Winter’s coming; holidays are around the corner. As we bundle up and bustle with activity, how many of us have noticed the increased number of families with outstretched hands or the overflowing rows of tents pitched along sidewalks on the outskirts of Paris? Sadly, we don’t have to watch daily news reports to find out what happened to the refugee crisis because it’s right on our streets. For American mom, Melissa Dalton-Bradford, and her army of volunteers, this is unacceptable.
Melissa is best known as the Global Mom, author of the memoir recounting how she moved her family to 16 addresses in 8 countries. From Norway to Singapore, France to Germany, the globetrotting mother and inspiring writer stresses how belonging to a community enabled the Bradfords to survive and thrive in each of their new homes. Now settled in Frankfurt after a life-altering stay in Paris, her mission today is devoted to helping refugees.
She returned to France with a team not so long ago to ensure that refugees are not forgotten…and heard. From wading into the jungle camps to sitting with the homeless mothers and their children on the streets, Melissa is documenting their experiences in “Their Story is Our Story”.
She shares their poignant stories with INSPIRELLE and encourages expatriates to give these uprooted families struggling without support or language skills a helping hand.
Melissa, tell us about your latest project on refugees called “Their Story is our Story”.
Their Story is Our Story (TSOS) is a nonprofit dedicated to giving individual refugees a worldwide voice. We began as a group of writers, photographers, documentary filmmakers, painters, social media professionals and humanitarians who saw certain media spread generalizations or fear-inducing portrayals of the refugees we were interviewing in camps in Greece and Germany. The discrepancy between those renditions and our firsthand experience has driven us to assemble dozens of stories on our website enriched with photos, portraits, and video footage.
From our website, we also manage an online store, whose proceeds we funnel directly back into refugee relief. Beyond our social media presence, we offer live presentations where we inform, inspire and invite our audience members to share these stories further as well as to share their resources and themselves with refugees.
You and your dedicated team came to Paris to document the plight of refugees in the French capital. What did you see and learn?
We saw both the wonder and the worst of humanity.
Interviewing grassroots volunteers who were giving of themselves to respond to the needs of the destitute was certainly part of the wonder. Folks are rallying, dedicating their lives to serving and protecting strangers. There are, for example, people who’ve offered space for stockpiling emergency supplies. Others who are sorting those supplies. Others who are distributing those supplies. Others who are making and serving meals. Others who are befriending individuals and helping them through the legal system. And others who are giving language lessons.
We met one remarkable couple, Heather and Kelvin of Paris Ground Support, who’ve been living in their van for two years straight, running weekly loads of emergency supplies from Calais to Dunkirk and throughout Paris.
We met with Diana Holman and her son Ben Levaton, who fuel Compassion Without Borders, a student humanitarian organization overseen by Aaron Hubbard, the Assistant Head of the American School of Paris. This group of kids has held donation drives and done major fund-raising, made and delivered food and hygiene kits, even chartered a bus to share Paris with refugees. During my interviews with these kids, some were moved to tears of compassion. It was utterly beautiful. Humanity at its most wonderful.
Juxtaposed against that hopeful exuberance were darkness and despair, some of the worst you could imagine. With our award-winning French photographer, Christophe Mortier, we captured bleak scenes at the metro stations Stalingrad and Jaurès, where, last winter, we had stepped over hundreds of newly-arrived refugees.
Young mothers living in cardboard boxes.
Afghan teenagers curled up under bridges.
Lone Ethiopians huddled in cheap tents.
Entire tent villages lining the Canal St Martin.
Rats. Filth. Concrete. Cold.
Now the streets are bare. And where are all those people? Safe? Fed? Accounted for? Alive?
There is but one official refugee center in Paris: La Boule, in the vicinity of Porte de la Chapelle. A year ago, with my Afghan interpreter, I interviewed some of the dozens of men lined up in the evening cold to enter a space that houses only 400 refugees for a limited time. There, men showed me cell phone footage of the brutality they had experienced along the route to central Europe, and the inhumane treatment they had received after arriving in Paris. Pepper spray. Tear gas. Clubs. Kicking. Knives cutting through their tents. Sleeping bags torn from underneath them in the middle of the night. Buses that arrived in the dark and shipped men off to oblivion. On their skin, I saw the physical scars. In their eyes, I saw trauma, desperation, and despair.
We learned there are about 30 spots around Paris where refugees sleep at night, hiding from police, who have been given the charge to rid Paris of this “element.” These refugees, so many are unaccompanied minors, find one another. But what finds them? The dark and sinister side of humanity. Eyewitnesses told us of mafia, drug, smuggler, prostitution and pedophile rings that are circling these kids, preying on them.
Can you share with us some of the stories you are hearing from refugees you meet that have touched you deeply? How do the families with children survive on the street?
If you heard only one or two of these stories it would be heart-crushing enough. These examples are not at all extraordinary; they are commonplace. And they are piling up on our very doorstep.
Ali lost his left leg in a car bomb in Afghanistan when he was a teen. He also lost most of his family and village to bombs, violence, Taliban. On a dilapidated prosthetic, he trudged that treacherous route to Greece, carrying others’ children on his back, and lodged for several months in the Oinofyta camp, run by a good friend of TSOS, Lisa Campbell. Traumatized by the drowning death of his best friend from that camp, Ali escaped Greece by paying a smuggler to hide him under his semi-tractor trailer.
When we, who’d interviewed Ali in Greece, got word he had arrived in Paris, we put out a social media All Points Bulletin with this picture: “Find this young man.”
Hours later, this photo popped up on my screen with a caption from my volunteer friend Christine Dolan: “Do you mean this young man?”
Ali has been in Paris for one year now, and with the help of volunteers, he has gotten housing, French instruction, and even medical assistance for a new prosthetic. What is most touching is that Ali has begun guiding and supporting other refugee newcomers to find their way forward in a city that has been less than welcoming—even hostile—toward refugees.
“J’ai besoin de travailler,” Ali messages me everyday, “dans un resto.”
There is the teenaged boy who fled alone from extremist threats, witnessing atrocities I dare not write. He’s sleeping under a bridge this month. There’s the Afghan beauty who was kidnapped and gang-raped by the Taliban for four days then dropped off near home, but fear of village stoning made her flee on foot that night. She walked for three months straight. The Eritrean mother who held her toddler daughter up above the crushing human cargo in the hull of a ship from Libya to Sicily so the child would not suffocate. The other husbandless mother who crossed a desert with three children while pregnant with the fourth. The other whose parents were publicly executed when she was 15 and has been on the run ever since. It was her boat that began sinking in the middle of the Mediterranean until a Red Cross dinghy rescued her.
Then there are all the people who wonder if they will ever see their family again, if they will ever sleep in their own room, if they will ever work, if they will ever know peace. And the fear of most we spoke with: after surviving all this, will I be forced back to the terror, torture and bloodshed I fled? That, more than anything, is the resounding question.
You have always been a caring active member of every community you have joined in the many countries you have lived in. How did you become involved in refugee work?
It was divine choreography, I suppose. Our family had just made our 20th international move (from Geneva to Frankfurt), and I was settling in to finally write my series of novels. That was July of 2015.
Weeks later, the first refugees arrived in a bus in my German town and overnight the local high school’s gymnasium was transformed into an emergency first aid center. As soon as possible, I volunteered as a German instructor and found myself staring into the beleaguered and meek eyes of refugees who sat there across the bleachers. Many were still wearing the sandals they’d put on when they fled their bombed-out towns, the dirt and horror of struggle visible under their nails, behind weary smiles.
My 20 international moves? Not a one could begin to compare to what these people had known. My eyes and heart were ripped wide open.
Then there were the stories of loss I began to hear, tales that made me wince and suck in my breath. I am a bereaved mother (we lost our firstborn to tragedy when he was 18 years old), and so I am sensitized to others’ losses. I was quietly drawn not only to the many refugee parents who had lost children but to the unaccompanied minors, those about the age of my deceased son.
“If my son were with me right now,” I often said to myself, “I know exactly what he’d be doing. He’d be befriending these young men, treating them with dignity, and giving them hope.”
- To learn more about how expat moms in Paris have been helping refugees, click here.
Up until a year ago, the refugee crisis was in the news every day. Is the plight of these displaced people resolved or under control? What do you see on the ground?
The refugee crisis is still that: a crisis! News cycles are deceptive things. The news moves on, feeding our appetite for news-as-entertainment. But the refugees do not move on. Yes, in certain countries (Germany, for instance), the political and public responses have allowed for more efficient integration. But even there, the situation is far from perfect.
Then there are the scenes in France and Italy which are raw and dangerous. And Greece seems ripe for explosion, with more refugees streaming onto the shores every day but borders sealed shut so no one can progress. I am communicating daily with those who are on the streets, homeless, foodless, destitute.
How can expat women in France and throughout Europe help refugees, big or small to show that we care?
Expat women are the model group to offer support to refugees! We know from personal experience about mobility and the path toward cultural integration. We know the hard and often humiliating path toward language fluency. We are superlative networkers, are connected across borders, are entrepreneurial in spirit, and are powerful advocates for the outsider.
The way to begin is to find someone in proximity whom you can serve. Bring your strengths to one refugee family, one couple, one unaccompanied minor and then gently, genuinely make them your friend. It all begins and ends with love.