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Geopolitics

An Immigrant Tale: From Post-Revolution Tunisia To Fearful Nights In A Paris Park

Buttes-Chaumont, one of Paris' hidden gems, is a leafy urban oasis for residents in the French capital’s eastern arrondissements. For the past several weeks, it has also been home to Karim, a 27-year-old immigrant from Tunisia, and three of his f

Paris' Buttes-Chaumont Park
Paris' Buttes-Chaumont Park
Thomas Monnerais

PARIS - One has to sidestep the picnics and forge deep into the trees of Paris' Buttes-Chaumont park to meet Karim, Kais and their two friends.

Tucked away in a hidden spot, the four young Tunisian men lie on mattresses that rest on the sloping ground. They're happy to have found a base after wandering through the capital. They have been sleeping here in the park for the past 20 days. Surrounded by empty cookie boxes and orange juice bottles, they are killing time, waiting for a dinner that will be given out a few meters away, on Rue Botzaris, in Paris' 19th district.

They look exhausted. They slept little the night before – and the nights before that, when they were aroused by park security guards. When Buttes-Chaumont reopened at 7 a.m., however, they managed to find their two mattresses and their only sleeping bag.

Karim, 27, is the oldest. Of the four he also speaks the best French. His companions can barely speak the language, but know enough words to survive – to "ask for a cigarette or some spare change."

"In Tunisia I used to work in construction," says Karim. "I earned 250 dinars (127 euros) per month, but it wasn't enough. Ten dinars a day is the price of a pack of cigarettes. At the end of the month, there was nothing left. That's why I decided to go to France."

Karim had a plan. His cousin and brother lent him 3,000 euros. He had to pay a smuggler to go to France, the only country he is interested in. He tells his story, with a few words only. The boat sinks, the survivors are rescued by the Italian coast guard. It's clear these are painful memories. He has only one word, used over and over, to describe this ordeal: "hell."

Before leaving Tunisia, Karim knew he would go through hard times. Still, he was optimistic. Now hope has been replaced by resignation. Karim would like to "find a place to stay and a job, but without papers it's impossible."

He prefers to stay here, though he says he'd be willing to go back to Tunisia – provided he is able to pay his debts. "I will go back to my country only when I can reimburse the 3,000 euros." In the meantime he does not want to face his family. "I haven't been in touch with them for three months. They don't know what's happening here," Karim says.

The sympathetic city dwellers like "the Jewish Tunisian man who helps us with the French language" and an activist named Emmanuel, a member of the Without Borders Education Network (WBEN), are the only Parisians with whom Karim talks.

Every morning, at 10 a.m., Emmanuel comes to the park with a coffee thermos and plastic cups. "I've been here since May 5, when the Tunisians were expelled from the building on Simon Bolivar Avenue," he says. "The city of Paris allowed the immigrants to be expelled, saying the building was dangerous and unsanitary." Emmanuel has been supporting the Tunisian refugees since then, participating in demonstrations and serving as a witness for other forced evictions.

On other side of the Buttes-Chaumont's gates, visible from where Karim and his friends are sitting, stands a rundown building that, until June 22, had been occupied by Tunisian immigrants. The building, at 36 Botzaris street, belongs to the Constitutional Democratic Rally, the party of deposed Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. The building is said to have housed compromising documents linked to the former president's regime.

A new plaque on the wall says it is now an annex of the Tunisian Embassy. "We work for the embassy," say the people who open the door. No one knows what they are really doing. "They say they belong to the Tunisian Embassy, but they don't even come and see us," says Karim with an irritated tone. This is the experience, circa 2011, of a Tunisian man's hard landing in Paris.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Vincent Desjardins

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