In a residential area of Beziers, a mid-sized city in Southwest France, about 40 Syrian refugees are squatting in a series of low-rise buildings. I first went down to meet some of these families in September with a friend from my village who was involved through the local mosque. Since then I’ve been involved with a local solidarity effort to support these families by providing basic needs, medication, food, etc. After the attacks on Paris last weekend, I’ve received a number of inquiries of concern from people far and near. The following is a small update, a piece of the story.
Way back in September I asked Ines, a petite Syrian woman with brilliant green eyes, if she’d be willing to share her story. We were standing in the hallway outside her apartment as she relayed bits and pieces — Arabic to French to my reconstruction in English. From Syria to Algeria to Morocco to Spain — a crowded detention center in Barcelona with inhuman conditions. She and her family decided to leave and made their way up to Beziers. I had all the best intentions of doing some documentary work, that’s what I do — but quickly I got caught up in doing what seemed more of a priority at the time: coordinating volunteers and food donations. I put off the idea of helping them tell their stories for later. There are only so many hours in a day.
Yesterday I was having a coffee to catch up with one of our food donors. She’s fiery, well connected, and she asked me, “We need to know their stories Tasha, tell me about these families. That’s how I can get people to offer support.” So there you have it. Back to where I started. And I only have fragments of a narrative but I want to carve out this time to share what I know. After last Friday’s attacks we all know how their stories will be perceived if we don’t all share our pieces of the puzzle.
Nima and Salima* are eight, my daughter’s age. When I brought my kids with me a few weeks ago on a food delivery the three girls sat together on the beach mat I pulled out of the trunk. We had picked up some beads and craft supplies on the way to squats and they worked carefully as they strung together necklaces, communicating with giggles and gestures. Nima’s brother is six and played soccer with my son and a few of the other boys in the background. He’s the one that had been repeatedly turned away from the dentist and also has a severe problem with his ear which requires surgery. Their parents and most of the families currently squatting in these apartments come from Homs, one of the most shelled areas of Syria. Others come from Damascus or elsewhere in Syria.
There are currently anywhere from seven to nine families living in these apartments. It’s a shifting number as new families arrive and others are resettled in state-provided housing. People keep asking us for a list — of ages, names, needs. We go there with our one translator who has seven children of her own so it’s taken over two months to get this information — we still aren’t sure it’s correct. Many of the people are part of larger family groups. As the matriarch, Zena, explained, “We have all been separated for the past three years and we are now finally all together.” From what we’ve learned, there are several cousins who left Syria as early as 2011, when the war began. Others left as recently as a few months ago. Haim was a dentistry student. Abul a shopkeeper. Faouzi a pharmacist. He saw his best friends disappear in the bombing, literally, under the rubble. The men often stay in the apartments, it’s the women who gather outside in the courtyard to greet us. We’ve heard stories of women wearing five pairs of pants under their dresses to fend off rapists. Ages were faked to avoid conscription into Assad’s army. Babies were born along the way — as far as we can tell there are about eight kids ranging from five months to 17 years. When I was there last weekend I met a new family, cousins who had arrived with two little girls. They said the older one was ten but she was the size of a six year old. Her little sister is four and has Down’s Syndrome. “Pantalons?” her father asked, pointing to the girl’s grubby pants, maybe the only ones she had.
We’ve been doing this work for a few months now and it’s as messy as can be. People offer up twenty kilo bags of rice and say “I’m sure they can all share it”. Or they drop off a bunch of toys with two of the kids saying, “They can choose some of them to keep and others to give to their friends.” I think of how willing my kids would be to pick a toy and give away the rest — especially if they hadn’t any for half of their short lives. And the adults have learned to do what is required to protect their families- so they may not be so willing to split open that bag of rice. One Saturday Zena invited us up to her home for coffee and half an hour later was screaming with another a neighbor about who had more groceries. You didn’t need to speak Arabic to understand what is going on.
So what do we learn from that? These are people. They are generous and warm. They are scared and distrustful. They fight. They make up. The kids always want candy. The adults always offer tea. Some want to stay here in France. Others would like to go home as soon as it’s safe. Are they perfect? Of course not. Like us, they are people — like us, they are afraid of terrorism. Unlike most of us, they have lived this terror firsthand.
I find it bewildering that here in France the national response to the attacks has been to confirm the commitment to allow in refugees. I am not going to quibble about the numbers here compared to Germany, or about the treatment of refugees in Calais — I have my own questions and problems with that. What Iwill do is say that if the country that has been attacked isn’t scared, or if they understand their responsibility in spite of this fear, how can we as Americans close our doors so quickly. Why are we as a nation so afraid?
I had promised my daughter she could come with me last Saturday to play with Nima and Salima. On Saturday morning, we woke up to the news of Paris and learned that France was in a national state of emergency — we decided she better stay at home. Just to be clear, we weren’t afraid of the Syrians. On the contrary — having lived through the backlash after 9/11 we were concerned of any potential danger from anti-immigrant/anti-Arab groups in the area. Fortunately the only conflict in Beziers on our visit came from a missing bag of food. That evening though, my daughter was furious. “Mommy, why did you go without me? I wanted to see my friends! I made them presents!” Next time, I will bring her. I won’t let fear conquer her desire to be a part of someone else’s story. What lesson do we teach our children when we close our doors to literally millions of people who need our help because we are afraid? That’s not the legacy I want our generation to leave. I believe we are better, stronger, and braver than this.
* All names have been changed for this piece.