“FAMILLE SYRIENNE. S.O.S.” These days you do not have to go far in or around Paris to encounter these words. Usually they are scrawled in black marker on a well-worn piece of cardboard, a makeshift banner tersely introducing a Syrian family and their plight. The sign is held gingerly in the hands of a family member, occasionally a parent, often a very young child. Sometimes the spelling is off here or there, a fact that only heightens the urgency of the request.
The venue can be most anywhere. Some families have set up camp under highway overpasses, seeking shelter where there is no silence. Still others populate the core train stations that bring millions to Paris daily for work or for pleasure, originating from around the country and from Europe beyond. Still others claim the sidewalk as their domicile, families of four on single mattresses under blankets inadequate against the winter cold. They are begging for pocket change in neighborhoods where a pair of shoes or a night’s hotel room can cost more than a flight from New York to Paris.
Some brandish their Syrian passports. The gesture is ingenious in its way, and symbolically rich. Occasionally it lets them across a frontier as perilous as any they have crossed to arrive here, the border of the passerby’s compassion. Showing that dark blue book says, silently, that they are really Syrian, really fleeing, in the flesh, the horrors we see on the nightly news. Sometimes people press a coin or a folded bill into the palm of the mother or father. Most pass with gaze averted, that most practiced of Parisian arts. As with most problems before which we feel powerless, this is one we prefer to view in low-resolution.
A young woman far from home speaks to us softly as we pass: “as-salamu alaykum.” Peace be upon you.
* * *
In a certain strand of the American imagination, France—and Paris especially—is the epitome of the expatriate dream. If home will no longer hold you, or you can no longer stand to be at home, it is the place you go. The motives for going are varied, and the names are storied: Beecher Stowe and Fenimore Cooper, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Baldwin and Coates.
Upon departure, some are beset by a nostalgia that lasts until they regain American soil. For others that painful longing for home is absent. But in all cases and in every age, so far as I can tell, it is precisely the effort to be at home in France, to make a home where one has none, that shifts both how one regards the particular land of one’s birth and the very idea of “home.”
“D’où vous venez?” It is a question I get a lot, having moved to France for part of my formation to be a Jesuit priest. Like so many others in the French capital region, I have the air of a foreigner. And though in terms of French proficiency, I am no Voltaire, “Where are you from?” is a question that most interlocutors think within my linguistic capabilities.
And it is, strictly speaking. Except that it is a very difficult question to answer. Because what they are asking is: where is your home, chez vous? To answer such a straightforward query with “Ah, c’est compliqué” is to risk appearing unnecessarily needy, overly dramatic or both. To answer: “Well, I was born outside of Philadelphia, where my family still lives. I left home at 18 for college in Massachusetts, worked in D.C. for a few years, and then in nearly nine years as a Jesuit have lived in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Maryland, with stints in a couple of foreign countries” is to risk appearing—to say nothing of actually being—somewhat neurotic.
We have tried to make a home, several even, in places where properly speaking we have none.
“The United States. Philadelphia.” That’s my usual answer. And it is true, as far as it goes; I am just not sure how far that is. It elides the fact that I am actually from the suburbs. More egregiously, it ignores that I have not lived there for nearly 15 years. In other words, my breezy reply hides the elusiveness, the instability of “home.”
I am hardly unique in this. Many millions in the West have left home for school, for work or for love, not fleeing so much as seeking; and what they seek requires them to be elsewhere. The very concept of an “adopted home,” so prevalent among my friends and contemporaries, points ineluctably in this direction. We have tried to make a home, several even, in places where properly speaking we have none.
“We have to be about the business of life.” That’s my mother, momentarily turned Stoic sage, when she wants to deflect the mutually sore subject of the distance between us. This business seems to take us further and further from chez nous.
* * *
What is true in the United States is perhaps even truer in France and in Europe more broadly. The principle of free movement of persons, that keystone of the European Union, means that in theory an Irish citizen is as “at home” in Paris as her French counterpart is in Dublin, or in Bucharest, or (until “Brexit” is finalized) in London. In other words, the question of home has orbited the union since its inception. The coherence of the project depends upon making one’s home as interchangeable as the euro itself. This fluidity serves the common market, another pillar of the European Union by allowing human capital to move freely.
Easier said than done. In France, as elsewhere, the emergent European identity has been grafted onto an already knotty array of national questions. First is the perennial issue of the place and integration of immigrants into French society and culture. This, in turn, raises thorny issues around colonial legacies, race, language and—perhaps thorniest of all given French laïcité—religion. In other words, questions of European identity quickly become questions of national identity. This has been a persistent theme of France’s electoral politics this year. In the first round of presidential voting, after all, over 40 percent of voters cast a ballot for a candidate who—in one way or another—supports a “Frexit” from the European Union. In the second round, over 33 percent voted for the anti-E.U. candidate Marine Le Pen, one of whose slogans—"On est chez nous!"—can be translated as "It's our home!"
It is to this already thick stew that we must now add the reality of mass migration, which includes, but is bigger than, the refugee crisis. Many who today seek a home in Europe are fleeing war, persecution or devastation—but not all are. And the movement of these several million migrants, whether labeled refugees or not, has been facilitated by the free movement of persons wrought by the European Union Many of these persons arrive meaning to stay, and this despite considerable and perhaps insurmountable obstacles to integration.
Of course, when we set all this against the backdrop of a spate of recent terrorist attacks (Paris, Nice, Rouen) and a lingering sense of nonspecific threat (soldiers with big guns in public places), then we realize something important: The question of “home” is no longer orbiting European nations like France. It is haunting them.
* * *
The city in which I live, Saint-Denis, is located just north of Paris. Outside France it is best known to soccer fans and Marie Antoinette enthusiasts. The Stade de France is here, built for the 1998 World Cup (France won), and the royal necropolis that is her final resting place is in the city’s gothic basilica. Saint-Denis is a place of flux and transition for those arriving in France or departing from it. On one hand, it is crisscrossed by the A1 expressway and the RER-B train line, which both serve the same function: to connect downtown Paris with Charles de Gaulle Airport, the main gateway to the country. On the other, it is a city of immigrants from all over the world who have come to make a new home in France.
In December, the urban park built above the submerged A1 became the site of a pop-up migrant camp. The authorities had, to put it politely, discouraged their prior residences in Parisian parks. Their continued migration to Saint-Denis, by contrast, seemed rather encouraged. Some had been at Calais, in the most recent of several so-called jungles, among the thousands hoping to reach the United Kingdom. The camp here grew quickly: 50, then 100. Eventually, it topped out at around 500 human beings. Almost all of them were living under small, worn camping tents. The park became a scrim of blue, red, green and purple stretched between the brown earth and the slate December sky.
Volunteers from the neighborhood mobilized quickly, providing some sort of breakfast each day. In the evenings more organized groups often arrived with a hot meal. One night early after the encampment had taken root, I accompanied another Jesuit, French by birth, to survey the situation not 50 yards from my front door. There were a lot of tents, and a lot of people doing what people usually do. Some were talking and laughing, bobbing around makeshift fires trying to stay warm. Others were eating and drinking. And a few were performing the bodily functions that eventually result from such activities.
When we turned toward home, a resident from an apartment building overlooking this scene approached us. He had seen us conversing with those who were serving dinner. Not incorrectly, he took us to be among those sympathetic to the plight of the migrants, inclined to help in what ways we could. Incorrectly, because we did not fit the racial profile typically associated with either a migrant or a Saint-Denis resident, he took us to be from somewhere else.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” he began, extending his hand in what would soon be revealed as an ironic gesture of politesse. “I live here in Saint-Denis, and I just want to thank you for helping turn our struggling neighborhood into a place where migrants piss and shit in front of our homes.”
A fusillade of vague allegations followed, delivered with passion and conviction. (They might be terrorists. I’ve heard that in some of their cultures raping children is standard practice. And have you heard how they treat women where some of them are from?) We were awash in a stream of hyperbole and stereotype, the kinds of things said to justify the fear and anger we sometimes feel, but that only show that we are afraid and angry and reacting accordingly. They are the things often said about the “other,” whoever that might be. But having them shouted at me—and not 10 feet from the nearest tent—quickened my pulse. I felt my face flush. I had the sudden urge to say something.
But I was tongue-tied, struck dumb not so much by his tirade as by my blunt-force French, uniquely unsuited to this moment. Fortunately, my fellow Jesuit spoke for me, for us. They were pissing and shitting in front of our home, too, he said. Our neighbor was impervious to this fact. Likewise, he was unmoved by our reminder that these people had abandoned their homes and risked their lives to arrive in a place where they did not speak the language and had no network of support. People who are not desperate do not do such things. He could have added that whatever our feelings about public urination or defecation—and may I say that, generally, I am opposed⎯-there are such things as extenuating circumstances.
Our care for the displaced cannot be taken to mean that community development, property rights, public sanitation and public safety somehow cease to matter.
Reminded by my fellow Jesuit of their plight, and told of our felt duty to offer some form of assistance, our neighbor said something that has been seared in my mind ever since. Still caught in the full heat of the moment, he shot back instinctively and no doubt sincerely, “That is not my problem!”
An uneasy silence fell. After such a definitive proclamation, no one seemed to know what more to say. He left us shortly thereafter. We finished our walk home.
If it seems, in my retelling of this story, that I am treating this gentleman harshly, I assure you this is not my intent. Some of his concerns, hyperbole aside, are quite valid. Our care for the displaced cannot be taken to mean that community development, property rights, public sanitation and public safety somehow cease to matter. The exercise of charity, if charity it be, is never a zero-sum game.
“That is not my problem,” he said. And, to my surprise, I loved him for saying it.
But why? After all, this is the kind of statement that makes it easy to disregard this man and his concerns, to caricature him into oblivion. Doing so would set up a tidy conclusion to this kind of essay. Given my religious context, such a tactic might involve a quote or three from Pope Francis on the urgency of hospitality or the problem of indifference; better still, it might invoke his example of welcoming migrants into the Vatican. In any case, I would be the hero of that story. And, were you to agree, we would share that cozy mantle of righteousness.
This would be far too simple and—given that reality is seldom that way—almost certainly false.
“That is not my problem,” he said. The fact is, this was what I myself had thought silently as I walked around the camp just a few moments before. “This is horrible,” my mind whispered. “And how is it my problem?” It was also what I had said less explicitly earlier in the day—and the week and the month—as I averted my gaze from yet another passport-bearing family in the train station on my way to class. “Too bad, but how is this my problem? And anyway, what can I do?”
“That is not my problem.” It was perhaps the only thing my neighbor could have said capable of bridging the space between us. Because when he said this, he showed me myself. And I loved him for it, though I did not particularly love what I saw.
* * *
Faced with complexity, whether a thorny political reality or the messiness within and without, we instinctively opt for clarity and simplicity. This is especially true when we feel powerless or hopeless. When we are afraid, in other words. Such simplicity may involve supporting defensive political gestures that leave underlying issues unaddressed. As often, and perhaps at the same time, it involves disengagement or apathy.
“Fear is not a Christian habit of mind,” Marilynne Robinson has written. This is true, and so is the fact that fear, whether justified or not, is an extremely powerful motivation—even among Christians, myself included—even, judging by the recurring themes of human history, in supposedly Christian lands. I daresay that fear is a more familiar principle of action than self-sacrificing love. Alas, these themes do not seem in imminent danger of exhaustion.
All the same there are good reasons to question whether “home”—as a stable concept, something definitively achieved—is a habit of mind common to human beings in general, and Christians in particular.
It was Jesus himself who, unlike foxes and birds, had no place to lay his head.
We need only think of the former American expatriate in France, Ernest Hemingway, holding his shotgun on the way to a home he never found here below. We need only think of Abraham and Moses, claimed by many as “forefathers in faith.” The first left his home on the promise that a new one would be shown to him, the second died with a long sought-after home finally on the horizon. The theme is recurring: “We have here no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come.” That’s the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews.
And it was Jesus himself who, unlike foxes and birds, had no place to lay his head. He thought this important enough to tell his disciples up front. The question of his first followers, “Master, where are you staying?” is met not with a postal code but with an invitation: “Come and see.” What they saw was the road.
There are differences between the rootlessness of the disciple and the rootlessness of those in the West who leave home seeking degrees, loves and jobs. Still, both are free choices. This freedom, or more precisely its lack, is in turn what distinguishes the plight of the person living under a tent in Saint-Denis. Physical need here replaces social mobility, privilege or a sense of vocation. We miss this difference at the risk of spiritualizing the inhumane, or—worse still—blessing it. The same Christ who trimmed the roots of his disciples still taught them to welcome the stranger and to shelter to the homeless.
And yet, for all the differences, the fact remains that home is our shared problem.
Ironically it is migrants themselves who seem to retain the strongest faith in what is sometimes called the European dream, a dream they pursue with their lives as collateral. Recent events in my homeland suggest that much the same may be said for its American counterpart.
But more ironic still, and most telling for my point, is that my interlocutor on that December evening, the one so tenaciously staking claim to his home, was himself a foreigner. He was an immigrant of African extraction. In fact none of us, not myself, not my neighbor, not even the French Jesuit I was with, was a native of the particular place we were claiming as “our home” on that frosty night. Home united us, even as it so palpably divided us.
What we fear, what I fear, in the face of the migrant or the refugee might not be so much their foreignness but rather their familiarity. They give flesh and blood to the quest for home, that most elusive of realities these days.
* * *
My unquiet silence continued for the rest of that evening as I returned to my apartment. As the camp continued to grow, the quilt of multicolored tents became visible from my bedroom window. Visible, that is, until Dec. 19. That morning, as volunteers peddled coffee and tea and baguettes, police began to gather at the edges of the camp. Like the migrants, their presence grew quietly and gradually and steadily. Eventually about 200 officers began the task of once again relocating those present—to shelters, this time. Temporary, of course.
In departing, the migrants were made to leave their tents behind. For a short time the camp was a ghost town populated only by those perfect symbols of the need, the lack, the ephemerality of home. For weeks they had offered a daily reminder that in addition to a physical necessity, home is a spiritual hunger, something longed for, grasped after. The problem with such spiritual hungers, and their beauty, is that they very often go unfulfilled. We know them only in reaching for them and in finding that they elude us.
Just days before Christmas, the tents were efficiently dismantled by workers in white hazmat suits. Then they were destroyed.
Temporary fences were erected around the park where the camp had been, their stated function to keep erstwhile inhabitants from returning. The fences were there for several weeks—longer, ultimately, than the migrants themselves. For us who remained, they marked an absence, but not only that. The fences sketched in chain link the contours of our problem: We assert our own sense of home by denying one to others. This is darkly ironic, if well attested in human history. But the particular inflection of this problem today, in France as much as in my homeland, is that we deny to others what we ourselves are seeking but have not found.