Arya’s journey: Behind the scenes

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece following an interview I had conducted with a young Afghan refugee named Arya who was seeking asylum in France. Learning about his two-year trek across 12 countries, mostly on foot, was a humbling moment for me as I tried to imagine putting myself in the same situation, and I was left awestruck by his courage, kindness and determination.

The behind-the-scenes story of how I came to meet Arya and conduct this interview also taught me a few lessons that I’d like to share, now that some time has passed.

In late January, I had read in the French news that a scandal was brewing in the 16th arrondissement, or district, of Paris (perhaps the wealthiest neighborhood) — the city had requisitioned a public gymnasium to temporarily house approximately 150 migrants who had been living in unofficial camps along the outskirts of the city. As temperatures dropped below freezing and snow covered the ground, the idea was simply to provide them with shelter from the harsh winter and reduce the risk of freezing to death.

Snowfall in Paris, February 2019 © Amber Christino

This was not a new concept — for several years the city of Paris has designated public gyms to serve this exact same purpose, rotating neighborhoods each year. This hadn’t been an issue before — until, apparently, they chose the 16th arrondissement.

The residents of this district complained about the city’s decision to use one of their public gyms to house migrants, saying that as citizens they should not bear the responsibility of the refugee crisis and as tax-payers, do not want to be inconvenienced by having to send their children further away for their extracurricular activities. An elected official of the 16th district even organized a protest in front of the gym around the exact time the migrants were due to arrive.

Residents of Paris’s 16th district protest at the gym requisitioned by the city, January 2019 © Geneviève Faure

Frankly, I was dumbstruck by their behavior and left feeling depressed by their apparent lack of empathy for people who have literally risked their lives just to be here — and risk them once more by being forced to sleep outside in the winter.

I sat with this knowledge for a couple of days and knew that I had to act. A long time ago, I read somewhere that we should “move when we feel moved” — and I just knew that this was my time. My original intention was to write an article focusing on the protests in the 16th and critically examine how and why such a situation could arise.

As the number of migrants and refugees worldwide continues to rise (and will undoubtedly worsen with climate change) we must start thinking about what solutions can be found and how far we are willing to go — as individuals, as neighborhoods, as cities, as countries — to accommodate them.

Before writing the article, I wanted to visit the gym itself in order to take a few photos for my piece. It was almost an hour away by metro, so I waited until Saturday and made my way to the 16th.

Gymnase Jean Bouin, January 2019 © Amber Christino

When arriving at the gym, I was glad to see that the migrants did indeed arrive and were safely housed inside it, despite the protests of the community. And that’s when the idea hit me — why not talk to someone who is directly affected by this situation: one of the young men being housed at the gym? If I could just share their stories of where they came from, how they managed to travel all the way to France, their hopes for the future, etc., maybe I could reach some of the community members who protested and possibly encourage them to reconsider their point of view (ambitious, I know, but my faith in humanity persists despite a lot of evidence to the contrary).

To do so, I knew I would first need permission from whomever was running the temporary shelter. I went inside to ask who was in charge, only to be told she wasn’t there today and I should come back the next day. And so I returned on Sunday, where I was confronted with the manager who had been assigned by the city to oversee the housing operation. For the purpose of this article, I will call her Lydia.

I explained my interview project to Lydia, expressing how important I thought it was to raise awareness, both locally and internationally, on the plight of refugees who find themselves on Europe’s doorstep —

— only to be turned away by communities and officials who believe they should be someone else’s problem.

I explained that I worked in the field of migration and was passionate about this cause, and I felt like this was a great opportunity to reach people by simply focusing on the human angle of the crisis.

I was fully expecting her support and had brought my camera with me that day, ready to start interviewing as soon as I had the green light. Instead, I was met with blatant hostility and downright rejection.

Lydia told me, in no uncertain terms, that she didn’t see any value in my project. She questioned why people who had lived through such a traumatic experience would want to relive it by talking to me. She spoke in a condescending tone, saying that I looked very young to be doing this kind of work and questioned where my “team” was. When I replied that it’s just me — interviewer, photographer and writer all in one — she scoffed. She explained that she was hired to find actual, concrete help for these young men… perhaps I’d like to take them for a walk to the Eiffel Tower as a cultural visit instead?

Dejected, I asked what exactly she meant by “concrete help,” because maybe there was another way I could get involved. I’ve spent the better part of my life volunteering with marginalized people in a variety of contexts both in France and the U.S., so I was not opposed to finding a new opportunity. She said that she had no time to explain that to me, and that’s why she scheduled an informational meeting for volunteers the following weekend. I found out what time the meeting was and skulked back to the metro, stung by her flippant attitude and patronizing tone.

On my way home, I had a million thoughts running through my head. How can someone working with refugees not see the value in community sensitization? Was this the wrong approach? Maybe I am too young or inexperienced for this kind of work. Is there value in my project? Why was she so rude to me when I was only trying to help?

After that first encounter with Lydia, I left feeling like I didn’t want to step foot in that gym ever again. I stewed and vented and may have even shed a few angry tears. After sleeping on it though, once again I knew what I had to do: I was going back to that volunteers’ meeting — whether she liked it or not.

Lydia had messed with the wrong woman that day and soon I’d prove to her that I wouldn’t roll over that easily — not today, not ever. I was sure that my idea had value and I was determined to see it through.

The following weekend, a dear friend (who always has my back) accompanied me to the volunteers’ meeting. With the two of us included, there were five people present total. Five volunteers for a gym full of 150 people requiring a wide range of support. I found myself thinking that maybe Lydia had treated other people the way she had treated me, hence the low turnout… but I digress.

At the meeting, I locked eyes with Lydia and there was an unspoken moment that passed between us. I could tell she was surprised to see I had returned, and I smiled back, remaining calm, cool and collected. She then said that she had reconsidered my proposition, and that if I could find a way to concretely support these young men, then she couldn’t control if I decided to interview them — offsite, naturally. I immediately knew that I had my way in, and mentally gave myself a high five. Lydia may have won the battle but was I was going to win the war!

I decided to organize group fitness sessions for the young refugee men, since this was one of their needs that was expressed during the meeting. I volunteered my partner (who thankfully supports me in my wild endeavors) and fellow Crossfitter as coach, and the next weekend the two of us traveled to the gym and led our very first workout for refugees! We kept the moves very basic, since most of them were undernourished and extremely fatigued. We chose team-building movements that allowed them to work in pairs, to laugh, to jump, to just let loose and have a moment of fun.

Piggyback rides in the gym to get the heart pumping! February 2019 © Amber Christino

In that moment, I knew that this was exactly where I needed to be, and where I could do the most good. It may have just looked like a fitness class, but I hoped it showed them that they weren’t alone, that someone cared about them and their well-being, and that not all members of this new community were going to reject them simply because of their circumstances.

One of the participants in this workout class spoke English well, and afterwards I asked him for his name. After a short chat with this young man named Arya, I explained my project and asked whether he would be interested in participating. A few minutes later, we walked outside together and started our interview. And so began not only my project, but also something much, much bigger: the roots of a special friendship.

Team-building exercises and a breath of fresh air, March 2019 © Amber Christino

As the weeks progressed, my partner and I returned nearly every weekend for more fitness sessions. When the weather started to turn warmer, we took small groups to a nearby track where we could enjoy some sunshine while playing leapfrog up and down the lanes. Cheering in English and French, at times asking for support to translate into Arabic, we must have looked like quite the odd sight to passersby!

My friend who had attended the first volunteers’ meeting with me even helped to organize a clothing donation at our Crossfit gym in Paris (special shout out to Crossfit Original Addicts — you guys are the best). Within a week we had collected a large pile of workout clothes, shoes and hats to bring to the refugees, and with her own money she purchased some sporting equipment they had requested, including 2 cricket sets and soccer balls. After washing all of the donated clothes, we brought them to the gym to be stored and later distributed by other volunteers.

Clothes, shoes, hats and sports equipment donated by Crossfit Original Addicts members © Amber Christino

After I published the piece describing Arya’s journey, he shared it with some of the volunteers at the gym where he was being lodged, and the story eventually made its way to — you guessed it — Lydia.

To my great surprise, she didn’t criticize it or deny me further access to the men. Instead, she shared it with a local high school teacher, who then invited Arya to come give a presentation of his journey to a room full of teenagers! This was in the exact community which had previously protested the refugees’ arrival. When I learned this, I was simply floored.

The next week, Arya, my partner and I sat together at a café and worked to put a Powerpoint together using the photos he had shared with me. Although he was nervous to speak in English, a foreign language, in front of a room of high schoolers (who wouldn’t be?), he was up to the task and the presentation was a success. He told me that the room was completely silent as he spoke, and apart from a few people who looked a bit tired, his words seemed to captivate the audience.

Arya presents his story to high schoolers in the 16th district, April 2019

I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the teenagers in the room were the children of the adults who had protested in front of the gym just a few weeks prior. In any case, I’m sure that Arya’s story will have touched at least a few of them and who knows how that will manifest itself in their lives.

Listening to his journey and seeing a glimpse of what millions of people are enduring every day around the world has left a lasting impact on me, and I hope it will do the same for them.

Fast friends: Arya and Tom, September 2019 © Amber Christino

Since that first day when I met Arya, our friendship has blossomed throughout the months. We were together as he tasted his first Nutella crepe in Paris, listened to a concert from a jazz band in front of City Hall, worked on creating his CV, ate burgers, Indian food and Mexican food, went shopping for new clothes, and he even met my cats. Clearly, their first encounter went well.

However, it hasn’t been all good news for Arya. His asylum application was unfortunately denied, and he is now in the middle of a lengthy legal battle to contest the government’s decision. He was also recently transferred to a new center for refugees and migrants in the south of France, a five-hour train ride from the friends he had finally started to make in Paris. He is fatigued by the ongoing uncertainty of his situation in France and looks forward to the day when he can finally start to safely plant his roots somewhere once again.

Until that day comes, we will stay in touch from afar and I will definitely be sitting in the audience of his courtroom appearance when the government makes a decision on his appeal.

I couldn’t know it then, but that first encounter I had with Lydia was setting the stage for many beautiful things to come — I just wasn’t able to see it at the time. I’m so thankful that I didn’t listen to the small voice telling me I wasn’t good enough and that I stood confidently to make my idea come alive. That interview only took 3 weekends, 8 hours in round-trip metro rides and a huge hit to my ego to achieve!

In all seriousness, though, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have to fight for something I truly believe in. The expression “the best things in life never come easy” has taken on new meaning and I will carry this experience with me for a long time.

I was reminded that more than anything, what people really need is just a bit of humanity. A kind face, a little laughter and some team sports can actually go a long way when you don’t have much else.

You don’t need to be the most experienced or have a lot of money to make a difference. You can just start with what you’ve got, wherever you are, and take it from there. Because maybe, just maybe, that small idea might spark something in others — or in your own self — until it takes on an entirely new shape.

I may not have written the original article I had in mind, but what came to life instead was much bigger. And for that, I can only thank Lydia for teaching me this invaluable lesson: I am capable of big things and as long as I can summon the courage to stand by my convictions, I will not be stopped.

Sharing stories of humanity, family and my journey working with marginalized groups. Hoping to help conquer xenophobia with radical compassion.