On Friday 29th December an empathy walk was organised in Bordeaux with Qais and Sharif, two asylum seekers originally from Aghanistan.
Empathy Walks teamed up with the Diaconat de Bordeaux, a charity based organisation that provides moral, material, administrative support to asylum seekers. Morgane Raguenet-Pré, who works with the asylum seekers helped us with the organisation. The Diaconat, as well as providing French classes and preparation to navigate the French bureaucracy when it comes to accessing a refugee status, provides housing to asylum seekers.
An initial meeting was organised with Qais and Sharif at the Diaconat to talk about their personal stories, explore the way they feel a sense of belonging in Bordeaux, and point out the different everyday places that underpin that sense of belonging. A route was agreed on, traced on a map and an event with 10 participants organised two days later.
Qais and Sharif settled in Bordeaux about a year ago. The map below shows the journey they undertook to come to France. The journey took them through places associated with camps that are infamous for their difficult living conditions, such as the Island of Lesbos in Greece and the city of Calais in France.
The map above shows the different locations where they have lived in Bordeaux. As accomodation is scarce, they have been moved around to four different locations in town. They currently live in the neighbourhood of La Benauge, on the east side of the river Garonne.
On the day walk participants where provided with Qais and Sharif’s personal map of Bordeaux. Each of the 6 stops along the route was punctuated by an introduction to the place and a story revealing their interest following spatial, social and emotional characteristics.
Stop 1: Place des Quinconces – This is one of Bordeaux’s main square, a vast area that once was occupied by a castle, demolished in the early 19th century. At the top of the square the landmark “the column of the Girondins” is a 50m tall, slender tower celebrating the Girondins victims of the Terror during the French Revolution. One of the reason Qais and Sharif chose the square as a starting point for their walk is for its spacious qualities as a vast and recognisable space in the middle of the town.
Stop 2: Apple Store. What could be an everyday quality provided by an Apple Store? From the street, the free wifi signal is good enough to access internet. Qais and Sharif explain that they use this wifi service to get in touch with their families. The Apple Store is an identified meeting point for people in their situation, as they explain having met other asylum seekers outside. Indirectly, the Apple Store provides a public, free service that isn’t currently provided by the town hall. A conversation can start around how our public spaces are layered and produced by public as well as private operators.
Stop 3: Quais. The waterfront of Bordeaux is a large public space, carefully designed and landscaped. It is a place where Qais and Sharif cycle and run to exercise. The two main bridges of the city, Pont de Pierre and Pont Chaban Delmas, connect to the other side of the river and create a 3km long traffic free, landscaped leisure loop.
Stop 4: Pont de Pierre. Napoléon himself ordered the construction of this historic bridge in 1807. For Qais and Sharif the bridge represents a symbolic and physical link between their home and the town centre. Everyday both of them cross the bridge using the tramway to attend French classes in the city, meet friends, or attend an administrative meeting.
Stop 5: Place Saint Michel. This square hosts a market everyday, whose variety is not equaled anywhere else in town: clothes, fresh fruits and vegetables, furniture, DIY tools, books… This space is a prime shopping location for Qais and Sharif. On top on that, the square is surrounded with north African cafés, whose terraces sprawl onto the square. We stop for a Morrocan mint tea.
Stop 6: Chicken Box. The street named “Cours de la Marne” is notorious for its numerous chicken shops and kebabs. We finally stopped for a meal in one of them. Qais and Sharif explained that this is where they enjoy a meal with friends once a week. These restaurants, that one would be tempted to label as junk food or unhealthy, are actual cheap and safe spaces that provide social networks for young men like Qais and Sharif. The walk ended up with a conversation in arabic between the shop owner and Qais and Sharif.
All in all, this walk gave participants a fresh perspective on their city. The small group gave an opportunity to everyone to interact, listen and share stories. Most participants were surprised by the Apple Store stops and the story behind it.
In urban design terms the walk highlighted the importance of inclusive, free public spaces where interaction is encouraged. The provision of services such as internet and sport facilities help create that cohesion.