Feature: From Afghanistan to the streets

Published October 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 9

text and photographs by Zoriah Miller

Zoriah is an award-winning photojournalist whose work has been featured in some of the world’s most prestigious galleries, museums and publications. With a background in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Aid, Zoriah specializes in documenting human crises in developing countries.

Young refugees from Afghanistan pass their time playing sports in Villemin Park, which has become their temporary home.

Each year, as the conflict in Afghanistan continues to escalate, more and more Afghans choose to flee their homeland in search of work and safety. They follow rumors of freedom and refuge, but often end up on the streets, stuck in yet another desperate situation.

I recently spent some time on the streets of Paris with several groups of homeless refugees from Afghanistan.  Stuck in a state of limbo, unable to gain official refugee status and the right to work, unable to make the difficult and illegal crossing to England where they would be able to gain that status and employment, they spend their days and nights on streets trying to survive.

Villemin Square Park in Paris is home to between 150 to 300 Afghan refugees. They store sleeping supplies such as cardboard and blankets in the bushes during the day.  At night, after the police have cleared and locked up the park, they enter by sneaking back through a loose fence.

A homeless refugee from Afghanistan reads through a declaration of his rights as dictated by the French government.

They do their best to remain clean, doing laundry and bathing in a park faucet. They sleep through rain and cold temperatures (I slept out with them in June with my nice sleeping bag and woke up in the middle of the night extremely cold) only to be woken up in the morning by the police who clear the park and then re-open it to the public. After coming back they shave in the bushes, and all 300 share three overflowing, portable toilets outside of the park, along with the other homeless in the neighborhood.

Unable to work, there is not a lot to do during the days. Some go to internet cafes and try to find out information about which European Union countries may offer them asylum. Others have taken to drinking, despite their faith.  Fights have become common and a recent murder in the park has shown yet another danger these refugees face.

Most of the men are young and there are no women. Several that I spoke to had worked as interpreters for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. When the Taliban found out that they were assisting the U.S. troops, they received death threats. The U.S. military responded by offering them permits to carry handguns. They laughed when they told me this story and one said,  “What will my little gun do against 20 men with AK-47s and rocket launchers?” So, when left with the choice of fleeing their country and leaving their family behind or facing nearly certain death, the choice is obvious.

Others have left for different reasons. One man’s entire family had been killed during an aerial bombing run that destroyed their home. Others left merely to avoid such things, and some just wanted a new life or the possibility of a good job.  

A homeless Afghan refugee cleans a used razor with piece of metal in order to be able to use it again.

A man shaves in the bushes of Villemin Park.

An Afghan refugee eats dinner donated by a local soup kitchen on the street.

For now they are stuck. They rely on the Salvation Army for some bread and coffee in the morning and the Red Cross provides a meal service in the evening. A local hospital is tasked with providing them emergency medical care, but one man had been suffering from a headache nearly the entire week I spent with them, and each day he was turned away from the hospital.

In the short time I spent with them I ended up exhausted and sick. It took me two weeks to fully recover from whatever bug I picked up. I was so thankful that I only had to spend one week on this particular project and that I could go to a friend’s house and sleep to get over my sickness. Unfortunately the Afghans do not have such basic luxuries.  

An Afghan refugee showers in a faucet in a public park.

Afghan refugees line up at the Salvation Army for a piece of bread and coffe in the morning.

A homeless Afghan refugee is reflected in the window of a bus as he waits for transportation to a homeless shelter on the outskirts of the city.