Tag Archives: government

Riot police clear Tunisians from Paris gym as government cuts aid

 

French police have cracked down on Tunisian migrants who have come to this country since the revolution that ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. A group of squatters were flushed out of a Paris gym on Tuesday and the city council says that, thanks to government cuts, their situation is set to get worse.

Maamri is 30-years-old and has been living homeless in Paris for the past six months. On Tuesday night, he was looking for a garden to sleep in after finding his temporary home at a gymnasium in the north-east of the city, closed and blocked off by more than 100 CRS riot police.

“Today, I came back after looking for a job to take a shower, as usual, and to take my things, my bag, my medication, and there was a police officer who told me ‘get out of here and shut your mouth’ before pushing me … I don’t know what I’m going to do … where I’ll go to sleep,” he says.

CRS vans drawn up near the Belleville gym

(Courtney Traub)

Maamri joins upwards of 100 Tunisian migrants who found themselves on the street without their belongings around 10 pm, Tuesday night. They had been illegally occupying the Belleville gymnasium since 1 May but the Paris city council had let them stay – with repeated warnings that the situation was only temporary.

Finally, after extending the deadline at least once, the city moved to shutter it for good on Tuesday.

“We decided to close the gym rather than have it evacuated because we wanted to avoid having to make arrests,” says deputy mayor Pascale Boistard, who is head of integration of non-Europeans.

“We also need to give back this centre to the community, which was unable to access its services since the illegal occupation of the gymnasium. And the roof, in particular, needs repairs,” Nathalie Royer of the mayor’s office added.

Boistard says the city of Paris has struggled to secure alternative housing for the migrants, in cooperation with the NGOs Auroreand France Terre d’Asile. And they were warned in advance that the gym would be closed, she says.

“We had a list of around 80 Tunisian migrants whose situation we have been following closely in cooperation with several organisations, and who have been sleeping regularly at the gym,” says Boistard. “We managed to find emergency housing for 40 of them. Of the 40 others, several refused our propositions and some remained without a solution.”

Royer says that Paris is the only city in France to have set up an action plan to aid the migrants, who left Tunisia after the revolution that overthrew Ben Ali’s government. More than 5,000 people landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa in January and, as the French governmentanticipated, many went on to France to find work and a better life.

But budget problems have caused services to Tunisian refugees to screech to a halt. The mayor’s office says by the time the emergency action plan will have expired on 31 August, the state will have spent 1.4 million euros on emergency housing and aid to Tunisian migrants since the start of the Arab Spring.

“Unfortunately the plan won’t be extended. The resources are simply not there,” says Boistard. “And it’s not our job but the state’s. We started the action plan because this is a terrible humanitarian crisis. The state refuses to take care of the Tunisian migrants, and its only response is to arrest and deport them.”

Boistard sees the situation getting much worse in the face of severe budgetary constraints and plans by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government to cut back on emergency housing.

“By September, I expect 5,000 additional homeless foreigners and French people to be out on the streets,” she says.

The city’s explanations were of little comfort to many of the Tunisians left on the street on Tuesday night. They blamed the French government for the lack of aid.

Brahim, 16, says he came to France looking for work and a better life but has felt disillusioned since arriving. “In Italy, people helped us all the time. Now that we’re in France, nothing. There are so many Arabs here but no one is helping us.”

For Maamri, every day since he left Tunisia six months ago has been a struggle. Living without an income, he says he subsists on one meal a day, which he usually scrounges from local cafes. “It’s like I’m doing Ramadan [the Muslim fasting month],” he jokes.

For many like Maamri, dreams of creating a new life in Europe are wearing thin.

“I came here because it’s Paris,” he says. “You know, the dream of Paris. But it’s been so hard. I think I might just go back home.”

Reprinted from Radio France International on July 7, 2011.

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Hold on, we’ve got a crier: Gender equal weeping on the political stage

I was starting to have hope that Americans were finally riding the feminist wave. The U.S. has several women in higher office and Hillary Clinton was a viable candidate for the presidency in 2008. Even Sarah Palin, as embarrassing as she is to my gender, has managed to take a certain lead in the political arena. Yet why, after all these advancements, are women still expected to conform to some antiquated notion of what a woman in power is supposed to look like?

Tough, unemotional, severe, uncompromising. The list goes on. Why must a female politician be a masculine, uncaring brute while her male counterparts are allowed to tear up, whimper and all-out sob at the podium with nothing more than a congratulatory pat on the back for having feelings?

Case in point, Time Magazine’s November 15th article on John Boehner. First, we are expected to cozy up to Boehner’s deep, dark tan and likening to a slightly older John F. Kennedy. Then we are supposed to thank our lucky stars that the man knows how to cry.

“You can tell a lot about a man from his tears, and U.S. House Speaker-to-be John Boehner has always been a weeper. He cried on the House floor while defending the Wall Street bailout and once choked up during a partisan speech accusing Democrats of abandoning the troops in Iraq. But he also used to bawl every year during the fundraisers he co-chaired with his friend Ted Kennedy for cash-strapped Catholic schools. “John’s got the biggest heart in the House,” says Republican conference boss Mike Pence, who lost a leadership election to Boehner in 2006. “My preacher used to say, ‘When the eyes leak, the head won’t swell.”

Now, can you imagine if, say, Hillary Clinton opened herself up to this type of emotional bearing-all? The few times Hillary has showed her feelings on the political stage, it has cost her. She was described as “weak” and many doubted her abilities to handle all the tough decisions that come with a job in politics. While male politicians are rewarded for showing emotion, women are penalized and only praised for expressing uber-masculine traits.

A good example is in the same Time magazine issue, where the Arts section has a special piece on Sarah Palin’s upcoming reality TV show. Among the half dozen pictures are shots of Palin doing the following: Holding a hunting rifle. Driving a four-wheeler. Mounting a log with a chainsaw in hand. Are we supposed to believe that the only way to take this woman seriously is when she is “acting like a man?”

The day we can say that we have reached gender equality is the day when a woman is allowed to dress as femininely as she desires and openly weep during a campaign rally, without being judged for abusing her sexual prowess or lacking emotional stability. Or when a man is not applauded for tearing up over the thousands of civilians killed in a war abroad — not because it isn’t incredibly sad, but because crying is merited by any human being in these horrible circumstances. Until we embrace emotional outpouring as a human condition and not a gender condition, we just aren’t there yet.

And please, for the love of God, someone take that chainsaw away from Sarah Palin. Nothing good can come from that.

Former Political Prisoner Roxana Saberi Speaks out

American journalist Roxana Saberi spoke at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota tonight about her experiences as a political prisoner in Iran. In January 2009, Saberi was charged with espionage by the Iranian government and spent 100 days in jail. Her book, “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran” is just out, and she is on a worldwide tour speaking out about international human rights.

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Saberi was working in Iran as a freelance reporter and researching a book about Iranian culture when she was arrested at her home on spying charges. After being coerced into confessing, she was sentenced to eight years in prison. With the help of her parents and the media, Saberi was able to get her story out of Iranian prison borders and was finally released in May 2009.

While Saberi recognizes that her public presence as a journalist contributed to her release, she says that the majority of detainees are not always so lucky. Political prisoners in Iran can go months without anyone finding out about their arrest because, she says, “if you are a threat to national security, you lose your human rights.” That means no phone call, no rights to a lawyer.

Iran’s human rights record has taken a beating in recent months. In June, protests erupted across Tehran on the anniversary of last year’s disputed presidential election, resulting in police clashes across the city. And all eyes have been on the three American hikers detained in Iran after accidentally wandering from Iraq into Iranian territory last year. Sarah Shourd, the only female of the trio, was released last week after Iran faced intense scrutiny from the international community.

Saberi, who says that she has tried to turn her “challenges into opportunities,” hopes that Minnesotans will continue to fight for human rights at home and abroad. While she is unsure about her future as a journalist, she is extremely passionate about raising awareness.

“If we don’t speak out about [human rights],” she said, “violators will think they can continue getting away with it.”

The things we do for freedom

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.

Say it ain’t so – disbelief over Briton Shaikh’s execution

Britain is outraged. Akmal Shaikh’s family is outraged. I’m joining the outrage.

On Tuesday, the Briton Akmal Shaikh was put to death in China for smuggling 8.8 pounds of heroin in a flight from Tajikistan to Xinjiang last year. He didn’t kill anyone, he didn’t threaten to destabilise the Chinese government, he wasn’t out in the streets defaming Mao – he just tried to rope in a whole lot of cash for a whole lot of dope.

Dope. Illegal powder. Powder that, when caught in doses of more than 50 grams at one time, is grounds for the death penalty in China for the person carrying it.

I’m not denying that Shaikh didn’t know the rules or that he didn’t, in fact, break them (he obviously did). I’m more concerned that this rule exists in the first place.

How does China justify killing someone over drug smuggling? My brain just doesn’t register the logic. For killing another human being – yes. Or for terrorist plots against a nation – check. But selling some white stuff that will get you high? Nope. I don’t get it. It’s yet one more area where China has a long way to go in terms of human rights.

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I remember when I was in junior high and heard a rumor about a country somewhere that cut people’s hands off for stealing (part of Shariah Islamic law, incidentally). I was horrified, but somewhere deep inside, I decided that while it was awfully harsh, the crime there must at least be strictly minimized.

While now that I’m all grown up i do see flaws in that plan, it’s true that the punishment, if nothing else, fits the crime. There are reasons why parts of Islamic law say it is necessary to cut off one’s hands for stealing – it prevents the thief from ever stealing again, keeping all the rest of us safe. Yes, it is inhumane, but it somehow makes sense.

China’s law of the death penalty over drug smuggling doesn’t. If we apply a tit for tat policy, Akmal Shaikh should have been forced to smoke up a massive amount of that heroin for a month, then quit cold turkey. Is this inhumane? Maybe. But at least it applies some kind of reasoning. Killing him outright goes from A to Z without addressing the missing letters.

In truth, I’m against the inhumane treatment of anyone, including the world’s most serious offenders. In my world, I wouldn’t instate the death penalty at all. Prisons would still exist, but they’d be centers of reform with teams of psychiatrists working around the clock to ensure that criminals would be out in a few years and back to leading a normal, socially-acceptable life.

Unfortunately, until I become president, our current world governments will have to figure out other ways of keeping each other safe within the established infrastructures while maintaining some essence of human rights. Ordering an execution for a little white powder – or even a lot – isn’t getting us, as a people, anywhere.

Run for cover, she’s got the grippe!

“Help stop the spread of H1N1flu today! Notify staff if you have a fever and cough.”

I read these fateful words upon entering my neighborhood Paris clinic, gulping hard. After spending the latter part of my month with a congested head and burgeoning chest cold, I had finally decided to see a doctor. It didn’t hurt that I had woken up that particular morning feeling like I’d been hit by a Mac truck, slight fever in tow. But it couldn’t be the dreaded swine flu… could it?

I consider myself an educated person, someone who reads the news and has at least a fraction of common sense. So I am not ignorant of how germs are spread. However, the thought of entering a crowded municipal clinic waiting room with a blue paper mask engulfing my face felt like the modern-day equivalent of attaching a scarlet ‘A’ to my chest. And so, as my internal body heat rose with every step, I willed myself not to cough for the next two hours and walked quietly into the room.

Two hours and two degrees of fever later, my name was finally called. I walked into the doctor’s office, explained my symptoms and awaited the deluge of guilt-tripping as to why I didn’t notify anyone about my chances of being Paris’s next silent killer. To my surprise, my doctor plainly said: “You have a virus.”

“How do I know if it’s the regular flu or the swine flu?” I whimpered. My response was an unenthusiastic shrug. “They’re both the same, then?” I asked. Another shrug.

And so, with my prescription for bed rest in hand, I walked out of the clinic coughing at full force, awaiting my next victim.

Unfortunately, having just a “virus” wasn’t good enough for my workplace, which involves children ages 2-6, and I was instructed to promptly get an H1N1 flu test. The doctor may have thought H1N1 and influenza were interchangeable, but the media has shown us otherwise. My employers wanted proof.

What I discovered on my forthcoming lab test adventure, was that the spread of this illness – whether truly life-threatening or not – is incrementally more likely when no one in France is willing to test those who may be sick with it.

“We take a sample from your nose [called the Rapid Flu Test in the U.S.] and then you’ll find out if you have a flu or not, but not which flu,” said the woman at the lab the next morning. “If we find out that you have a flu, it will be sent out to see if it’s H1N1 or not… but it’s not very accurate.” How inaccurate, I wondered? “If you have H1N1, it often tells you that you don’t, and if you don’t have it, it can tell you that you do. It has between a 10% and 70% accuracy rate.”

Well, that certainly cleared things up.

The other option in France is to take a specific H1N1 flu test, which is 80 euros and not reimbursed by the national health insurance. Only five or six clinics in Paris perform the procedure, much less in other parts of France, and it is only done in cases of critical need – like, say, a pair of Parisian football players awaiting their next televised match against Marseille.

Things in the U.S. are no better. While there are significantly more cases than in France (349,491 confirmed/probable cases in the U.S. versus 25,103 in France, according to FluTracker and Rhiza Labs) the testing and vaccination methods in place are, as of yet, inefficient. Currently, the CDC is only testing flu-sufferers who have been hospitalized or are at high risk for complications. Treatment options won’t change based on results, plus there is simply not enough time or money for all other cases.

Same goes for vaccinations. During the first week of October, the first batch of H1N1 flu-vaccine nasal sprays arrived on U.S. soil. However, out of the U.S. government’s total order of 251 million doses, only 2.4 million were administered. Demand can’t keep up with supply, so health officials decided to send the vaccine over as it was ready, instead of waiting for the entire amount to accumulate. Already, the shortage in New York State alone is palpable, where the government has mandated that all health-care workers be vaccinated. Where does that leave the little people?

As for me here in France, I am finally able to enjoy comprehensive medical coverage – a coverage that hasn’t come as a result of selling my soul to a full-time job like in the U.S. But what good is that coverage if I am forced to self-diagnose.

In the end, I decided not to have the test. My doctor said my chances of having H1N1 were too slim and preferred to save the exam for really dire cases. Ten days later, I still don’t know what I had, and when I go back to the classroom next week my employer will have to be fine with that.

Perhaps, ultimately, I was socially irresponsible. Maybe I should have worn the mask in the clinic, should have insisted on taking the test – if anything, for public conscience’s sake. For now, I have just been telling people I had a “virus” and that it really was no big deal. But when my lingering cough takes off with a start, there isn’t a face in my vicinity that isn’t turned the other way, heading swiftly for cover.

First published in Brit’mag, November 2009

Forgive My (Aging) Sins! – Duch, Polanski and all the rest face a jailed future

Former Khmer Rouge regime leader and torturer Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, made front page news today when his trial ended with a plea for acquittal. Prosecution lawyers are striving for a 40-year sentence for the man who was responsible for the torture and killing of some 15,000 people in the S-21 prison in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

Duch, now 67, has admittedly had some distance from the situation. About 30 years of distance, in fact. My question is, do you prosecute someone who committed a crime in virtually another lifetime or let him enjoy the last years of his life with the dignity of an elderly man?

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Take dear Roman Polanski and his underage lover from the late 70’s. Or French President Jacques Chirac’s embezzlement charges dating back to the 1990’s. And who can forget Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his 11 charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity from the early 90’s?

I could fill this page with names of people who are only now facing up to poisonous acts executed decades ago. And there’s an additional, and equally long, list for those we’d like to indict (re: George Bush). But is it fair to send these usually aging and possibly reformed former leaders into the bleakness of prison for what will be, most likely, the remainder of their lives?

For me, it’s partly a question of age. Just as I cannot imagine sending a 12 year-old boy to jail for the rest of his life for shooting off a gun at his neighbor, I have trouble envisioning a grandpa-type withering away his last days in a tiny, steel cell.

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Additionally, there is the question of torture, since most of these soon-to-be inmates will face it at some point in their jailed lives, even as hunching old fogeys. Do we say, “you got what you deserved” and leave it at that?

There is something to be said about mental space. Space, in the form of years, in which the brain can reformulate patterns of thinking. Reform. I will be the first to criticize the Born Again Christianity movement, but I have been privy to cases where a person or family unit was ultimately transformed by their renewed belief in Jesus. In effect, Duch of Cambodia has tried to get off scot free using his Born Again status as proof that he’s a changed man. Are we buying it? And if we do, should we?

I’m not saying that we should just let all the bad guys go. Obviously, if no one learns that genocide or rape or torture is inherently wrong, we have no chance of eradicating it in future generations. I just think that when we’re dealing with a combination of old age and years passed since a crime’s occurrence, a little perspective is due. And possibly, maybe, a little humanity as well.