Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

During the last weeks we have been doing as much research as possible related to the Parc des Olieux—contacting people involved, reading news and articles, obtaining pictures of the site before and after it was dismantled. We thought that the amount of information we had gathered so far was enough to reconstruct a very real portrait of the complexity of the situation, however, something was missing: the feel of the place.

A few days beforehand, we found out about an open-door meeting of the Collectif des Olieux that would take place on Sunday the 23rd. At this meeting they would be discussing the current state of minors’ residence applications and up-to-date information about the projects currently underway. Despite the short notice, two of us, Merari and Arnie, were able to go to Lille to participate in this meeting.

Sunday 23th, 2017

14:25 – Port d’Arras Metro Station

Lille, France

We walked around 1,5 kilometers to get to our destination, le Parc des Olieux. The meeting would take place in a warehouse beside the park. We had agreed to meet Leidy, our contact with the Collectif, before the meeting, but she was late and the front door was open so we decided to enter.

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At first sight we were struck by the heavy atmosphere and unusual silence. We were immediately approached by a French man who introduced himself and asked us if we were looking for someone; we told him that we were there to attend the meeting as members of Mitrajectoires, so he welcomed us and left us to wait. We could see there were already a lot of people, mostly young men, some of whom were eating the last part of the weekly free meal prepared by the Collectif. This week they had served some kind of rice and meat dish; the young men were sitting around the big pots, eating cold food without cutlery.

On the other side of the room there was a group of women squatting on the floor. We approached them and understood they were discussing the agenda for the meeting. Leidy finally arrived and introduced us two of the ladies. We could see that many other small groups, especially of young migrants, were dispersed across the room. There was no laughter, and it seemed that voices were strained and faces overshadowed by something.

It was about time to start the meeting but none seemed to be in a hurry. We were a little bit nervous because we were limited on time, but even more because we had no idea what to expect. Finally, after a 25-minute delay, someone called for us to gather and the meeting started. Some people sat on the available chairs, some on the floor, some on a wooden platform, and some simply prefer remain standing.

The agenda was long but they try to use the time to cover the main points. The woman who had called the meeting to order and a man, somewhat of Arab descent, led the meeting. They all spoke in French, which led us to believe that all the minors knew enough French to understand and participate. The first point on the agenda was about the hébergement (accommodation and lodging) of the minors.

They discussed a grosso modo—how the demands for shelter were proceeding for the minors who still did not have a permanent place to stay. One of the women reminded them all to go to the rassemblement (a meeting that we infer was to protest the current situation), which would take place that following Tuesday at 10h30 in front of the tribunal of Lille.  One of the leaders mentioned that if the young men were offered 2000EUR as a prise en charge for the lodging, they must not accept it. Immediately the question crossed our minds, “Is the government trying to trick these youth out of their rights?”

The session moved on to the topic of the obtention du passeport for some of the present migrants. The leaders said that the youth must prepare their own dossier and described the task as envisageable (achievable), although it required going to Paris. Sometimes we would hear some of the youth whispering, probably with mixed feelings of hope and concern. The woman leading the meeting promised that the Collectif would provide money for the transportation, but the route that the young men would take to reach Paris would be longer than usual because they needed to avoid any authority that could stop them on their way.

Towards the end, one of the young men was asked to speak up and to give the whole Collectif an update on a previous appointment with the city council. He was able to present clearly in French, but as this discussion seemed to be a well-known topic for the whole audience (except for us), he skipped details and the meeting quickly went to the last point of the agenda: a fundraising event called Festival des Moulins. Concerts and many open-door activities were planned all for the benefit of the Collectif.  The leaders requested the young men to be active participants of the event since some of the main values of the Collectif are the cooperation, solidarity, and equality. A couple of program leaflets were distributed for the Collectif’s reference, but it didn’t reach us since we had to leave the meeting before it ended.

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We left the place as silently as we had entered a couple of hours before, but this time our silence was caused by a self-reflection about what we just had seen. In fact, silence had been a theme of the meeting, at least for the youth. Most of the time that we were there, it was the leaders were who talked, and that shook us. Wasn’t that asymmetric relationship between the leaders and youth contrary to the equal relationship they envisioned among all the members of the Collectif? What did the minors really think about the situation? What were their unsaid needs? Why were they silent?

These questions bounced around in our minds on the bus home. On the one hand, there is a great work and an invaluable effort that the Collectif, through associations and volunteers, is doing to support the minors and to ensure their voices are heard. On the other hand, the silence of the young migrants and their lifeless gazes stuck in our minds. They seemed to be hiding a deep internal battle, one that was over in the park but not inside of them, and probably never would be.

Will le Parc des Olieux ever be just a park again? The minors were removed a few months ago, and some neighbors have shyly gone back to spending sunny afternoons there with their children. However, despite the fact that the camp is gone, the fight for dignity and recognition keeps going, just somewhere else. All the people involved in the Park—from migrants to neighbors, from associations to governments—might not see the migrants every day anymore, but everybody has been changed by what happened in this place, and this story will remain in the park and in each of their lives forever.

“Here they talked of revolution.
Here it was they lit the flame.
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came.

Phantom faces at the windows.
Phantom shadows on the floor.
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will meet no more.

Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more.”

Les Miserables

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