Article by Tatiana Thieme
Have any of you donated clothes and supplies in the last few months to organisations working with refugees in Europe? From shoes we consider too worn, to coats we are happy to part with because we got a new one, what happens to these second-hand garments? This is the story of a pair of boots that landed in the humanitarian centre in Paris in June 2017.
I was volunteering one summer morning in Paris outside the Bubble with Solidarité Migrant Wilson who provide breakfast each morning of the week to refugees around Boulevard Ney. This has become a gathering place for refugees, particularly young men, many of whom are sleeping rough on the streets nearby. Those who have been here for a while, or know someone who has, know to ask one of the volunteers for help if they need clothes or other supplies. One of the NGOs on the premises who takes care of clothing distributions is Utopia56. They had been active in Paris and in Calais since the wave of refugees began to arrive in large numbers in 2014. They have by now become well known amongst volunteers and concerned citizens who want to donate time or supplies, so they have a large room where they collect, sort and distribute all kinds of second hand clothing, shoes, as well as toothbrushes, diapers, and other essentials.
That morning, while I’m handing out buttered bread rolls and tea alongside other volunteers to young Afghan and Sudanese men, an Afghan man in his 20’s named Sardal comes up to me with broken English and asks me if I can help his friend Zabi. He points to his Zabi’s feet, and says, ‘my friend needs shoes.’ I looked down and saw the young man’s feet uncomfortably slipped into broken old sneakers that were three sizes too small. He had his heal stuck out and no socks. I turned to one of the guys who has been working at Utopia for a few months and seems to be the one in command at that moment, and I ask him if I can go get some shoes from this young man. No problem, he says, just got to the warehouse where we have all the stuff, it’s a bit disorganised but you’ll we have a big box of shoes, so just see if you can find his size. And put them in plastic bag so the others don’t see.
I told the Sardal and Zabi I’d be back (they were near the breakfast area and would not be able to come inside the camp with me.) When I started navigating the maze of boxes and bags of stuff that had been donated, some of which was still unpacked, I spotted a bunch of big carton boxes with shoes. There tends to be a real shortage of men’s shoes. It’s not surprising, as a majority of the refugees in Paris tend to be men. As I rummage through these boxes looking for size 41, I start to get nervous that I may not find the right size. Most of the shoes I find are scruffy men’s sneakers and some shoes, but all tend to be size 43.
Suddenly I find a pair of really sturdy Caterpillar boots, the kind you would wear to go hiking but also walking around in cold weather. Size 41. I’m thrilled at that moment to have found what I thought would be the perfect pair of shoes for someone who would need all-purpose footwear. These would last and be good in all weather. Although this was summertime, I had read about and heard stories of refugees walking for weeks in freezing weather conditions across Europe, or in limbo at the Calais infamous jungle camp… And I thought they looked nice too, in a sort of vintage way. I found 2 pairs of socks too, and a pair of trousers and sweater that I figured either of the two men might be able to use.
When I get out of the gate, Sardal and Zabi are sat on the little patch of grass across form the security guard who I had met earlier that morning.
I sit next to them and take out the boots. The men chat and fiddle with the boots for a while, seeming to disagree about something. I asked Sardal what’s wrong, and he looks at me and says, “he doesn’t like them. Says they’re too heavy.” So I start saying “but they’ll last you a long time and they’re good in rain, for walking, for cold.” His friend says to me, “I know that, but my friend is stubborn and doesn’t want them.” So Zabi takes a pair of socks and looks at me and smiles, said “merci” and walks off.
Sardal stays back on the grass and sits with me for a while. He fiddles with the boots some more, and then says to me, “don’t worry, I like them. I’ll take them. I’ve been travelling for a long time and spent 6 months in Hungary where a police officer even took my shoes when it was winter and snowing. I’ll take the boots.”
At that point Peter the security guard, a tall man from Ivory Coast in his late 40’s, looks at me laughing and says, “celui la il est intelligent” (that one’s smart).
During our conversation, I learn that this young man has gone from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Turkey to Serbia to Hungary (where he was arrested in imprisoned for 5 months – “they took my jacket and shoes and it was the middle of winter. I don’t like Hungary”) sent to Bulgaria, went back to Hungary, Austria, Germany and finally France. “Germany is no good… I was in Frankfurt for 3 days… they don’t want Afghans right now. They’re all getting kicked out… France is good. It’s safe here. You can survive here and there is help.”