.

Also, whatever means I manage to send his way, it will not support him if it complicates his situation. You have to be able to manage and leverage the support you receive, otherwise it becomes a burden.

Would he even feel safe enough carrying a couple of hundreds, or even a thousand euros on him, or would it rather stress him out and put him in a position where he’d have to make decisions he didn’t have to make before, without actually being able to put his new means to good use?

Comes noon, I grab my vegan lunch bag, some conference swag (free t-shirt, socks), and walk back down.

And there he is.

Is it him? I introduce myself and ask what his name is. His name be Zahid.

It is him, he got a hair cut. Someone (Kristin and Roland?) has given him 25 euros, and the hairdresser was kind enough to give him a discount. “I still have 5 euros”, he smiles, and his smile is unbelievable. Shy, a little embarrassed, but unmistakably proud of his move having been able to save 5 bucks. “Still have”. Not: “only have”.

How his foot might be?
He shows me his left sole. There seems to have been something like a minor infection, but it obviously has healed well, no open wounds. May he want medical treatment? Nah, it’s not that bad anymore, he smiles. Although it itches a bit.

May he plan to travel on, or stay in Paris?
He plans to stay. If only he could get out of the noise and into the refugee camp. Only 400 people allowed. Police used spray when he tried to get in. I notice a bruise on his lower lip, but it looks more like from minor dehydration than from a beating. I refrain from asking, it is none of my business.

May a new pair of jeans be helpful?
Smile opening into beaming, if hesitating, his instincts seem to trust me while his mind might be saying otherwise. Yes, new jeans would help a lot.

I would like to buy him a pair of jeans; should I go buy it for him, or would he prefer to buy it himself?

I have absolutely no idea how an 18-year-old illegal immigrant feels about walking into H&M, but I regret having asked the question immediately.

The beaming folds back into a smile, this seems to feel a bit awkward. Yes, he would prefer to buy it himself. Of course he does, dammit, Caspar.

Would he stay around for 20 minutes while I get cash? He would, he’d only go for a quick shower maybe. With shower being the improvised water supply across the lane.

Has he eaten yet? He has not, and his smile seems to apologise this time. I hand him the lunch bag, the apology in this smile makes way for something like happiness, and I walk up the other end of the passage, back to where money can buy things.

When I had come to Paris this time, I had planned to buy shoes. Turned out Paris wasn’t prepared for Bigfoot, so I pull the extra 100 bucks off my credit card and get a soothing band-aid from the pharmacy.

It seems a stupid idea to hand him a bunch of euro notes in front of dozens of other people in need, so I wrap the money in a notepaper with my phone number and email address, and drop it into the paper bag from the pharmacy.

When I meet him back down at the tent, two other young men (his friends?) are standing nearby, apparently waiting for him to get ready.

I greet them and make sure I position myself between them and Zahid in such a way that they can see me pulling the band-aid package out of the paper bag, but won’t notice the cash inside. The noise from the air supply coming in handy this time, they won’t be able to catch a word of what I say to him.

He doesn’t seem super enthusiastic about band-aid, but when I mention there is something else in the bag, he catches a glimpse of the euro notes. I hand him the package and with a quick move he places it under a stack of stuff, beaming.

Feeling this is pretty much all I should be doing for him now, I offer a hand-shake and wish him good luck. He shakes my hand, sure looking happy, while his 18 year-old mind seems to be busy with what to do next already.

I figure he also might not like the extra amount of attention my little guerrilla charity might have caused, despite the paper bag move, so I just walk away in an easy pace.

I sure don’t expect any reaction on my notepaper, and that’s perfectly fine. In Zahid I met a young man who I now think did not seem to need my support at all. Although an extra 100 euros will have made his day in one way or the other.

After all, I guess all this was little about him, and a lot about myself.

Zahid may be in a terrible situation and have great challenges to overcome, but what he demonstrated was a capable, sensitive, intelligent young man who I am confident will make his way and gain a life. And should he ever think I could be of assistance to him, he has my phone number now.

However, I—not him—was the one in need of help here.

I needed a way to integrate the smell, shelters, rags on the street, people in the dirt in order to make something a part of my concept of reality—something that felt hopelessly unreal, invalid, brutal, and shameful.

I have hope again now, and I feel shame no more, because I met Zahid.


* Names have been changed for privacy.