Parisian radio show lets immigrants set their frequency – and tell stories

by May 10, 2015 5:00AM ET

In a country riven by debates over immigration, Radio des Foyers tries to build a bridge

A live radio broadcast by Radio des Foyers from the cafeteria of Foyer Allemane in Rosny-sous-Bois, France, April 25, 2015.
Agnes Dherbeys for Al Jazeera America
A man in the kitchen of Foyer Bisson.
Agnes Dherbeys for Al Jazeera America

PARIS — The building that houses Foyer Bisson is on a side street, off an avenue crowded with Asian and couscous restaurants and a handful of trendy bars. The exterior is nondescript and indistinguishable from its neighbors. Inside, though, it’s another world.

Instead of the mailboxes found in most residential entryways, visitors will find a small bazaar, with men selling single candies and cigarettes, peanuts in the shell, eggs and whole chickens. Just past the makeshift market, a short staircase leads down to a prayer room and, in the next room, a small recording studio. This is the headquarters of Radio des Foyers, an ambitious radio project that offers an inside perspective into the lives of foyer residents and of other immigrants who live at the margins of French society.

During a live broadcast this past winter, three producers debuted audio documentaries and took questions from several dozen people in the audience. Across a small cement courtyard, people gathered in a common kitchen to cook. In the rest of the foyer — a type of communal residence to house migrant workers — people came and went, going about their daily lives. There was a familial feeling in the room as friends and strangers shared food, listened to radio and explored tough questions about multiculturalism in contemporary France.

Foyers, originally constructed at the end of the 1950s across France to house migrant Algerian workers, occupy an important but often almost invisible space in the country’s cities and suburbs. Typically located on the periphery of urban centers or in surrounding working-class suburbs, they feature simple rooms for sleeping and, most often, shared bathrooms, kitchens and living areas. The residences are closer to hotels than rental apartments, with no long-term contract and rent paid on a monthly basis.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, foyers also drew residents from other former French colonies in Africa. Though the construction of residences built expressly for foreign workers ended in the 1980s, the communal living spaces are still a lifeline for many immigrants arriving in France. According to the Ministry of the Interior, the number of immigrant workers currently living in foyers, now also called “résidences sociales,” is roughly 90,000.

Inside one of the rooms at Foyer Allemane.
Agnes Dherbeys for Al Jazeera America
The kitchen at Foyer Allemane
Agnes Dherbeys for Al Jazeera America

The founder of Radio des Foyers, Elise Aubry, hopes the project’s monthly online broadcasts, as well as its workshops and festivals, will offer an inside perspective on the migrant experience. “Traditional media doesn’t give this kind of voice to immigrants,” says the native Frenchwoman. A volunteer for the cultural organization behind Radio des Foyers, Attention Chantier, Aubry had worked with grass-roots radio projects in the past. When she visited a foyer in 2011 for the first time, she immediately sensed the potential for telling rich stories about the workers who lived there. She envisioned a radio broadcast with a twist — one that would equip foyer residents to tell their own stories rather than relaying them through reporters.

Radio des Foyers isn’t the first effort by Attention Chantier to break down barriers between foyer residents and mainstream French society. Immigration and the role of immigrants is a fraught and heated source of debate in the country, reflected in the recent rise of far-right politician Marine Le Pen and her anti-immigrant party, the National Front (which finished first in the 2014 European Parliament election, with some 25 percent of the vote). Since 2009, Attention Chantier has also organized an annual summer film festival that takes place in different foyers in and around Paris, which has gone some distance toward opening up dialogue between foyer residents and the public at large.

“The radio is made for people both inside and outside of these walls,” says Aubry from the makeshift sound studio at Foyer Bisson. “We want the radio to extend beyond these high gray walls.” During Radio des Foyers’ weekly workshops on radio production, volunteers are taught the basics of reporting and producing a radio piece and work with mentors on stories in production. La Fabrique Documentaire, an outside organization that teaches documentary-making, has helped out, and the city and regional governments and private donors have contributed funding.

Since its first broadcast in March 2013, Radio des Foyers has aired some 100 hours of radio while its roster of workers has grown from Aubry and a handful of enthusiasts to about 20 regular volunteers who report and produce stories for the monthly online broadcast. In addition to its broadcasts from the city’s foyers, Radio des Foyers also takes part in live public tapings and radio festivals, mostly in and around Paris.

Radio des Foyers volunteers prepare for broadcast; from left: Mamadou Kanté, Charles Hering, Amadou Bah and Sylvain Bernard.
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“Radio is the simplest way to share a voice,” says Sylvain Bernard, a former sound engineer and the head organizer of Radio des Foyers, who works closely with reporters and producers. “Africa has a very strong oral tradition. It’s part of the culture and the history,” so radio is the perfect medium, he says. During colonial times, radio was also used as a link between colonies in Africa and their colonizing countries in Europe.

Though in the beginning Radio des Foyers tended to feature stories on the challenges facing foyer residents — their struggle to get legal documentation, the crowded conditions of the foyers, the exploitation they faced in the workplace — the online radio broadcast has evolved to include news and stories related to sports, music and the arts.

A live January broadcast from Foyer Bisson, whose official name is “Résidence Sociale Aftam,” featured two audio documentaries: “Ramadan: Une Fête en Exil” (Ramadan, a holiday in exile), produced by Sidy Magassa and Adama Dao; and “Une vie dans le noir” (A life in the shadows), produced by Sekou Diallo. As dusk fell that winter afternoon, the three producers explained to a live audience what had inspired their choice of topics. Many of the stories touched on personal experience.

When Magassa first arrived in France from his native Mali five years ago, he had no visa, no work authorization and no roof over his head. So he did what most of his friends and family before him had done — he moved into a foyer and slowly started to build a life for himself.

Magassa now shares an apartment with his brother and is glad for the privacy and space, but he has some fond memories of his foyer experience. He shared a small room with seven other men. Two slept on beds, the others slept on the floor. Magassa slept beneath a bed that had been raised on bricks.

Sidy Magassa at the mic at Foyer Bisson.
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Though his room wasn’t comfortable — foyers are infamous for their crowded, often unhygienic living conditions — it did offer a sense of security. “I liked the ambience. There was a common room, a café, a shared eating space, and we would get together and play cards until midnight,” he says. “You don’t want to leave at night if you don’t have papers, because there are police and you’re scared. But being together, talking and playing cards gives you something to do.” Before he gained legal status to live in France, Magassa used his older brother’s ID card and hoped he wouldn’t get caught.

“I know the same struggles,” says Dao, who also volunteers for Radio des Foyers. Dao is also from Mali and came to France in 2009 armed with an associate’s degree in social anthropology. Once in France, he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at a school in Le Havre before moving to Paris to find work. Living without documents, he says, is “a source of stress, a daily battle, but that’s a source of strength as well.”

The duo describes the residences as a crucial resource. “Foyers are a place to get information about where to go, what to do, how to do it. It’s really important when you first arrive in France. Even when we have our own place, we keep one foot in the foyer,” Dao says.

“It’s a way to stay attached to your country,” Magassa adds. “You can talk about what’s really happening back home.”

Magassa and Dao’s 18-minute radio documentary explores what it’s like to celebrate Ramadan far from home. “We wanted to tell the story of this joyous celebration, but the people we talked to said it wasn’t actually joyous for them here. It was too hard to celebrate due to work; it was too hard to pray at work. So we had to rethink our title, and we changed it to ‘Ramadan, une fête en exil,’ ” says Magassa.

“Most people think you can pray at home but not at work,” says Dao, who like his partner had intended to fast for Ramadan when he came to France, but gave up because he found it too difficult to juggle with his work schedule. “Assimilation means erasing your culture and religion. As soon as we go to work or go into a public space, we don’t show where we come from.” French law adheres to the principle of laïcité, or separation of church and state, which keeps religious beliefs or identities out of the public sphere. Interviewees for the story described the loneliness that tinges their celebration of the festival in their adopted country. One man said he hopes to celebrate Eid — the breaking of the fast after Ramadan — back home in Algeria one day, but for now, he has to stay in France to work.

Celebrating Eid

TRANSLATION: “The Eid holiday, no, I’ve never celebrated it [in Algeria], because of work, but I hope to celebrate it back home someday. It’s more joyous there. We have all of our family around us, family we haven’t seen in a long time. I would prefer to do it back home, but unfortunately I have to celebrate it here.”

In addition to describing what it’s like to celebrate a sacred holiday far from family and friends, the radio documentary poses provocative questions about what it means to live as an immigrant in a secular country like France. One French-Malian woman describes the tension she perceives between Muslim culture and mainstream French society, asking why there there can’t be more flexibility.

Prayer in the mosque of Foyer Bisson.
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Being Malian and French

TRANSLATION: “We can’t impose our Muslim holiday, but why not give a certain flexibility? I am Franco-Malian, and I consider myself both Malian and French, but it’s true that especially right now Muslim culture poses a paradox with French society. I have a lot of people around me who are consistently called on to justify themselves — to justify their convictions and their traditions. France is in theory a secular country, but holidays fall on Christian holidays. France is, at its origins, not a Muslim society, and we can’t impose our culture, but we are in a secular country, and we could give the choice to people, whether they’re Buddhist or whatever — one or two days that they can decide to take as holidays in order to celebrate their beliefs.”

Sekou Diallo, a volunteer for Radio des Foyers who comes from Senegal, lived in a foyer when he came to France four years ago. Though he has since moved out, he remains attached to foyer culture and regularly visits his family members — all 15 of them, who share two rooms — at Foyer Bisson.

Diallo says that the conditions he found in France served as inspiration for his radio documentary, “Une Vie Dans le Noir” (A life in the shadows), which also aired during Foyer Bisson’s live broadcast this winter. “It’s not at all what I expected,” he says. “I didn’t know how hard it was and that sometimes the women suffer more than men.”

Though foyers are traditionally the sphere of men — intended for male workers without their families — women are central to their functioning, especially in the kitchens. Many foyers feature communal kitchens where a plate of homemade food can be bought for around two euros, or a little more than $2.

Diallo puts African women at the heart of his documentary, describing their lives as workers, mothers and pillars of strength but also as victims of abuse and exploitation. He cites the story of Rose, a mother of five who hasn’t slept in a bed of her own for over two decades.

Rose: I’m 57 years old

TRANSLATION: “My name is Rose. I’m from Cameroon. I came to France because I couldn’t do anything back home and I thought I could make a life for myself here and take care of my children. That’s what got me to stay in France. An African woman spends most of her time working. She leaves her kids at school and then works. And every month we get together like a family to share our lives and do some projects for our country back home. I have five children. Three are already grown up, but the two youngest are twins. They’re 12 years old. There are always [administrative] papers to do and everything [makes it difficult for a single mother]. My hope is to have housing that’s actually comfortable, where everyone can sleep like they should. I’ve been in France for 23 years and I’ve never had proper housing. I’ve never had my own room or a bed. It makes me sick. I have pain everywhere. It’s hard to walk because of my knees. I don’t have crutches. This makes it hard to work, hard to find a full-time job. I can only find part-time work, and it’s only little jobs, and that’s getting hard. It’s cleaning work. I can’t do it anymore. I’m 57 years old, and at my age I don’t know what I can do anymore.”

Sekou Diallo, center, with Sylvain Bernard, left, at Foyer Bisson.
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Though the immigrant women Diallo interviewed often found work cooking, cleaning or working in hair salons, they commonly spoke of the precariousness that comes with poverty.

Chantal Sagna, a volunteer working on her first piece for Radio des Foyers, joined the organization six months ago on the recommendation of her friend Wagui Coulibaly, a resident of Foyer Bisson. It seemed the perfect opportunity to help people like herself, she says. Having grown up in both Senegal and France, Sagna describes her childhood as harsh, adding that she spent several years on the street before finding work with a dance company. “I’m here to give a voice to people like me,” she says. “Today I don’t think of myself anymore as a victim. I’m an accomplished woman, I know where I’m going, I know what I want and what I don’t want.”

In her radio piece, Sagna hopes to portray what life is really like for immigrants in France, particularly youth and women. “There are a lot of people who live in the shadows, and I want to give them the chance to be heard,” she says. “The solidarity between people [in foyers] has created a unique sphere in France that should be considered something to be valued rather something to be destroyed.”

The future of foyers in France has been a matter of debate since 1997, when the Ministry of the Interior launched an initiative to transform what had been called foyers to “résidences sociales.” Though the idea was presented as an effort to improve living conditions and promote diversity in shared housing, residents have not always been happy with the renovations, which often include a decreased number of available beds (to reduce overcrowding) and the disappearance of common living rooms, prayer rooms and other gathering spaces. Today, foyers are overseen by the state and three primary management services that place people in résidences sociales.

In the years since efforts began to transform foyers into so-called social residences with better living conditions, the French press has featured stories reflecting the discontent of residents, who say that the renovations decrease their quality of life by taking away communal spaces such as kitchens and prayer rooms. 

Though Magassa knows all too well the struggles of foyer life, he says the purpose of Radio des Foyers isn’t only to criticize but also to celebrate life both inside and outside of France’s foyers. “We aren’t just here to say negative things but also positive things about this country — what we have created here that has given meaning to life, why we like this country.”