Searching for Home: A Church of Migrants in Paris

“To be human is to long for home.”
Jen Pollock Michel

I live in a trailer.[1]

Not exactly my dream home, but it has great moments—the freedom to explore, the close-knit experience with my wife and children, and the low cost. The instability of it, however, can be crushing. A home gives you more than just a place to stay. It grounds you in a community—interlinks your life to friends, neighborhood, church, and place. We often come up against a terrifying “where will we stay tomorrow” moment. The nomadic lifestyle cuts us off from a place to care for, friends whom we need, and family we miss. It’s a precarious hour.

When we envision the migrant crisis we might imagine images like this:
desperate people on boats in the Mediterranean. Like Khider, however,
the vast majority endured treacherous journeys on foot.
PC: here.
And so, when I met refugees like Khider in Paris several months ago, I felt just a glimmer of their pain. A Kurdish Iraqi, Khider fled persecution against his people nearly six years ago.[2] In that time he and his wife endured a dramatic separation from their families, the loss of a culture familiar to them, a death-defying trek across the Eurasian Steppe, years of awaiting asylum papers in Finland, a forced move to Paris, the birth of their children, and a precarious place in French society.

Or perhaps I feel something much smaller than a glimmer.

The weight of Khider’s experience is shared by everyone I meet in Paris. Mazan, a farmer pushed out of South Sudan, who dreams of living in Chicago. Mahmud, an Iranian who after converting to Christianity chose the refugee’s fragile road over imprisonment for his beliefs. Mafar, a young mother fleeing Libya’s destroyed economy and merciless kidnappings. As they each tell my wife and me their stories they say the same thing: “All we want is a place to raise our children, to contribute our gifts, and live in peace.” Famine and war deeply separate our experiences, but still, I am struck by how similar we are. At the end of the road, we just want a home.   

Parc d’Aubervilliers

In a black hatchback, barreling through a damp Parisian tunnel, my wife and I ride with Samir Salibi to Parc d’Aubervilliers, a central meeting place for migrants and refugees. In the back our cargo shuffles as we whip through traffic. We’re carrying several dozen eggs, a crate of socks, a few backpacks, shoes, and one floppy twin mattress. “It’s all for an incredible family from Sudan,” Salibi says, looking my way long enough to make me nervous.

With his eyes now fixed on the thickening traffic he continues, “They came by way of Libya, where the husband was kidnapped and never seen again. The mother and her three children were locked in a Libyan prison for weeks. She begged them everyday to let her go, and one day they did. Then onto a boat, across the Mediterranean, walk through Italy, and into Paris.” He says it all like a man who has heard this story a hundred times. Meanwhile, I feel like I’m two steps behind, husband and father disappeared!?

Samir Salibi, a French-Lebanese refugee
himself, pastors At Home. PC:
We traveled to France because of the church Salibi pastors: Paris At Home. I met Salibi and several other church leaders at a conference last fall and felt an overwhelming call to go and see them serve in the streets of Paris. Current and former refugees fill the church’s leadership. Salibi himself came to Paris as a teenager, he and his family having fled Lebanon’s civil war.

A software engineer by trade, Salibi never intended to spend his evenings in Parisian parks. But in 2014 when French President Emmanuel Macron announced that France would open its doors to thousands of migrants, Salibi felt God whisper to his spirit, and who better to welcome them than you?

And welcome they would need.  

Since 2011 France has processed over 500,000 applications for asylum—rejecting more than seventy percent.[3] Estimates vary widely, but at least 300,000 refugees have immigrated in each of the last five years. No one knows the number of unregistered migrants. Some estimate as many as 500,000 people live undocumented in the Paris metro area. Whatever the number, tent cities in Paris’ core shelter thousands of people awaiting applications and many who have been denied papers but have no where else to go. Growing hostilities toward migrants compelled Macron’s government to put stricter limitations on the asylum process and to outlaw the constantly reappearing tent cities . The welcome of 2014 has rapidly waned, to the point that many migrants I speak with express hopelessness—they can’t return home for fear of their lives, and the French system seems intent on preventing them from building a new life here.

People in the Park

When we arrive at Parc d’Aubervilliers we’re greeted by a group of Sudanese men starting a fire from a rotted sign post and the remains of a nearly empty oil can. The damp Parisian winter has them huddling under dripping trees. We trudge through the park’s bare and quickly muddying ground to a group of church members waiting for us. As I meet Mehdi, a refugee and key leader in Salibi’s congregation, a flaming pizza box glides past my feet like a blazing tumbleweed.

There are several hundred people in the park. We pass one family with luggage, “They’ve likely just arrived and have no place to go, but this is a good place for them to find help,” Salibi reassures us.
It’s a startling sight. I’ve spent much of my career in ministry among houseless people in the United States, but this feels very different. There are children everywhere. The people we talk to are erudite. They’re sturdy and educated people who have endured the greatest migration of our time. And there is not the faintest sign of inebriation anywhere.

The first person I really talk to is a man named Maahir. He tells me he walked from Afghanistan to Paris, a four-thousand-mile journey, throughout 2013. He fled the endless war there, which had destroyed his family’s residences and burned up his crops in 2009 and 2012. Why stop in Paris, I ask him. “It’s the end of the line,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders. With Brexit unfolding, many migrants fear an attempted crossing of the English Channel. He didn’t stop here because it’s an easy place to get asylum papers. For more than a year he has languished in a decomposing tent under the sparkle and prestige of Paris’ famous landmarks. He feels alone, scared, uncertain of everything. What does he want most? A home—people to call family, friends to hang out with in security, and an opportunity to contribute to society. Most days he has no reason to hope that such things will ever be his. But I can tell he senses a glimpse of such things in Salibi’s presence. They share a moment in French and embrace. “This guy, he’s good!” He says pointing at Salibi who is disappearing into another crowd happy to hug him.

It is difficult to ignore the contrast between the living conditions of
someone like Maahir and the sparkling landmarks that adorn Paris.
Salibi and other church members head into the streets two nights a week looking for people just like Maahir. They believe the Church, in particular their church, is designed to meet those deep, God-designed desires. “Only the Church can offer these people the fullness of a true home. We can provide love. We can give them Jesus. We can give them each other. We can help them adjust to France. Each of them, these are the things they want most,” Salibi says as he motions toward the park’s expanding crowd.

“And why shouldn’t God bless them through us,” remarks Fouad, an Iranian-Kurd and faithful church member. He too stares out on the crowd as he tells me about how he ended up in Paris. His journey began ten years ago. He fled Iran because of persecution. “There were no jobs for people like me,” he says soberly. It took him almost ten years from his initial departure to settling in France. He’s a cook by trade, but because his asylum papers have yet to come through he cannot work. “So I come here with Samir and help people going through the same difficulties I’m on the other side of. I know it’s what Jesus wants me to do.”

I find this to be a common theme—the people serving in the park are refugees themselves. Some came to France decades ago. Some arrived only months before. But they all share an urgent desire to help people like them.
At Home

In the shadow of a glistening white cathedral on Paris’ western end we enter nondescript double doors at the bottom of an equally unassuming grey building. Inside, a quaint sanctuary greets us, gilded with red velvet and dark wooden pews. A crowd hums with jovial conversation as they prepare for worship. It bears a marked contrast to the inspiring yet forlorn cathedrals so famous to the French landscape.         

“We worship in four languages because we want everyone to know they are welcome,” Samir tells me as he preps his computer to display Matthew 10 in French, Arabic, Farsi, and English. Hearing the words in your own language helps people feel at home, he explains. I am discovering that phrase, “at home,” is not a shallow moniker. It describes the church’s every move. As Paris, the E.U., and the world grapple with people fleeing disaster, At Home is giving every ounce they have toward easing the journey.

Near the beginning of the service a young man named Nadeem, from Syria, comes forward to share his testimony. “At first I came to At Home because I thought being here would mean I’d get help. Then I went to the Bible Study and you started talking about Jesus.” He lowers his head before continuing, “I just didn’t know Jesus. You helped me see him and now he is my one and only God.” The room applauds.

Later Salibi tells me, “We help anyone, you know. Not just the people who convert or come to church.” Some have doubted the sincerity of Muslim converts in Europe on these very grounds. They argue that conversion is a tool used by desperate migrants to procure services from congregations or governments.[4] That may be the case sometimes, but is that a reason to stop preaching the Gospel, Salibi adds. As I think on it, it seems extraordinarily paternalistic to presume I can know the mind of Muslims converting to Christianity better than they do. And among those converts I meet, I find an enthusiasm and tear-filled thankfulness for Jesus rarely seen in my American church experience. I could not cast doubt or aspersion upon their sacred choice to claim Jesus as their Lord.

Conversion ends up being something Salibi and I talk about a lot. It’s a topic he’s quite passionate about, but careful in how he explains. “The Gospel is about seeing the person in front of you. It does not matter if the person is a Muslim or a Christian or anything else. You have to slow down and really see the person.” He reminds me about John 1:14, “’And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.’ That’s where we begin with every person. But in our life, yes, we will talk about Jesus all the time. And we find people ache to meet Jesus. And that’s as good as it gets,” he finishes by leaning back in his chair and staring through a window in his living room. Softly he finishes, “Truly, as good as it gets.”

The church is “seeing” people in all kinds of contexts now. “At first everything began in the park, but now friends, neighbors, schoolmates, they’re all passing people on to us.” With France restricting migrant laws the church has made an effort to engage Christian immigration attorneys. “It’s not an unlimited resource. We only have a few lawyers and they have to make a living so we don’t offer legal advice to everyone. But when we do it’s helped people a lot, because the system gets more complicated every month.”

The church also offers free weekly French classes, “which anyone can join,” Salibi is careful to qualify. As with any international transition, these migrant’s future opportunities expand dramatically with an ability to speak French.

Since my trip they’ve added an At Home soccer team—in some ways soccer is the universal language of sport, excepting for the States. It provides an opportunity for their church community to come together on an understood playing field—languages and cultures no matter. In a similar vein, At Home supports a dance team. Daiane, a native Brazilian, leads this ministry with a passion to use dance to bring people together.

This bringing together seems to me to explain all that At Home is. They walk in the gap between Christ and people, between cultures at war, between languages, between policy and mercy, between fear and hope, between isolation and inclusion.

After the service I ask Nadeem what it’s like to be a new Christian here. His eyes brighten as he says, “It’s good. Look around, this is my new family.” As he speaks, he looks around with a gaze of calm satisfaction.  And I feel a gratefulness that this church has chosen to walk this narrow path “between,” so much so that I embarrass Nadeem and myself with my uncontrollable tears.

The World We Live In

"God makes homes for the homeless . . . ."
Psalm 68:6a (The Message)

As church ends and people begin filing out of the sanctuary I find myself chatting with Ehsan. A twenty-five year old French-Iranian webmaster, Ehsan serves as Salibi’s chief translator to Farsi. Ehsan is easy to talk to. His voice is polished and his smile makes me feel accepted and at ease. As we talk he mentions that for years he worshipped quietly in a French-Iranian congregation led by his mother. Why did he join in with At Home, I ask. “Ah, it is important,” he says in his deliberate English. “I came to France as a refugee when I was two. When I was six my parents enrolled me in school. On the first day my teacher brought me to the front of the class and said, ‘This is Ehsan. He is from Iran. He is not a good kid. Do not be his friend.’” From that day forward France has never felt like a real home for Ehsan. His French-Iranian bubble had helped him cope, but in a way it’s separation from French society only highlighted his isolation.  “But Jesus told me, ‘Join At Home. Here you will be at home and through me you will build a new home for these people.’”

And again with my tears. I am certain I gave the impression that I cry all the time. And maybe I do.

My son is six. And he does not have a “proper” home. I cannot imagine my fury and sorrow if a teacher did to him what was done to Ehsan. But this is the world we live in—we call buildings and nationalities “home,” and we create sterile labels for those who don’t fit these home molds. Labels like homeless, refugee, migrant. We toss them around casually, almost as casually as we dismiss or ignore the pain behind these categories. In America Ehsan would be seen by many as a usurper of French resources, a person who should have stayed where he belonged. Like his first teacher, authoritative voices would tell us, “This is a bad guy, don’t be his friend.” 

But if we listen to Ehsan we might see Jesus calling us to a new perspective. He bears a different imagination for what makes a home. He sees not the labels and categories, but starts with the pain and gives it good news. He looks into our heartbreak and says, “I will build you a home.” A home we may carry now in our hearts. A home that expresses itself in our love for others. A home that is bigger than our death, bigger than time, bigger than policies, bigger than hate. A home in the arms of Christ. That’s the kind of place At Home is building.

As the world flails about trying to sequester the crisis, I'm very thankful that this kind of home has come to Ehsan and his friends. Then it occurs to me, that’s the home I live in now, and thankfully it fits just right in my tiny trailer.[5]
 . . .

You can learn more and give to At Home here.

[1] You can read more about that here.
[2] You can learn more about Kurds here.
[3] For comparison, Germany rejected 49.8 percent of 2018 applications, while the U.S. rejected 61.8 percent of 2017 applications.
[4] For examples see this or this.
[5] You may note I never answered a pressing question, “What should we do about the migrant crisis?” I left that out intentionally. My hope is that before you or I consider ourselves capable of choosing these people’s fates, we’d first stare into their eyes, meet them, recognize our common humanity, see the spark of God’s creative design in them, and sit with Jesus’ love for us both. Call me an idealist, but I tend to think such a process of empathy empowers us to evaluate policies with a much sharper focus. 


Popular Posts