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Three men have just finished mounting a whiteboard to a wall in the lobby. A woman walks up to the board and writes down the week's schedule "Does anyone know how to write 'legal aid' in Arabic?" she asks. Several young men rush to help her. They add the Farsi translation, and suggest adding a trip to the movies and a courtyard cricket match to the schedule.
The scene takes place in a former high school on Rue Jean Quarré, in the north of Paris. Nestled between high-risers and tower blocks, the school, with its tree-lined courtyard, is like a strange island in a sea of concrete. Abandoned since 2011, the building today bustles with the comings and goings of some 250 migrants and refugees — many of them from Sudan, Eritrea, and Afghanistan.
In a corner of the lobby, two young Sudanese migrants help neighborhood residents unload piles of donated blankets.
Jean Quarré high school, Paris (Photo by Pierre-Louis Caron/VICE News)
The former vocational hospitality high school was taken over by volunteers this summer and turned into a temporary shelter, after hundreds of migrants were evicted from other sites in the French capital. Many of the people now living here found themselves stranded in June following the forced eviction of a makeshift camp located beneath the overground Metro tracks between the La Chapelle and Barbès-Rochechouart subway stations in north-central Paris.
Known as the "refugees of La Chapelle," many of the migrants relocated to an improvised camp outside the Halle Pajol — a renovated warehouse in the capital's 18th arrondissement. Following the subsequent evacuation of the Pajol camp on July 29, a group of concerned citizens formed the La Chapelle Migrants Support Committee to rehouse the migrants.
The first people arrived at the school — a four-story building that was built in the 70s — on July 31. Today, they live there in precarious conditions and — in a throwback to the building's former function — take French lessons.
An Afghan man stands in front of a whiteboard during Shaïsta's French lesson (Photo by Pierre-Louis Caron/VICE News)
"My students are at very different levels," Shaïsta, a 22-year-old French teacher, told VICE News. "Some are distracted, but on the whole, they listen to me." Shaïsta was brought up speaking Pashto — the official language of Afghanistan and second largest in Pakistan. Shaïsta shows up at the school several times a week to teach French to those who want lessons.
"I want my French to improve quickly, it will help me stay here and work," Jamal [not his real name], a 29-year-old migrant from Afghanistan, told VICE News. Jamal showed us his notebook, its pages covered in translations and exercises.
When we asked Jamal how he had ended up in Paris, he went quiet. He pulled out his mobile phone and started playing a video. "Look at the people and the waves," he said.
The footage was of a beach in Greece. After a while, shapes began to emerge from the waves that were crashing onto the shore. Shot from a moving vehicle, the video showed dozens of bloated, lifeless bodies, several of them decomposed.
In a surprise move, the Paris town hall announced in August that instead of evicting migrants from the former high school, authorities would convert the building into a shelter.
"These migrants risked their lives to cross the Sahara, the Mediterranean, they fled from war… France, and especially Paris, owes it to them to welcome them and to be hospitable," said deputy mayor Bruno Julliard. The city has issued no official announcement since then.
"Work to secure [the building] in the short term, including work to limit health hazards, is currently underway," a spokeswoman for Paris town hall told VICE News last week. According to the spokeswoman, the city is particularly concerned about the state of the facilities in certain areas of the building.
"As for the work to convert the site into a shelter," she said, "it all depends on our relationship with the [migrant support] committee." Right now, she added, the two camps were "on good terms." The spokeswoman couldn't say for sure when the work would be completed. "But we are not headed for failure," she said, "and the work should take place."
The main building at the Jean Quarré high school (Photo by Pierre-Louis Caron/VICE News)
For now, migrants living in the school rely on the support of an army of volunteers, who coordinate much of the aid via social media.
"It's the best solution because many of the volunteers work and have families," explained Camila, a young Italian woman who lives in Paris and volunteers at the school on a regular basis. "Once a week we have a legal aid drop-in service," she said. "Things are going fairly well but the situation remains precarious."
Camila said that migrants lacked food and that there were safety concerns, particularly at night, when the building is particularly vulnerable to intruders. "The volunteers can't do everything, so yes, the situation is sometimes very precarious."
Some of the volunteers and migrants have formed independent committees that are in charge of specific areas, including food, legal issues, and communications.
"The communications committee was set up to translate articles about the school," explained Camila. "Those who live here want to know what the French press is saying about them, they like to be informed."
Local residents — like 52-year-old Francis — are also doing their bit to help the migrants. Today, Francis was dropping off a bag of donated clothing. "I am just a citizen who wants to help, in any way I can," he told VICE News. Camila showed Francis where to drop off his donation, before taking him on a tour of the facilities.
Migrants sleep in the classrooms, which have been converted into dormitories. Mattresses cover the floor and clothes are hung out to dry at the windows. Competing radios can be heard up and down the corridors, which are decorated with bright murals, made by the migrants and volunteers.
At the end of a corridor, one of the classrooms that has been converted into a dormitory. (Photo by Pierre-Louis Caron/VICE News)
In a statement released shortly after the migrants moved into the abandoned high school, local mayor François Dagnaud warned of the presence of asbestos in the building. Volunteers have since voiced concern over peeling paint, dangerous rooms, and the absence of locks.
"During the last general assembly [on August 22], we mainly went over the incident from the previous night," said Shaïsta, who translated the meeting for the Pashto speakers. "Someone broke into the kitchen at night and stole all of our kitchen appliances."
Another volunteer — who wished to remain anonymous — told VICE News that migrants had a "fairly good" relationship with local residents. "We put posters up to remind [migrants] not to make any noise after 10pm, and to remind them that bringing in alcohol or owning a weapon is not allowed. Some of the people who live here have narrowly escaped death several times [on their way to France], they are on edge," he told VICE News.
A few feet away, a migrant from Afghanistan called us over. "The police, too, are very violent," he said, "even in Paris."
Introducing himself as Saïd [not his real name], he explained that he had arrived in France in 2005. "I wasn't even an adult," he said. Saïd was granted refugee status and then lost it after he got into trouble with some police officers two years ago.
"I had to leave, come back, I tried to reach England, Belgium, everywhere," he explained, adding that he hoped to file a new asylum claim with the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless People.
On August 27, several of the volunteers at the school attended a rally in central Paris to show their solidarity with the 250 migrants who are currently camping out on Quai d'Austerlitz, in the southeast of the city, steps away from one of the hippest clubs in the capital.
On Monday, two delegations of migrants called a press conference outside the Paris town hall to voice their disappointment over the delay in starting work at the high school. They also expressed their concern that migrants' basic needs were not being met. Migrant representatives are due to meet with the local authorities later in September.
Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter: _at_pierrelouis_c