Welcome, Nomads

The work I was doing is easy to put into do-gooder buzzwords: access, public health, marginalization, human rights, etc., etc. It’s the sort of work that Harvard likes to fund.
By Henry S. U. Shah

Paris’s biggest slum is about three miles from the Eiffel Tower. This past summer, I conducted research on this slum and its Roma inhabitants. Last month, I went back to Paris to present my findings at a conference on Roma integration, and to finish up some research.

Though many question their background, my Roma friends make it clear that they are, indeed, European. Romania is in Europe; they’re Romanian, QED. They’re here, in Paris, to make money. They’re here to stay.

The work I was doing is easy to put into do-gooder buzzwords: access, public health, marginalization, human rights, etc., etc. It’s the sort of work that Harvard likes to fund.

I was studying access to rights and services in the slums, through survey analyses and field work. My work became increasingly complex and complexly depressing as the summer went on. At times, it induced vertigo. I could take the metro from the Mona Lisa to reclaimed metal shacks in 20 minutes.

In the mornings, I’d walk out of my apartment and pass a glorified coffeeshop, called the “Coworkshop,” where scarf-wearing Parisians typed away at their MacBooks. The front of the coffee shop’s 19th century Parisian storefront was covered with a makeshift plywood board.

A sign on the door read “Welcome, nomads,” and there always seemed to be a man wearing horn-rimmed glasses drinking a latte and smoking a cigarette in the doorway.

After the coffee shop, I’d walk past the canal. It had been drained for cleaning, and shopping carts, wheelchairs, and metal carcasses sat in its heavy silt. I passed small Chinese restaurants that kept closing, past three new spots that served only brunch, and past a man I knew from the slum I studied. Evicted over the summer, he and his wife now sat on opposite sides of the street, waiting at ATMs for people to give them money. There was no “Welcome, nomads” sign for him.

I kept walking, and arrived at Place de la République. When I walked through the square on my first night, there was a makeshift refugee camp occupying the entire eastern side. On the one-year anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the President spoke in that very spot.

The real “nomads” don’t own real estate in hipster neighborhoods, and don’t have track lighting. On my third or fourth day, I headed to a suburb called Grigny with a team from the NGO I worked at last summer. There were four of us. A 21-year-old Senegalese French woman from the northern suburbs, two 20-year-old Romanian men who live in slums to the east of the city, and me.

The puddles on the sides of the train tracks were frozen, and we were bundled but shivering as we got off the train. Everyone lit a cigarette, and we jostled with the others into the suburbs, only 45 minutes from the city. There wasn’t a white person in sight—no baguettes, no berets, no museums.

Grigny is the kind of place French politicians cite when they denounce home-grown terrorism—the Coulibaly brothers grew up and lived here. There were Turkish supermarkets, a new mosque, and a near-endless march of public housing towards the horizon, like upturned shipping containers with tiny portholes.

There weren’t any police there, though, and one of my coworkers bought a discounted phone card from a reseller as soon as we stepped off the train. The reseller also sold cards to call Pakistan and Burkina Faso, and tried to convince me to buy one by calling me “Karachi.” We walked into a sandwich shop to buy a “Greek,” a gyro, from a Turkish man. There, it was “salaam” instead of “bonjour,” and I didn’t mind.

We crossed over a highway, went through a muddy construction site, and dodged a truck whose driver gave us the middle finger. A man we passed cursed at my Romanian coworkers—they were blasting Florin Salam, a Romanian music hero, on their phones. And then we arrived at the slum I had visited some six months before. It was wedged in the middle of an old industrial site, a creek, and a 6-lane highway.

The houses were made out of scrap wood, metal, recycled doors, tarps, cloth, whatever could be found. One family’s home was wrapped entirely in an old billboard; it read, “I love my home,” with the picture of a French woman sniffing flowers seated on a plush couch. This home’s floor was gravel, and a big bed was the only thing inside. The father of the house arrived when we did and was carrying a bag of charcoal he found behind the supermarket. “I have heat,” he said, pointing to the charcoal. “Come inside.”

Nothing had changed since I was last there. It was colder than in August, no surprise. We checked if his wife had insurance, she didn’t, no surprise again—the local municipality refused. The teenagers were hanging outside, and showed us some videos on their phones. They’d just come back from Romania, and had all the new hits, which we could barely hear over the whooshing of the rush-hour traffic heading out of the city. Nothing had changed, nobody needed anything, since the NGO team had visited the week before, and so we left after only a half an hour.

It’s likely I’ll never go back; slums are usually evicted and destroyed twice a year. It’s likely that some of these people will become nomads, not by choice, but by necessity. I’m sure the nomad coworkshop will still be there when I get back, but maybe this time, there’ll be a real nomad sitting outside, a man or woman or child, from Romania or Syria or Afghanistan, with a cup, asking for money so they can stay put.

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