They gathered near a metro entrance at the corner of rue de Belleville and the boulevard of the same name in the east of the French capital. These five men over 70 years old seem motionless in the cold of this winter morning. They are chibanis (” White hair ” in Arabic). They came to work in France in the 60s and 70s and mainly come from the Maghreb countries (Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia). This morning their favorite meeting place, the cafe, La Vielleuse, is closed. The boss has set up a hot drinks stand on the sidewalk of the street. But it is not the same. It is impossible for them to settle down, to discuss everything and nothing, in the warmth. Cafes and bars, in fact, are closed in France with the coronavirus crisis. One of the five men, Mourad (Editor’s note: his first name has been changed), however, made the journey to Montrouge (south of Paris) to see his friends in the cold.“We would like to be warm in Saint-Tropez but unfortunately we do not have the means Mourad jokes, with a laughing look. These immigrant retirees, numbering 220,000 in France according to a 2013 parliamentary report, most of them live between the two shores of the Mediterranean. They stay part of the year in France to receive ASPA, the solidarity allowance for the elderly.
Cafes, places of sociability for chibanis
A few hundred yards away, another place had to stop selling coffee. The place, the Belleville Social Cafe, is very popular with the Chibanis. It is run by an association, Ayyem Zamen (“the good old times” in Arabic), which helps them with their administrative procedures and their housing searches. Silence has replaced the noise of domino tokens, the favorite game of chibanis. The place remains open for social emergencies.“Cafes are generally important places to socialize for these elderly people. They are very isolated people. The family lives in another country. They therefore cannot find their friends. There is great distress for these people ”, regrets Maïa Lecoin, director of the association. “ They roam the gardens, the boulevards … without really being able to do anything. And they sometimes expose themselves to the virus ”, notes the member of the association.
Find the full interview with Maïa Lecoin, director of the Ayyem Zamen association:
Ali Ghandri, 77, arrived in France in 1968 from Tunisia. He was a worker in the most beautiful French companies, a symbol of the country’s growth. Sud Aviation (ancestor of Airbus) and Thomson used it. He ended his working life in a cleaning company for nurseries. “I met my friends at the cafe. But many of them died or returned to Tunisia or Algeria. It’s not the same. It is important to see each other and the coffee allows you to hear from others. Some live in Ivry, in other corners. Coffee for us was a meeting place. We are isolated immigrants and we need to see each other ”, says Ali Ghandri.Mabrouk Halmous, 77, from Tataouine in southern Tunisia, also regrets the closure of popular cafes. “ We met at the cafe. So we stay in bed, turn around and wait. We go out a few times. There are the gardens, the parks but there too we are alone », describes the 77-year-old man, who also arrived in France in 1968.
Find the interview of Mabrouk Halmous:
The temptation to return
Loneliness, isolation and the end of these places of sociability with the pandemic weigh on these men. And the temptation to return is great. “I want to go home, see my children again in Tunis”, confesses Ali Ghandri. The man lives in the La Chapelle district, in the 18th arrondissement, in a bedroom. “ My health left here at work. I have lung problems and a doctor is following me. I need to sort out my things here and I’ll go home », Admits, exasperated, the former worker. ” We are in contact with the family in Tunisia. But what to tell? », Describes Mabrouk Halmous who was once a mason in France. “ I would be well in my land with my family cultivating my land. I have to stay here. There is always an administrative appointment or a medical appointment », adds the man from southern Tunisia.
I couldn’t go home. The borders were then closed between France and Tunisia. And I was unable to attend my wife’s funeral in Tunis.Ali Ghandri, 77, chibani from Paris
The closure of the borders between the Maghreb countries and the countries of the Schengen area, including France, during the first confinement complicated things for the Chibanis. This is indicated by the director of the Ayyem Zamen association, Maïa Lecoin. “People found themselves stranded in the country and were unable to return to France. In their country of origin, they do not necessarily have the same medical devices as in France, where their attending physician is and where they know the hospitals ”, describes the association manager. “And on the other side, in France, we have people who are used to seeing their family every three or four months in the country and there they have not been able to see their relatives again, with the closing of the borders. . It was very complicated, very difficult to manage psychologically for all these people ”, adds Maïa Lecoin.
Where to be buried?
The consequences have been dramatic for some. “ My wife died in April in Tunis. I couldn’t go home. The borders were then closed between the two countries. And I couldn’t attend my wife’s funeral ”, confides, moved, Ali Ghandri, 77 years old. Another retiree at the Belleville café social has a tragic story. Blacojcho Milanov, originally from North Macedonia, also came to work in France in 1969 from what at the time was Tito’s Yugoslavia. He built his career in making clothes and his family lives in France. He holds the portrait of his friend, Milhoud, in his arms.“We met here at this cafe almost every day. He didn’t feel good. I was able to say a last farewell to him in his hospital room. And then he left ”, indicates moved and inconsolable the retiree. “ His family in Algeria would like to transfer the body so that Milhoud can be buried with his relatives, but with the strict sanitary conditions, it costs a little over 10,000 euros. I offered my help “, confides the trembling voice of Blacojcho Milanov.
Belleville’s social café has paid a heavy price. About fifteen members died out of a total of 800 people according to the director of the social café. And just over 45 of them had to be hospitalized.
An obsession therefore returns in these times of health crisis among the chibanis. Where am I going to be buried? This question has been asked many times to the director of the association Maïa Lecoin. “There are people who died in France from the coronavirus whose body could not be repatriated to be buried with their loved ones. It was extremely difficult for the families. It was a very strong fear among the chibanis that we had on the phone. “That I die is one thing, but that I cannot return home to be buried with my family, that, I could not bear it, it would be too difficult”, they confided to us “, explains the association manager. Members of the Ayyem Zamen association attended the burials in the Paris region to ensure a final presence, “Bury friends”.
Stay in France for the minimum old age
Should the French administration review its aid system in the face of this desire to return to the country of many chibanis? You have to stay six months and one day in France to be able to receive the ASPA, the minimum old age (900 euros per month approximately). Many are calling for a reform of these conditions of residence. “I stay here or else I lose my income. I somehow lost my freedom. We promised to change things but nothing has changed. We are abandoned ”, says annoyed and bitter Mabrouk Halmous who still dreams of living his last days with his retirement near his farmland in Tataouine.
« Pension rights are exportable but not the ASPA ”, says Maïa Lecoin, director of the Ayem Zamen association. Most of these men have had rugged professional careers with fairly low wages and many of them depend on this solidarity allowance. In a circular of March 19, 2020, the CNAV (National old age insurance fund) reaffirmed quite firmly this principle of six months and one day in France.
The National Health Insurance Fund will pay particular attention to these situations. However, you must keep the plane ticket and / or have the entry and exit on the passport.Extract from a letter from the CNAV addressed to the association
But the closure of the borders for several months at the start of the pandemic, between the Maghreb and the countries of the European Union, made this principle inapplicable. ” Since the borders were closed for a while, people could not meet these conditions of residence in France. I hope that the administration will have a benevolent eye on circumstances which go beyond the sole will of the person ”, explains Maïa Lecoin.
The CNAV, in an email dated March 23, 2020 sent to the association, said it was ready to take into consideration the circumstances of this exceptional health situation. “The CNAV will pay particular attention to these situations. However, you must keep the plane ticket and / or have the entry and exit on the passport. This information will be needed to distinguish real situations from false ones ”, writes the French Social Security fund.
The coronavirus has only shed light for many years on the material difficulties of chibanis according to the association. They do everything to stay six months in France, even if it means living in extremely difficult material conditions. The housing issue remains problematic. “Some live in small accommodation, others in furnished hotels and some have ended up on the street”, denounces Maïa Lecoin of Ayyem Zamen.
The Ayyem Zamen association points to the shortcomings in the treatment of these fragile audiences during the pandemic. “We didn’t have masks. And it was difficult to break the isolation of these people by visiting them ”, describes the director of the association. Another problem arose. “Most of these people did not understand the prevention messages, the barrier gestures. To go out, they (the chibanis) needed a certificate but they had no way to print them. And some of them cannot read or write. They were fined by the police ”, notes the member of Ayyem Zamen Maïa Lecoin.
For some, money is no longer a condition for staying. The isolation has become too much to bear. This is the case of Ali Ghandri, 77, from Tunis. “I know I’ll lose money if I go. But too bad, I prefer to go back to see mine ”.