In honor of the Human Rights Festival currently showing in Paris, I’d like to tell the stories of a few of my immigrant friends in France. As immigration laws get tighter in France and around the world, it’s worth considering their human effects. One must ask, what makes one human more worthy of rights than another? Are country borders more important than saving a human soul? Before we write a law restricting access to those in need, we must realize that in fact every person’s needs are the same, regardless of nationality: clean water and food, decent housing, education, medical care, etc. Governments must reconcile the need of those within their country borders and those who arrive seeking help.
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— Mila is Serbian. She came to France 11 years ago with her Serbian husband, who worked in construction. She soon found work in a local grocery store, learned the language and integrated into society. Three years later, she and her husband divorced. She chose to stay in France, and had no problem renewing her visa. All she did when she moved houses following the divorce, was to go to the prefecture to change her address. Her new visa arrived soon after with the same status, even though now she had no links to France, besides having lived in the country for three years. At the time, her country was in the throngs of war – this may be the only reason she was not sent back home. Now, when she goes back to Serbia, she is disgusted by the prices in the clothing and shoe shops. The Serbian economy is no pitiful that an average salary is the equivalent to 150 euros a month. Yet, the prices in the shops are the same as in France. The distance between the rich and the poor is growing, and finding jobs is nearly impossible. Mila’s father has been out of work for 10 years, after the plant where he worked closed. He has since not been able to find work. Mila’s mother has never worked. Thus, every month, Mila sends part of her paycheck home to help her family survive.
— Palden is Tibetan. He was born in India and has never been to Tibet. However, he was born with and always has had “refugee” status in India, given no passport but a special travel pass instead. Unlike France or America, one cannot be born into a nationality there. Your nationality is predetermined and the line between Indian and otherwise is strictly separated. For this reason, Palden came to France to find work, to leave his refugee status behind and to make a new life for himself as a French citizen. Once here, he had to stay mum on his life in India. If discovered, he would be sent back. After all, why would a Tibetan need to escape India? He is not in danger there, it is a safe haven. However, he will never have full Indian rights, so he has come to France. Thus, he says he was born in Tibet, speaks a few lines of Chinese at his visa appointment, and is given a French visa for two years before he can apply for citizenship. Once he receives it, he is free to travel anywhere in the world, in particular, Tibet. He can finally return to his unfamiliar homeland and use his knowledge from the Western world to make change in Tibet.
— Tsering is also Tibetan. She was born in Tibet. When she was 18, she crossed the mountains with a friend to escape to India. The pair spent a month on foot, through dense snow and freezing temperatures, living off tsampa – patties made of flour and butter tea. They arrived in India, only to find the living conditions far less desirable than expected. Not only were they strangers in a strange land, but they had to adjust to the toxic water, polluted air and new food. The girls were often sick. They couldn’t find work and couldn’t speak Hindi or English. Eventually, they were fed up. They made the decision to go back to Tibet, fulling knowing what this meant: spending another month crossing back over those same mountains into Tibet, where Chinese police would most likely arrest them and put them in jail for 3 to 6 months. They might be tortured, they might not be. But at least they could see their friends and families again.
— David is from Chad. His country has been in war on and off for ten years. After graduating from high school, he went to university in Cameroon. He also spent some time in Nigeria learning English. He decided to further his studies in France, where he was soon met with a visa nightmare. Because his country is at war on and off, he is constantly waiting it out, constantly wondering if he will be sent back home the minute peace breaks through for a few hopeful days. In the meantime, he is considered an “asylum seeker.” What he really wants is “refugee” status. At least this way, he will be on the fast track for citizenship or a more stable visa status. As things are now, he has to renew his asylum seeker visa every three months. He can never settle and never feel like he is moving in a linear, forward direction. The word “precarious” comes to mind. So does the word “stress.”
— I read an article in Le Monde the other day about two Afghan men who decided to escape their war-torn country to come to London. Thus began a heroic, 6-month adventure halfway across the world. One man sold his taxi upon leaving in order to have enough money for the trip, the other quit his job. Both men spent approximately 17,000 dollars to pay traffickers to help them cross the borders of Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, then France. They were Calais, on their way to London (and thinking they were scot free) when they were found by police while sleeping in an abandoned house. The French police told them they’d be alright, that they wouldn’t be kicked out of the country. But upon arriving at the airport (even under the police’s pretext that they would be allowed to stay) they were hustled onto an airplane and sent home to Kabul. Once there, they found that their families had rejected them for having left. Their jobs were gone, they had no home and they now owed traffickers nearly 20,000 dollars each. They did all of this for freedom, making it to the last leg of their trip before meeting an untimely end in France, a country they trusted to provide them safe harbor. As one of the men mentioned to police, they were simply passing through France, not staying indefinitely. So why did the French police expel them?
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— And my own story. I worked in Marseille from 2003-2005 as an English assistant. I came back to France in 2008 as a “jeune professionnelle,” which can be loosely translated into “paid intern.” I intended to stay for 18 months and hoped to stay for longer. I worked for a newspaper in Southwest France, run by a vicious alcoholic who polluted our work environment on a daily basis. Over half of the staff were clinically depressed. Eight months later, the business went under and we all got laid off. I found myself in a foreign country, alone and unemployed. When it came time to renew my visa, I did so as an unemployed citizen. My renewal was accepted. I was paid monthly installments to keep me afloat while I looked for a new job. After 8 months of searching, I found a teaching job in Paris. My visa has always said “salariee,” which means I am allowed to work in any capacity in France. However, when I tried to renew my visa this past February, it was rejected, on the grounds that as a “jeune professionnelle,” I had overstayed my welcome in France and had worked illegally for my current employer. I now have one month to do an appeal of the DDTE’s decision and if it doesn’t go through, I am expected to drop my entire life and jump on a plane back home. After a total of four years here, I speak the language almost perfectly, I pay French taxes, I have a full-time CDI (timeline undetermined) work contract – I don’t ask anyone for anything. Yet I am being told to leave.
I tell these stories because when we watch the nightly news or pick up a newspaper, we rarely hear the personal stories behind immigration. All we hear are the talking heads and their impressions of current laws. Perhaps if these same lawmakers took a few moments to listen to what is really going on around them, none of us would be in this mess. I cross our fingers for all of us.