Utopia56: Volunteering at a Parisian Refugee Camp

I never know who I am are going to meet to meet in life, and on my way back to my apartment from Charles de Gaulle Airport was one of those times. My roommate and I shared an Uber with a woman who was on her way to volunteer with refugees in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. Never would I have thought that the experience would help change my outlook for the better.

In the metro system and the streets of Paris, I constantly see women and children huddled together on a blanket with a few items asking for money. Many of them hold make shift signs saying “Famille Syrienne” and have heavy eyes looking into the walkways. Whenever I pass them, my heart always go out to them and hope that their situation is better than the life they left behind in Syria. I think about where they are coming from and if they lived in similar conditions that I have seen in my travels to Ghana and Cambodia, or if they have family back home. I am the type of person who acts on my feelings and when the woman from the Uber told me about an organization that help refugees, I automatically signed myself up to volunteer.

The organization is called Uptia65 and it’s located in the heart of the poor region of Paris. It is surrounded by old, vandalized buildings with make shift housing for multiple families. It is crazy to think that a 20 minute metro ride from the Eiffel Tower, people are just starting their new life in Paris. The refugee camp is not much to those who walked by and although it’s on a busy street it is hard not to notice the sad state of it. There were security guards surrounding the camp and fences huddled together with blankets being used as shelters for the people who could not get into the camp that day. It broke my heart to see the people laying on the ground trying so hard to stay warm in the cold, March weather.

I was welcomed into the camp by smiling volunteers who were surprised to see a new face coming to help and I was shown around the camp with explanations on the work being accomplished there. The organization helps mainly male refugees from South Sudan and some Middle Eastern countries, although there are some families staying at the camp. Due to territorial conflicts, the security guards were there to help stop any fights that may break out. The men can stay at the camp for two or more weeks while they start to get on their feet. They are given new clothes, food, shelter, and access to social workers to get the right immigration or mental health information the men might need. The camp serves close to 400 men at a time and with the help of only about 10 volunteers a day, there is so much work to be done.

I was immediately put to the task of helping to hand out clothes to the new men who arrived at Utopia56. It was set up like a store where the men can pick out their own clothes that we take out of the bins. It is a quick process to look at their ID cards to see what clothes they have already received and what clothes they might need in the future. Because it was still pretty chilly, many needed better pants or long shirts.

At first the job was overwhelming due to the language barrier, the volunteers do not know much English and the refugees do not know much French, but through hand gestures we were able to communicate. It was fun to try to help the men figure out what clothes they wanted although at times it did get frustrating. Some of the men didn’t know their size or were not happy with any of the clothes that we available for them to choose from. Some of the men were picky about style, but some seemed so grateful to even have a jacket. Those were the men, to me, that made the volunteering experience so worthwhile. To see the look on their faces when they got the new clothing and to laugh with them about some of the ugly clothes they had to choose from, made the word “refugee” that much more relatable.

Being from the US, immigration and the “refugees crisis” are always on the political agenda and people seem very divided on the subject. Many times, the people who have the loudest voice against the idea of an open door policy are those who are the most ignorant and uneducated about the subject. We get so caught up with the word “refugee” that we forget that these people are just looking to survive and to live a life they are proud of. These people just want to have a life that we have been fortunate enough to have. They are not looking to steal from our government or take up our resources; they just want to live a life they deserve. To live a life human beings deserve.

When I mentioned to my family back in the US that I spent the afternoon volunteering, they responded with: ‘wow those people are so lucky to have you helping them’. But in reality, I am the lucky one. I had the privilege to help those men get back on their feet and to feel good about themselves even when they have been put in such a shitty situation. I had the opportunity to be more educated on what life is like in a Parisian refugee camp and to gain another perspective on life. I spend so much on travel and new experiences, but volunteering with these men reminded me that some experiences are priceless and sometimes three hours is all it takes to change multiple lives: theirs and mine.

Happy travels, Cynthia

My Adventurous Beginning: Hohoe, Ghana

My first traveling abroad by myself- terrifying and thrilling Africa.

Growing up, my family always took cruise vacations to places like the Bahamas and Bermuda, but would never be more than a stone throws away from the boat or the ocean. We would do the generic hiking, lounging on the beach or at the pool, or snorkeling; simulating the life we had back home. Everyone was in their comfort zone, never straying too far from the norm. But soon enough, unknown to me, my life would take an adventurous turn. During my senior year English class, my teacher told everyone her story in the Peace Corps on National Peace Corps Day in the United States. She told tales of being held at gunpoint near the Kenyan border and the bright eyed kids she would never see again. I remember not being able to take my eyes off the artwork and the wood carvings she set up on the desks.

Eagerly after class I waited for her to have a free moment so I could talk with her further. Little did I know at the time, I would be paving a path for my future. She told me about tours students can go on in different parts of the world depending on how out of my comfort zone I wanted to go. I decided on a trip to Hohoe, Ghana with the organization Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS). CCS got kids from all over the United States to be placed in a different country and have them fully immersed in the culture, but also do some volunteer work in the process. My placement was with a orphanage/ school named Happy Kids helping to teach preschoolers English. Although the official language of Ghana is English, up in the mountains of Hohoe they speak mostly in their tribal tongues. Quickly, my days went from hanging out with my friends at Starbucks, to being woken up before the sunrise to the smell of porridge cooking on an open fire. Rice and beans were served with every meal (I have no idea how the villagers never get sick of them). I am from an Italian family so it was refreshing to have a meal without cheese or pasta involved.

My days were filled with lessons; teaching the children English, but them teaching me about life. I became close with three little ones in particular: Mayvis, Unhum, and Ema. They would follow my placement partner Danielle and I around during the breaks from lessons and when lunch was served. Seeing these children who have so little, be so happy with life. Each child had a smile across their face and they never expected anything from you. This was quite a contrast from back home where kids compete over who has the newest iPhone. It was like a breath of fresh air seeing children being so happy getting a turn to draw on a piece of paper with a crayon. I was happy to spend time in the jungle of Ghana feeding monkeys and hiking up the highest point in the country, Mount Afadja. I was in bliss. Then my happiness was tented a little.

My body started to work against me as I became very sick with malaria. Because of this, I had to miss several days at placement and had to go to the hospital to get treated. This alone was another eye opening experience. To me, hospitals were a place of sterilization but in rural Ghana it was anything but. The building was a courtyard open to all the elements and the patients were laying out on bed in the Ghanan heat- no one was protected from one another or sterile. I instantly stood out being the only white person the hospital. After several hours, I spotted another white figure walking around. He turned out to be a European trained doctor who was in Ghana doing malaria research. I immediately felt relieved as he told me to drink lots of water to make sure I didn’t dehydrate and I would be good as new within a day or so. Before I knew it, it was time for me to go back to my world. But I will never forget the new family I created thousands of miles away.

Now almost three years later, pictures of Unhum and the kids hang on my apartment walls and my journal has a place on my shelf for me to relive Ghana whenever I feel like life is slipping through my fingers. The experience helped to shape the person I am today and the goals I want to achieve.

 

This was my first taste of adventure, now onto the next one!

Happy travels, Cynthia