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For The African Diaspora, Homeland Visits Will Have To Wait

Summer is normally the time for France's immigrants or their descendants from Algeria, Senegal and other African countries to head back to the home country. This year? Not so much.

Inside the departure hall of Paris Orly Airport
Inside the departure hall of Paris Orly Airport
Mustapha Kessous

PARIS — Bréhima Sidibé had promised to return to Kayes, in Mali, at the end of July. He wanted to pay his respects for the first time at his father's grave.

"He died a few months after my arrival in Paris," says Sidibé, 24, a language sciences student at the University of Cergy-Paris. "I haven't been back to Mali since I began my studies in France. It'll be three years in September."

The young Malian had planned to buy his plane tickets in March. "But that coincided with the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the quarantine," Sidibé explains. "As a result, I gave up my plans for this summer. No vacation. I'm working as a temp. COVID-19 got the better of me."

Could he have gone anyway? Probably not. Mali closed its borders on March 18 and suspended commercial airlines from countries affected by the epidemic. Only flights for the repatriation of Malians stranded abroad (largely in Europe, Canada and India) are scheduled — from Paris only — until the end of July, and at a cost of 773 euros.

The current global health crisis has forced much of the African Diaspora in France to give up on "going home" for the summer. Even if certain countries such as Senegal or Morocco are beginning to open their borders — to nationals or foreigners holding a residence permit — there's a general sense among people that they just can't visit right now.

They're deeply disappointed, as a result. And with the pandemic spreading in many African countries, they're are also scared for the safety of friends and family.

Denise Eyike, a 57-year-old nursery assistant from Cameroon living not far from Paris, will not be heading to Yaoundé, the Cameroonian capital, to kiss her parents, her two daughters and her four grandchildren. "I remember saying to my mother last year, "See you next July,"" she says.

Eyike is used to spending a month every summer back in Cameroon. This year she spent her vacation days instead in Dax, in southwestern France. Those hugs and kisses with family will have to wait.

"This virus kept us from getting organized for this summer," she explains. "And now I don't have the money to buy a 2,000-euro ticket at the last minute. I just can't. And even if I did go, I'm not sure we'd be able to respect the social distancing guidelines."

Cameroon has officially registered more than 16,500 infected people and close to 400 deaths. "I'll go next year, if there's no further misfortune," Eyike promises.

That's exactly what Saïd tells himself as well. The Algerian-born man lives in Vitry-sur-Seine (Val-de-Marne) and used his vacation days last summer to visit Italy. This year he wanted to return to his home in Tizi Ouzou to see family and revisit the mountains of Kabylia.

"This virus kept us from getting organized for this summer" — Photo: Jack Chan/Xinhua/ZUMA

"Everything was planned," he says of the trip he'd scheduled for August. "But it's a mess in Algeria. Instead, maybe we'll go to Denmark in a camper van."

Algeria's land, sea and air borders will remain closed until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, or more precisely "until God frees us from this scourge," as Algerian head of state Abdelmadjid Tebboune said on June 28.

Two days later, the European Union announced the reopening of its air borders with the country. But since the beginning of July, Algeria has been dealing with a growing outbreak: The official number of new cases exceeds 500 per day, compared to 250 at the end of June.

This is an underestimate, according to doctors, who say that the situation is catastrophic in certain hospitals and are sounding the alarm on social networks. Since the first case was recorded on Feb. 25, Algeria has officially recorded nearly 25,000 infected people (16,000 at the beginning of July) and more than 1,100 deaths.

Needless to say, the situation is confusing, and as much as Algerians in France would love to travel back home to North Africa this summer, they're holding off, says Abdel (the first name has been changed), head of a travel agency that has operated for decades in the Goutte-d'Or, in the 18th arrondissement of Paris.

"Why are they closing the borders when there are so few deaths?" says Saïd. "Can we really believe the state? This health crisis raises a lot of questions."

These are the kinds of questions that also hound Souleymane Gueye, vice-president of the Federation of Senegalese Students and Trainees in France.

Technically, the 28-year-old telecommunications engineer could go back to visit Senegal. But what would happen if, once there, he fell ill? And what if authorities there decided to enforce another quarantine? How would he leave the country in that case?

"I didn't go to Dakar for fear of being stuck on the continent," he says. "I didn't take that risk, because everything can change from one day to the next."

Gueye, who recently secured a permanent contract in France, also worries about his career. "I have professional commitments," he says. "What would happen if Senegal or France closed their borders?"

Perhaps the worst part is that prior to the pandemic, the young Senegalese man had held off on purpose from taking time off so that he'd have enough vacation days saved up to go for a nice long trip. Now, at the very least, it'll be many more months before he can hope to see his family again.

The separation is particularly heartbreaking for Muslim members of the African Diaspora, who planned to join their families back home for the great feast of Eid-el-Kebir, on July 31. "It's been a long time since this feast has fallen during the summer holidays," Souleymane Gueye explains. "A lot of people had made arrangements to go home. It's such a shame. Many had booked their tickets in January or February. More often than not, they canceled them."

Others, nevertheless, decided to throw caution to the wind and travel regardless of the uncertainties. That's particularly true for Tunisians, since there are no specific restrictions applied to arrivals from France and the borders have been open since June 27.

But Anna Gueye, a 19-year-old Senegalese student studying physics in Paris, also decided to just go for it — despite the more than 150 coronavirus deaths reported in Senegal. She'd booked her tickets in February, she said. Her departure was delayed, but finally, on July 18, she was able to leave.

"My return flight is confirmed," says Gueye, who has a student visa for France and plans to return in August. "But if France or Senegal goes back into quarantine, then I won't know what to do..."

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