By Megan Evershed
On the first day I went to go visit the refugees, there was a dead bird desiccating on the pavement outside of their apartment building. I turned to Lili, the girl who I was volunteering with, and made a face at her.
Before getting on the bus to a part of town I had never been to before, we had been given strict instructions not to give the refugees our phone number, not to tell anyone else in the apartment complex what we were doing there, and to keep a low profile. Needless to say, I was nervous and the rotting bird corpse was not helping my peace of mind. Nonetheless, we rang the doorbell to their apartment and were buzzed through the door.
Climbing four flights of stairs, I didn’t know what to expect. I had signed up to Interagir on a whim. I had never had any experience working with social justice issues, but I felt that I needed to do something to get outside of my campus bubble. Now here I was, notebook in hand, heart in my mouth, knocking on the door.
In 2016, there were 85,244 applicants seeking asylum in France. Out of these, there were 18,555 people claiming refugee status. The majority of these refugees are from Sudan, Afghanistan, Haiti, Albania, and Syria. About 150 of those with refugee status have settled in Champagne-Ardenne. Noor and Mustafa and their two daughters are four of these refugees, and are the family who I work with.
Over the nine months I worked with them, they quickly became staple figures in my life. Noor welcomed us each week with a warm “Bienvenue,” Mustafa following with a jolly “Ça va?” As we built up a friendship with them, they became more comfortable with us. Noor would pray in the room while we were there, which Lili and I took as a profound display of trust. We would talk about laïcité in France, the upset Noor felt at having to remove her hijab to take a government photo, and the strange looks they got from neighbors.
In a country where Islamophobia and xenophobia have gripped the ongoing presidential election, the wariness Noor and Mustafa’s neighbors felt upon a Syrian family moving in next door isn’t that surprising. France has been in a state of emergency since late 2015 when the Paris attacks took place, and terrorism and immigration have been central topics in tabacs, kitchens, and cafes ever since then. Marine LePen, presidential candidate for the Front National, has made crushing terrorism a vital part of her platform. And the French are responding to her calls.
In a historical election where none of the mainstream political parties were elected to the second round, it’s safe to say she’s gotten her message through. The vote followed the death of a policeman on the Champs Elysées, who was killed by an “Isil-inspired” French national. Following the news of the attack, Le Pen called for the reinstitution of border checks and the expulsion of foreigners who are on watch lists. Many of her critics feared the attack would increase her voting percentage in the first round, which she passed with 21.7% of the vote.
In fact, she seems to be increasing her popularity. On April 27th, Presitrack recorded that Marine Le Pen would likely garner 41% of the vote in the second round, which was up one percent from just the day before. It’s plausible that with the intense atmosphere of xenophobia already bubbling in France, Le Pen’s percentages could grow before the May 7th voting date.
Of course, it’s not just France where we’ve seen presidential candidates capitalizing on fear and Islamophobia. In Trump’s America, where two travels bans have been passed and the government is attempting to fulfill the campaign promise of banning all Muslims, we need openness more than ever. I have lived in the US for ten years and became a green card holder only a few years ago. The first travel ban included a restriction on the entry of green card holders. Going to school in France, it struck me that if I came from Iran instead of the UK, I wouldn’t be allowed to go home.
More importantly, however, a family like Noor and Mustafa’s would not able to seek refuge in a country purportedly devoted to liberty and welcoming the “huddled masses.” For the sake of Noor and Mustafa, I hope we won’t see a repeat of the US presidential election. They’ve already suffered enough, and having Le Pen in the Palais Elysée would be an insult to their struggle.