When Hassan Baigi arrived in Paris from Afghanistan as an asylum seeker in 2017, he thought his days of sleeping outside were over. But when he got to the City of Lights all the refugee camps were full, so Baigi ended up sleeping under a crowded, noisy metro station in northeast Paris. At one point, as many as 1,200 migrants were sleeping in tents at La Chapelle station.
“It was awful,” Baigi says. He had a hard time really accepting that he was in Paris. “I thought I was somewhere else,” he recalls.
Eventually Baigi connected with a group that asked if he would be interested in sharing his experiences for a local radio project. He was excited to participate. He thought it was particularly powerful for refugees to hear from other refugees.
The program that Baigi and other volunteers help produce is called Stalingrad Connection. It’s named after another Paris metro station where migrants used to camp out back in 2016.
It was overcrowded, loud and sometimes dangerous, but it was also a forum where migrants, volunteers, activists and journalists met to exchange crucial information — such as where to find free showers, hot food, or how to fill out asylum applications.
Margot Colinet was one of the volunteers giving French lessons to journalist refugees when the police tore down the camp.
“When it was dismantled, we decided to create radio in order for these people to communicate with each other — and also make people aware about the situation for migrants in Paris,” she says.
Stalingrad Connection got off the ground in 2017, and it has since grown to a monthly, 60-minute show broadcast in five languages — French, English, Arabic, Dari and Urdu.
On a recent afternoon, volunteers gathered in a cramped kitchen inside a tiny Parisian apartment, putting the finishing touches on the latest broadcast.
This episode is about the French government’s Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless People, which reviews asylum applications. For one of the taped segments, Colinet accompanies Baigi to his latest appointment. The meeting does not go well.
In the show, Baigi says he can’t divulge any specific details of what happened during the appointment because it’s illegal — “There can be 50,000 euro penalty for that,” he says. “You can be jailed.”
Only 27% of asylum requests were granted in France in 2018 — many of those who were rejected didn’t have their paperwork in order. So another part of the show features an interview with a former government employee, who offers migrants advice on how to correctly fill out documentation.
Practical information is only a part of the show’s mission. It’s also an opportunity for migrants to share their stories with a wider audience. Each episode is also archived online so even if refugees don’t have access to a radio, they can listen on their smartphones.
Mohammed Baha’a, 25, is a refugee from Iraq who has been volunteering with Stalingrad Connection for about a month.
“I meet a lot of people here … they know nothing about refugees,” he says. “So when I explain [to] them the story and everything they really change their mind.”
Baha’a arrived in France just a few months ago, but he says he feels like he’s already found a community here.