Centres of Exile: Paris

Centres of Exile: Paris
Thursday, 16 March 2017 Written by Austin Cooper

Every year, the Trust supports freelance journalists forced to set up new lives in some of the world’s largest capital cities. But what are the realities of life in exile? And how do you re-start your career as a journalist in an alien and unfamiliar city? In our new series exploring centres of exile, Austin Cooper talks to freelancers in Paris.

"Paris is a city of welcome and refuge - and not just as an abstract value, but as a concrete goal." So said Mayor Hidalgo at a recent gala celebrating the work of the La Maison des Journalistes, who provide temporary residence to journalists who have been forced into exile in France’s capital city.

France has long been a destination for journalists fleeing conflict and and persecution from their home countries. According to CPJ, since 2010, the country has received more exiled journalists than Germany and Lebanon combined, with many settling in the capital. The numbers are on the rise: La Maison currently house more than 30 exiled journalists - many of them dealing with serious physical and psychological scars - and in the last year the Trust helped eight freelancers and their families find safety in the French capital.

So how do freelancers cope, survive and return to work in Paris - and do the mayor’s words ring true for them? "From the very first day I arrived here, I felt like an outsider," Gulasal Kamalova tells me. Gulasal never expected to call Paris home, but when her prolific freelance newsgathering in Uzbekistan put her life at risk, a short trip away soon turned into more than two years of exile.

She also talks about the isolation of her daily routine. "I wake up in the morning and lie in bed checking my e-mail. Then I begin to open all the social media sites and check news articles on my feed. I eat breakfast. I check the comments on my posts and delete any offensive remarks, post new articles and follow the news in Uzbekistan on social media. And so on until the evening."

Until Gulasal found the safety of La Maison des Journalistes, she felt so alone she was tempted to go back to Uzbekistan and face the security services who had already arrested her seven times. "Far from their family and friends, freelancers feel forgotten," says Saida Huseynova, partnership and fundraising officer at La Maison. "One of the biggest challenges they face in Paris is the wait. The wait to be given refugee status, the wait to work as journalists again, the wait to see their families."


The bureaucracy in Paris reminds Gulasal of the Soviet Union. "There’s paper everywhere, signatures, waiting times. Taxes." The only thing that keeps her head above water is her work. "Despite the fact that there’s hardly any money left over after I pay for rent and food, I don’t lose hope." Being able to work as a journalist in Paris - the very work for which she was persecuted - has made everything she has gone through seem worth it. "You see, even in France I continue to work for freedom of speech in Uzbekistan," she says.

Returning to work isn’t just crucial for the freelancers themselves. According to Mohammed Ghannam, a Syrian-Palestinian freelancer and RPT beneficiary who is also living in exile in Paris, "Paris needs us - to shed light on what is really going on in the countries we come from." With help from the Trust, Mohammed was able to find his feet, and is now back at work, telling the stories of migrants around the world for Médecins Sans Frontières.

Saida recognises how important it is for freelancers’ wellbeing to return to work. La Maison des Journalistes struggles tirelessly to equip their guests with tools to find work in Paris as soon as possible - commanding a small army of language tutors and pro bono legal advisors that help them onto their feet in an unfamiliar city.  More is needed, though; both Mohammed and Saida agree that breaking into networks and getting a foot in the door can be one of the biggest challenges for journalists living in exile.

Many freelancers I’ve spoken to said they found Paris to be an open city - and although Gulasal has found herself isolated from French society, the city has allowed her to continue her life’s work. "My work means that I can follow everything that’s going on in my country. Even though I’m in Paris I know more about the news in Uzbekistan than those who live there," she says, and wills there to be an end in sight: "I watch. And hope to go back. And if going back on an Uzbek passport doesn’t work out I’ll just go back with my French passport. But I’ll go back all the same."

We are continuing to help freelancers to find safety in Paris, and face the day-to-day challenges of exile. Most of the requests for assistance we receive from the capital are work-related. Help with training, equipment and professional networks come top of the list. Resourceful and determined, the freelancers I have spoken to do not want to remain victims - they want to become professionals again.
 
Image credit: Wendy Day, via Creative Commons License

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