The people of stone: Reclaiming shelter for refugees in Paris

Written for Deutsche Welle traineeship program


11 March 2017

It is a crisp morning in Paris. For the first time in days, the sun is shining and the whole city seems to have woken up from a rainy slump. Exiting the metro at Porte de la Chapelle, it is difficult to miss the loud clinking noise the sledgehammers are making against the yellow boulders.  That clinking sound is reminiscent of a construction site; a place where shelters and homes are being built. This time, however, homes have been obstructed. Three weeks ago, the town hall decided to place boulders in the same area in which refugees were taking shelter: underneath the metro high-line. 

The group of stonecutters, engravers and sculptors are already working tirelessly. They call themselves “people of stone”. Gathering their efforts into a newfound association called “Coeurs de Pierre et Solidaires,” they decided to take action and move the boulders to make space. Their final goal? Reclaiming the space refugees need to sleep and protect themselves from rain, whilst also leaving a mark on the stones to commemorate their existence and troubling journey. The boulders are moved, cut, and then sculpted with words like ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. Refugees have also expressed their wish to write names of people from their villages in Afghanistan, for example, or of those who died on the perilous journey to Europe. 

Preparing to move the boulder in order to create space for refugees to sleep.  © Lara Bullens

Preparing to move the boulder in order to create space for refugees to sleep. © Lara Bullens

Engraver writing "Fraténité," meaning brotherhood in French, on one of the 'anti-refugee' boulders. © Lara Bullens

“Rocks are sacred,” Maurice proudly claims. He is a 48-year-old stonecutter, and has come all the way from Normandie via BlaBlaCar to be present today. “Rocks are meant to build shelters and homes, they are there to build places that connect people. They were not put on this planet to divide and conquer, putting walls up between communities. That is the wrong use of rocks.” Maurice has spent the morning breaking down the social barrier between him and a Somalian refugee named Eltayeb, showing him how to successfully cut a rock in preparation for sculpting and engraving.  With a slight smile on his face, he seems to have found a new sense of pride for hiscraftsmanship. “Whatever happens, I am happy to lend a hand. But I am not a political man, I am just here to help Fred and the refugees.” 

Maurice and Eltayeb.  © Lara Bullens

Maurice and Eltayeb. © Lara Bullens

Fred, the leader of the group, first approached organisations taking care of refugees in early February, when news of the boulders hit home. He couldn’t stand to see rocks being used to prevent refugees from being seen: the city had decided to make them invisible, and he would not stand for that.  With the help of organisations, they communicated with the refugees and asked whether they would be interested in removing the boulders and eventually sculpt them.  After an enthusiastic response, the project kicked off. 

The irony in all of this is that is has brought an immense amount of media attention. Not only are the refugees woken by the sound of the sledgehammers (some were still asleep during the works), but by the heavy presence of journalists. Amir Mohamed covers his face with his jacket, uncomfortable from the oncoming video camera. “No photos, no good,” he says, “they come every day.” Eventually, this is what separates the group. The majority of refugees are avoiding the sculpting area due to the amount of journalists present, meaning they only partake briefly, or observe from a distance. Whereas they wholeheartedly support the project, they don’t welcome the lack of concern coming from journalists that this is - at the end of the day - their home. 

"In memory of those who didn't make it." ©  Lara Bullens

"In memory of those who didn't make it." © Lara Bullens

At the end of the day, what is happening at Porte de la Chapelle is a battle for space and for safety, but above all it is a battle for recognition. The refugees want to be recognised as people needing shelter, and feel threatened by the city’s decision to place “anti-refugee boulders” where they sleep. The sculptors, stonecutters and engravers that form “Coeurs de Pierre et Solidaires” want people to recognise the fact that what happened is a misuse of stone. Stones are made to build shelters, and not isolate those in need of refuge.  And lastly, the journalists present want the entire operation to be recognised, but at what cost?