I Fled War in Colombia for the Streets of Paris. Now, I Help Welcome Other Refugees to France.
"My feeling of rebellion turned into a strong desire to become an actor of change."
Carlos Arbelaez is a social entrepreneur and advocate. He has been living in France since he fled his home country of Colombia in 2011 and became a refugee.
After escaping from his home city of Medellín, where he served as a conscript in the Colombian Army to the streets of Paris, Arbelaez fully experienced the refugee crisis first hand and personally.
He is now the founder of Populaire, a social enterprise coffee company that trains refugees as baristas and uses beans from smallholders in his native Colombia.
There were over 300,000 refugees in France as of Dec. 31, 2019, according to the latest numbers from the national Office for Refugees (OFPRA). In comparison, there are an estimated 1.1 million refugees in Germany, and over 133,000 refugees in the United Kingdom.
France "lags behind in the European Union" when it comes to welcoming asylum seekers and refugees, according to a report published by French NGO JBS in April. It ranks last, along with Hungary, in terms of access to job opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers. In addition, the asylum procedure to get refugee status can take several years, according to the study.
Arbelaez finally settled in his new life after overcoming those challenges. Here, he reflects on his incredible journey and on the crisis impacting hundreds of thousands of refugees in France — and millions across the world.
You can read more in the In My Own Words series here.
When you grow up in a country at war, you manage to balance your daily life with extreme violence. I would go to school, play basketball, and live my life just like most kids in Medellín, the city of "eternal spring," nestled in a valley of western Colombia.
When I was 18, I had to enlist in the Colombian army. I had no choice — military service was compulsory and it was far too expensive to buy the right not to serve.
It’s always the children of the poor who go to war.
All the atrocities I witnessed in the army scarred me forever. It's a completely absurd world where you have to fight against an enemy you don't even know.
As time goes by, we realize that we’re not facing monsters, but young people just like us, of our age, who were forced to take up arms and who are as blind as we are to the human being hidden behind the mask of the enemy.
After two years serving in the army, I enrolled in University of Antioquia’s Law School in Medellin. It was there that my commitment to the victims of the armed conflict was born.
I met a whole community of students and teachers who refused to see the country engulfed in a war that had lasted over 60 years. It is a dangerous engagement that many of us have paid for with our own lives or exile.
Carlos Arbelaez co-founded Espero, an NGO that fosters refugees and asylum seekers' professional integration with a focus on beekeeping, agroecology and upcycling sewing.
And so, I landed in Paris in November 2011. I still remember my first impressions when I saw this new city, which would later become my home.
As I walked out of the Lyon train station, the sky seemed lower than in Medellín. Huge gray clouds covered its blue color. The leafless trees, neatly lined up, revealed branches trimmed in a geometrical fashion.
It was cold. I was experiencing my first winter in 25 years. It was just the start of a long list of new experiences.
I felt alone and invisible in a city I didn't understand.
My first day in Paris, I had to pick between spending the money I had left to pay for a shared room in a hostel or sleeping at the train station. I chose to stay warm.
Two weeks later, I had spent all my money. As I walked out the hostel door, I realized that from now on, I was homeless.
I would spend my days with Steve, a 17-year-old Nigerian who had been homeless for a year by then. He taught me where to get food for free, shower, and wash my clothes. He also showed me places in Paris to sleep at night, libraries where to get Wifi and stay warm when it was cold outside.
We didn't speak the same language, but we managed to bond, which made life on the streets easier. Steve had applied for child protection care a year ago. I had just registered an asylum application to get the refugee status.
Carlos Arbelaez, co-Founder of Espero, takes part in the creation of an educational permaculture garden in Melun, a southeastern suburb of Paris, along with asylum seekers.
One day, I met a journalist in a solidarity restaurant who put me in touch with the people who would soon become my second family.
Veronique, Philippe, and their children opened the doors of their house in the Parisian suburb of Bourg-la-Reine and welcomed me as if I were a new member of their family. Thanks to them, I learned French quickly, made friends, and discovered French popular culture, music, and cheese.
I was also able to go back to law school at the Sorbonne University and pursue a Master's degree in International Security at Sciences Po University.
I would often tell Veronique that I was deeply grateful for their love and support. She told me once that I should understand that the feeling was mutual because they also discovered my culture, language, political engagement, and the resilience of all those I had left behind in Colombia.
Veronique and her family never made me feel beholden to them. They taught me that integration is a two-way street and a win-win situation if we care about each other.
I could see other people in exile around me who did not have the same opportunities as I did.
People who didn't get the chance to fly over the ocean and who were shipwrecked in the streets of Paris. They would get here shattered, exhausted, and bearing the scars of long and tumultuous years of travelling.
I decided to take action and share my experience of the integration process with NGOs like Singa and international organizations like the United Nations Refugee Agency.
My feeling of revolt and frustration turned into a strong desire to become an actor of change.
I was lucky enough to meet people who inspired me and made me realize that being a Colombian refugee did not define me.
Before I knew it, I had become a social entrepreneur. Over the past four years, I've participated in the development of two projects that are close to my heart and in which I’m involved today: Espero and Populaire.
Espero fosters refugees and asylum seekers' professional integration with a focus on beekeeping, agroecology, and upcycling sewing — the recycling of used textiles.
Our upcycling sewing workshop currently employs 10 refugees. They benefit from an insertion contract — a French type of work contract helping out people younger than 26, people with disabilities, and low-income people to get a full-time job.
"I believe that isolation is the major challenge refugees face in France, besides overcoming the language barrier and finding accommodation," says Arbelaez.
We encourage them to use their know-how to become independent and take part in the French society. We have also raised awareness of the refugee issue among more than 500 people.
Then, in 2019, I founded Populaire, a brand of Colombian coffee we buy from small producers in Colombia and roast in Paris. While in France, I want to support the implementation of the peace agreements in my country and help out coffee producers with a project that embodies resilience and a brighter future.
This is my way of contributing, from afar, to building peace in my country.
We are currently raising funds to open our roasting workshop and a school to train refugees to become baristas.
After nine years living in exile, I believe that isolation is the major challenge refugees face in France, besides overcoming the language barrier and finding accommodation. It’s necessary to create more spaces to meet each other and bring together different communities.
In the end, the best way not to fear others is to reach out to them, especially at a time when politicians have instrumentalized words like "immigration" and "economic crisis".
As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: “He who is different from me does not impoverish me — he enriches me."
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