My first experience working face to face with refugees was last fall in Durham, with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Injaz club. Meeting several Iraqi families and hearing their stories of survival and displacement inspired me to pursue a summer experience along the same line of work. I was fortunate enough to receive a grant to stay in France after a semester abroad, and work with Syrian refugees in Paris in a few different capacities.
My time in Paris this summer was split between two main activities. The majority of my weekdays were spent working for a small NGO, Association Revivre, in Le Mairie, or city hall, in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, where Syrian asylum seekers of all backgrounds would come for advice and consultation on the asylum seeking process, with of course, the goal of receiving refugee status.
Due to my six years of studying of French and Arabic, I was able to assist in the office with explaining government paperwork and walking Syrians through the different steps of the asylum seeking process. Many of our clients knew little to no French, or had experienced very recent traumatic events preventing them from thinking and operating at full speed.
In addition to working in the office, I accompanied Syrians to local administrative offices such as the police office, the office for refugee protection, and the Court of Asylum Rights. While this arduous and tedious process to receive refugee status would take pages to explain, I would like to briefly highlight some major components that shed a light on the lack of preparation and effective organization of the French government (at least as far as I witnessed) in order to expedite and facilitate the process of accommodating refugees.
Before even beginning the mountains of paperwork, almost entirely in French, asylum seekers in France must receive a voucher, or récipissé form from the local police office. Many times I waited in line starting at six in the morning with Syrian first time asylum seekers for over five hours behind several hundred other people with the same goal. Two times, my client and I were rejected for not having a meeting scheduled, despite the fact that this requirement was never posted as official government policy.
After receiving the voucher form, French asylum seekers next have less than three weeks to write a fully typed out explanation of why they need asylum, and why they fear returning to their homes in Syria. This document is then circulated through a four-month review process, after which the asylum seeker is interviewed, or rather interrogated, to confirm that their responses to a provided translator align with the claims of persecution and threat in their written story.
This interview is then mulled over for another five to seven months before a verdict is given. Either ten years of refugee status, or one year, or nothing at all. In the case of complete rejection, which looked to me to happen all too often, one is allowed to appeal the ruling. This adds yet another complex set of bureaucratic steps after a full year drowning in paperwork and day-to-day struggles.
While these are just a few of the steps along the way to refugee status and the plethora of rights and liberties that come along with that title, there are countless other procedures the asylum seeker must attend to. One of the most obvious and challenging is finding a roof to live under. I heard many stories from applicants of overly crammed apartment complexes, with inhospitable landlords. Frequently Syrians resorted to sleeping with their families in the streets and parks of Paris.