The fatigue in her eyes is undeniable.
I reach for Chantal’s luggage, wanting to lighten her load as much as I could while we walked together to the closest train station. All of her worldly possessions are contained within these two small duffel bags. Without even saying a word, her body language reveals her sheer exhaustion. And despite her best attempt to deliver a smile, a deep sadness seems to permeate every line of her face.
We met for the first time only a few minutes before this exchange. We were about to embark on a journey together, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, this journey would change my perspective on life forever.
I was unsure of what to expect when I signed up to volunteer with Utopia 56 Paris, a French association dedicated to supporting migrants with life-saving shelter, food, legal and administrative assistance. I regularly volunteer with similar organizations, mostly focusing on food distribution. This time, though, I wanted to learn more about the shelter solutions offered to refugees and migrants — fittingly called “exiles” by Utopia 56 — and see how I could help.
Having a safe place to rest is something many of us take for granted. At the end of a long day, being able to lay down in a soft spot and catch up on much-needed sleep is critical to both our physical and mental health. Indeed, sleep and the ability to recover from our fatigue is essential to our survival as humans. However, in Paris, this seemingly simple luxury is not afforded to all.
Each day, the association strives to put a roof over the head of as many exiles as possible. A network of volunteers, both individuals and churches, open their doors and offer their beds and couches to those who would otherwise be forced to sleep outside.
And that’s where we came in. Arriving at Paris City Hall, Utopia 56’s nightly meeting point, my husband and I were introduced to the group of exiles whom we would be accompanying to their temporary home for the night. We met Chantal*, a middle-aged mother of three from Côte d’Ivoire, along with a young Russian woman, Veronika*, and her 5-year old daughter, Anya*.
After noting the address of our destination, a town in the Parisian suburbs an hour away from our meeting point, we started walking to the train station together as a group.
It was during this walk that I learned more about these brave women and the events that led up to their current precarious circumstances. United by their desire to give their children a better life, both women left everything behind — their homes, their families, their countries — with nothing other than their hope for a brighter future.
However, struggling to eke out a living in France, hindered by their irregular legal status and lacking any sort of support system to help them find their feet in a new country, Chantal and Veronika have found themselves homeless. As winter quickly approaches, both women fear the worst as each day marks the start of a new battle to find shelter.
“I haven’t slept in two days,” Chantal sadly explains. Yesterday the volunteer shelter network was completely saturated, and she was also unable to get a response by calling the emergency shelter hotline (115) in Paris. As a result, she was forced to spend the night outside, seeking refuge on a door stoop.
“It’s not easy as a woman to be outside all night. I am constantly worried about what could happen to me. This is why I must stay awake,” says Chantal.
When I reassure her that tonight she will be safe inside and can finally rest, she looks down and smiles a little. “Thankfully, because I am so tired. I’m dying to sleep.”
On our path to the train station, we approach a small kiosk selling cold beverages and ice cream. We offer to buy the women some water for the journey, which they gladly accept. Without giving it a second thought, we also ask 5-year-old Anya if she would like some ice cream. She jumps and smiles, eager for a special treat.
However, as she excitedly eats her ice cream, I see her mother’s eyes flash with worry. Veronika explains that Anya has had speech and behavioral issues ever since they were traumatized by police a few months prior. “Even on a good night, she rarely sleeps. If she has sugar, it’s worse. And when Anya doesn’t sleep, I don’t sleep,” Veronika says.
In that moment, I could clearly feel this young mother’s despair. Frustrated by their circumstances, angered at their treatment by the authorities, exhausted from pure sleep deprivation… life has not been easy for her. Veronika explains that it is almost impossible to think of anything other than where she and Anya will stay each night.
Solely responsible for her daughter’s well-being, Veronika relentlessly pursues all options to provide a good life for Anya. Some days she succeeds more than others, she admits. And today, I can feel her internal struggle as she watches her daughter enjoy a rare treat — all the while knowing it will surely cost her another night of precious sleep.
After an hour of navigating public transportation, we finally arrive at the apartment of a woman who appears to be around my age, and she welcomes us all inside. Each Monday, she opens her home to other women and children in need, offering them a home-cooked meal and a clean bed. I am impressed and humbled by her willingness to open her apartment to complete strangers, week after week. I think to myself, I hope someday I am brave enough to do the same.
And just like that, a seed has been planted.
We say goodbye to Chantal, Veronika and Anya, and show ourselves out. They are already settling in for the night, eager for some respite from the cold, cruel reality waiting for them on the other side of the door. Tomorrow will surely be a new battle.
But for tonight, they are safe. Tonight, with a bit of luck (and hopefully after Anya’s sugar rush has subsided), they can finally sleep.
*names changed for privacy