Sep 27th, 2015, 05:53 PM

A Glass of Wine with the Refugees Under the Bridge

By Ariana Mozafari
One of the attendees of the wine mixer for refugees and Parisians.
A young Parisian organized a mixer to close the gap between French citizens and refugees who lived for months under the Charles-de-Gaulle Bridge.

“Oh, you’re American? Let me tell you something: you’re welcome in Paris,” says a young Parisian, swaying slowly from side to side and blinking with concentrated effort. He has to yell in order to be heard over the beat of the drums and tambourines.

“Me too, no?” The accented voice belongs to a young black man, smiling in anticipation.

The inebriated Parisian takes a few seconds to look the man over, then a few more to steady himself.  

“Yeah, you too.” A cheeky smile, and he’s gone, off to bestow his hospitality on another circle of Parisians and refugees who have come to share a glass of wine by the Seine.

Nazar picked up where he had left off before the interruption, enthusiastically describing his love for American films. The 26-year-old smiles while he talks, and his hearty laugh is infectious to his friends who pass by from time to time to crack a joke and slap hands. Nazar’s cheerful demeanor and near-fluent French would never hint that the young man just left his life behind in Sudan to cross continents and the sea to find safety from the conflict in his home country. He doesn’t seem like the type of guy you would find living under a bridge in a makeshift refugee camp.

The word “refugee” is not uncommon to the quotidian French vocabulary in 2015. According to the International Organization for Migration, a record half a million (522,124) refugees have been documented as reaching Europe this year. The fast-growing number of migrants from both African countries and Syria has been placing massive pressure from both the left and right on European governments to respond to this crisis effectively.

Some French citizens have protested against the lack of aid the French government has provided to accommodate refugees. However, amidst high unemployment rates and rising support for the anti-immigration National Front party, not all French citizens are welcoming migrants with open arms. A recent Oxada poll for Le Parisien-Aujourd’hui en France showed that 55% of French citizens are against the softening of rules for asylum seekers.

“I was 6 months in Calais, and some people, they doesn’t like migrants,” Nazar said in English. “Sometimes I don’t blame them. Because we’re sometimes not clean, we don’t like to stay in tents, and we’re sometimes so sad, in very bad moods.”

Those who are more sympathetic to the asylum-seekers, who have come from war-torn countries like Syria and Sudan, have taken the initiative to help migrants directly. One of these citizens is Lionel Sayag, a 31-year-old Parisian, who was shocked when he saw how exactly Nazar and other refugees were living.

Nazar’s camp of refugees had upwards of 500 people living under the Charles-de-Gaulle Bridge in Paris’ 5th arrondissement, a vibrant student area of the city. The 100+ tents were pitched in the center of a popular clubbing scene, standing in stark contrast to the neon-lit nightclubs that loomed a few feet overhead.

The now-empty space under the Charles-de-Gaulle Bridge, where 500+ refugees used to make camp. 

“I can tell you something: when I be in that tent, I was sleep, they come, like mouse, enter into my tent,” Nazar said, smile fading slightly. “I think it’s a very disgusting thing for some human to stay like that.”

Other Sudanese refugees who also slept under the bridge agreed with Nazar. Mutwali, a 25-year old refugee who claims he was beaten twice by the Sudanese government, expressed disappointment at the lack of care provided by the French government. “Even in Sudan, no one sleeps on the road,” Mutwali said, his friends gravely shaking their heads in agreement.

As the refugee camp grew larger, drunken barhopping Parisians began to step over pots, pans, clothes, and other personal items that kept claiming more ground as more refugees joined the colony. This juxtaposition of two opposite worlds—one frivolous and pleasure-based, the other built for the most basic form of survival—was exactly what prompted Lionel Sayag to try to merge them together. The young Parisian was frustrated by the fact that these refugees “traversed the Mediterranean while we were crossing the Seine; they ate dust while we were tasting our mojitos.”

Sayag took to social media to give his fellow Parisians an opportunity to do good for the people they may have guiltily passed by on so many nights of unlimited pleasure. Sayag’s Facebook event invited around 9,000 Facebook users to convene under the Charles-de-Gaulle bridge and enjoy a glass of wine with these refugees, listen to their stories, and bring them food, warm clothes, or “simply a smile.”

By the time the party came around, the Parisian police had evacuated the camp, just like they did months before at the large refugee camp at La Chappelle, a northern neighborhood of Paris. This did not, however, deter invitees from showing up from their newly relocated accommodations, guaranteed for one month minimum by the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo.

Natacha Quester-Séméon was one of the French citizens to mingle with migrants at the party. Parisian-born with roots in Russia and Brazil, she is part of the group who organized the protest on September 5 to show solidarity for the humane treatment of refugees in Europe. According to the police, around 8,500 turned out for the demonstration at the iconic République statue.

“It’s a complicated problem,” said Quester-Séméon. “But we need the citizen to put more pressure on the government to be more humanist.”

“I think we have to pose ourselves the question a bit more global, on why there is this war, and how to resolve current conflicts,” said Benjamin, a Parisian photographer who was documenting the mixer, as well as recent protests for solidarity on the migrant crisis. “It’s a lot larger than the problem of refugees.”

Parisians shared refreshments with refugees and brought them donations.

Lionel Sayag, the individual who organized the mixer, said that these types of events can go a long way with making the refugee experience in France more humane. While many refugees struggle during the day to find a meal, a shower, or a bed unoccupied by mice, Sayag said that just listening to their stories alone could help on a humanitarian level.

“These are real people, with real faces, with their own stories, and if this allows people to create links between them, why not have a way of opening doors?” Sayag asked, eyes flitting from one table to the next, making sure that refugees were taking home the donations of clothes and food. “I think that in our day-to-day lives, we can give something: a smile, a discussion, an exchange. Already, that is doable for each person.”

Many of the young migrants shared a particular trait in common with the Parisians who came to hear their stories: they were students before they sought refuge in France. Nazar would like to study engineering, but he can’t afford to think about that right now. He has to focus on being granted asylum; he doesn’t know if he even has the right to stay in France.

“To be alive, for me, it’s like a blessing,” said the young man, still smiling. “I guess I am lucky.”