It didn’t take me long to see one major difference in Nantes compared to last year.
My parents picked us up at the airport with the white car borrowed from my grandparents. We parked at the usual spot, place de la Petite Hollande, and walked to the apartment building.
This is France, not China—Nantes doesn’t change that much from one year to another. I can safely expect to buy bread where I bought croissants as a kid, to walk by the kindergarten, middle school and high school I attended and to take Mark to the same carrousel I loved thirty years ago.
But this time, as we were crossing the tram tracks, I noticed something unusual in square Daviais—“unusual” because there’s never anything going on in the small park stuck between Nantes’ most famous square, the hospital and the tramway line 1.
In the usually empty square, there were dozens of tents.
One of these modern art projects?
“Ah, c’est les migrants,” my mom said.
Of course, I’ve heard about the migrant crisis in Europe. I’ve heard about asylum seekers and economic migrants travelling across the Mediterranean Sea or overland through Southeast Europe. I’ve heard about these migrant ships when disputed between European countries, stranded after cities close their ports or after yet another shipwreck disaster. I’m ashamed of the European Union because even though welcoming immigrants is a challenge, no one should be forced to live in a camp or be turned down at the border. Empathy—it’s a thing. Seriously, migrants don’t set out on a perilous journey across Africa with the ultimate goal of inconveniencing European citizens and stealing work for them.
But until this moment, the migrant crisis was something happening in the news, not where I grew up or where I live.
Canada did welcome refugees, mostly from Syria, and we saw them being dispatched at the airport a few years ago. But Canada is a country of immigrants and in large cities, it’s hard to tell newcomers from first- or second-generation Canadians. To put it plainly, I expect to hear dozens of accents every day and I’d be worried if I was only surrounded by European Canadians.
As for Nantes, it’s never been an immigration hotspot, mostly because it’s not close to any border and it’s not that big of a city. Immigrants typically cross into France through the Alps or the French Riviera and head to Paris or Northern France if they’re trying to make their way to the UK.
Well, the migrants found Nantes on the map.
After being kicked out from various squats around the city, around 600 migrants set up camp in square Daviais, in the middle of the city. They’ve been there for about a month and a few days ago, a judge once again ordered their eviction, “as a measure to protect public health.” While it’s pretty obvious the migrants would rather have access to water, toilets, etc. they also have nowhere else to go. Organizations advocating for migrant rights argue that it’s easier to help them applying for refugee status and getting the healthcare they need when they are a group in a set location. It’s harder to keep track of scared migrants hiding around the city.
The square should be raided by the police any day now.
Yesterday evening, I went there for a walk to take some pictures and maybe meet our new neighbours.
Chatting was difficult as they all speak Arabic—they told me they were from Soudan and Eritrea—and only know basic French and English. We still managed to communicate. At the end of the conversation, one of them asked me where I was from.
“I was born here and my parents live over there,” I said, pointing to our building. “But I moved to Canada. I’m visiting my parents, I just arrived yesterday.”
“Oh, bienvenue France!” one of the migrants said spontaneously.
We looked at each other, paused and laughed.
“Sorry,” he added. “I learned how to say this in French.”
“I should be the one welcoming you to France,” I smiled. “I hope you’ll be okay.”