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Building a Life Here

Art Refuge in Paris, March 9-12, 2020

We are returning from working in Paris for four days at Le Cedre, the Secours Catholique refugee day centre service to the north of the city. This was at the recommendation of the former director of the service in Calais, who now works in the Paris team.

A number of things were familiar about the setting but in other ways the context is very different to the border town of Calais. The centre itself is literally built on ‘the frontier’ between the edge of Paris and the outer circle, with the administrative border running straight through the building. But this is not the border. It is not predominantly a place of transit and nor a place of emergency. Most of those using the service are from West or North Africa, most want to stay and build a life in France.

Joined by French residents and art therapy colleagues Kate France and Elodie Cousin, we were invited to spend a block of time in Cafe Papot which is the area where people wait to speak to workers about their asylum cases, accommodation, and other issues; also to meet others, use the Wifi, drink tea and coffee and have a place to pause and be.

Inspired by the work at The Community Table in Calais, we took with us a small selection of reference books and 2000 wooden coffee stirrers. Limiting the material seemed to allow a way in for those at the table. We were impressed by people’s ingenuity and creativity - given that they didn’t have access to glue. Most seemed to want to weave with the sticks but the task of putting together the resulting pieces in most cases required collective action and collaboration. By the final day, three large tables were pushed together to accommodate all those who wanted to join. There was the potential for more stable structures already being explored.

The work involved three days in the cafe area itself, as well as one day offering skills sharing for the volunteers, all of whom have lived experience of displacement. This offered a context in which to explore the purpose and intent for including creative activities in a day centre setting, namely to help manage stress, to relieve anxiety, and to bolster people’s ability to cope. What was heartwarming was that, once the concept was grasped, it affirmed the volunteers’ own sense of their purpose and that providing such a space can be incredibly valuable for people. The group embraced the idea of ‘La Table Commune’.

We will be continuing this link, and have been asked to train the wider staff team on the role of self care and clear boundaries in this work.

Bobby Lloyd and Miriam Usiskin

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