Fatima’s husband and two of her brothers were killed by fighters in Syria. Fearing for her children’s lives, she escaped her homeland and embarked on an arduous journey to Morocco where the family posed as Moroccans and were able to cross into Europe.
“Arriving in France was like the end of a bad dream, it was a new start for us.” Less than six months later, Fatima and her children are now begging on the streets.
I first met Fatima (not her real name) at a slip road in the Saint-Denis suburb of Paris, home to the famous Stade de France. She was approaching cars stuck at the traffic light, two small children in tow, and clutching a cardboard sign that read “Famille Syrie”, Syrian family. Others were doing the same, some holding up green passports to prove their Syrian nationality, begging drivers for money.
Everybody knows what happened in Syria. Everyone knows our problems – they feel sorry for Syrians because of what happened to us
says Fatima. “I can easily make €50 a day from passing drivers. Children can make more.”
Over the past few years, increasing numbers of people – particularly women and children – have begun begging at junctions, traffic lights and by the sides of main roads in Paris.
Whilst a number of these people are indeed Syrian refugees, the vast majority are fraudsters attempting to cash in on the public’s sympathy.
“They are European, I’m not sure from where exactly, but they are not Syrian,” Fatima says, as she points out two young women and a small boy alternating between lanes of stationary cars. All three are holding signs identifying them as Syrian, and both women are clad in black abayas, robe-like dresses worn by many Muslim women. When the traffic light turns green, the trio retreat to the island in the middle of the road along with many others who have been begging at the same junction.
“To these drivers, they look Syrian because they are dressed like us and they hold signs like us. They are using our name to get more money because they know everybody feels sorry for Syrians.”
“There are many of them, many, they are all liars and they are tricking people. They work all around this area, not just here.”
Some even know a few words of Arabic, making their ploy all the more convincing. “They can speak one word, two words, but try to have a conversation with them in Arabic and they will run away.”
As I speak to Fatima, many others begging come to listen. “Here, look,” she says, and begins talking to a young woman in Arabic. Initially, the woman smiles and nods in response, but it soon becomes clear she does not understand a word of the language and she grabs her child and leaves.
“They have money, these people. One day, at night, one of the women removed her abaya and spoke on the phone to someone. A few minutes later a car came and she got inside and drove away. The next day she came back in her abaya and continued to beg.”
As Fatima and I are speaking, another “fake” Syrian approaches us. She looks young, not older than 16, and is wearing a dark green abaya and carrying a cardboard sign. As she shuffles beside us, her abaya rises slightly and her feet are exposed; they are perfectly pedicured to a salon standard and painted red, a detail that Fatima quickly spots.
Look, look at her feet, do you think a real refugee has enough money to afford going to the salon?
As Fatima points at the girl’s feet, the girl immediately becomes flustered and runs away, back to the rows of cars.
“This isn’t a rich area, but we still make money. Those who beg in the centre of the city, next to the expensive shops and famous places, they must be making ten times the amount of money,” says Fatima.
When I ask about their lives in France, Fatima assures me that she and her family are being taken care of. “We’ve been given a place to live. My children go to school; we have enough money to eat.”
So why is she begging by the roadside?
“I need money to get to Belgium. Life is okay here, but I have family in Belgium, my children will grow up around family there. There is nothing for us here, we do not speak the language and we feel lonely.”
Begging on the roadside can be dangerous, she explains. “Of course I am worried, sometimes there are road accidents and people are hurt. It happens a lot with beggars. But I have six children, and two are still in Syria. I need enough money to get us all to Belgium.”
Fatima refuses to have her picture taken, and after returning to her post by the roadside she continues begging at car windows, her two children following suit and approaching cars by themselves.
A few days later I pass by the same area and see people begging at the traffic light, Fatima and her children are nowhere to be seen. A discarded cardboard sign reading “Famille Syrie” lies beside the road.