For eleven days in late May, Mains d’Oeuvres, a cultural space in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Ouen, turned into a temporary haven for around two dozen unaccompanied migrant minors. The youths, who ranged in age from 14 to 17, helped prepare dinner, joked around with the organizers and, most importantly, had a roof over their heads.

Unaccompanied migrant minors face steep challenges in France, as their lack of papers often prevents them from being officially recognized as minors by the state and from receiving government support.

The project was inspired by a photo series by Yvan Loiseau in which he cooked meals with various families he met in nearby Saint-Ouen and which was being exhibited at Mains d’Oeuvres. After meeting Agathe Nadimi, founder of Les Midis du Mie (Lunch for foreign unaccompanied minors), which provides meals and support for migrant teenagers on their own, Loiseau decided to expand the project by inviting a group to cook and sleep in the exhibit.

The young migrants, who hailed from countries including Senegal, Somalia, Guinea and Angola, made couscous with sweet potatoes and turnips, salmon with arugula pesto and, for dessert, a strawberry salad with jasmine and basil. They set up a ping pong table and kicked a soccer ball around in the shed. As night fell, they placed thick comforters on the floor of the exhibit to use as makeshift beds.

Couscous for dinner. (Photo: Agathe Nadimi)

Loiseau said he sought to blur the lines between artists and citizens.

Cooking a meal together allows us to get to know one another in a meaningful way. I’ve seen migrants sleeping in the streets, and I wanted to create an open space where we could respond to some of the issues in our society.

We made dinner from unsold produce from the Saint-Ouen market, we played games, we shared stories. They showed me how to make couscous with raisins and ray fish fried in flour, and sauces made from vegetables that I didn’t know. One night we cooked asparagus, which they had never eaten before, and they had fresh salmon, which they don’t get to eat very often.

Preparing dinner together. (Photo: Agathe Nadimi)

We made smoothies, carrot purées, buckwheat crepes. The moments you share during a meal can seem trivial at first, but they deepen very quickly once you start talking about your families and the places where you grew up.

It’s easy to talk about people when you haven’t met them. This was a chance to talk to them and to confront the prejudices we have about who they are and where they come from.

“A simple act of humanity”

Several members of Les Midis du Mie and Mains d’Oeuvres stayed in the space with the group each night, as did  a security guard. The groups also provided towels and SIM cards.

(Photo: Agathe Nadimi)

(Photo: Agathe Nadimi)

Makeshift beds set up in the gallery space. (Photo: Agathe Nadimi)

Mains d’Oeuvres had previously hosted several families who stayed in the space for 18 months, but it was the first time an artist had made the request. Nicolas Bigards, the space’s director, called the project “a simple act of humanity.”

It was an intimate experience, but at the same time refreshing to see that an artistic work could have a concrete impact like this on people.

We understood that this was just a small break during a very difficult time in their lives. They were reserved and didn’t go too much into what they had been through. When we watched them playing soccer and ping pong, we felt that they just wanted to share a brief, positive moment together.

(Photo: Agathe Nadimi)
 

(Photo: Agathe Nadimi)
 

(Photo: Agathe Nadimi)

Waiting for a court decision

While France has seen a steady flow of migrants arriving in the country in recent years, the number of unaccompanied minors has increased rapidly. The country registered 40,000 unaccompanied minors in 2018, triple what it had been two years earlier. Many come without papers, and authorities in March upheld a controversial bone test for young migrants to establish their age.

Nadimi said many of the youths who stayed at the gallery had had their applications rejected.

They’re waiting for a decision from the Paris courts or for a hearing. Some were rejected after their evaluation, and some are trying to send in applications but don’t have their papers. They’re young people who are not being taken in by the state even though they should be.

We were able to share a wonderful moment together. It was a relief to us that they weren’t in the streets. They were figuring out who got to sleep next to who and whose turn it was to shower, they were fighting over the best comforter and tickling each other, and it would be great if their evaluations for their refugee applications were held in a relaxed environment like this one. There’s no doubt to me that these are kids.

The organisers hope to continue the project in September, when Loiseau exhibits his works in a gallery in Saint-Denis.

This story was written by Jenny Che.