Nonprofit group builds tiny homes for refugees in Parisian private gardens

Finding accommodations is a major issue for the more than 220,000 refugees living in France. An architecture nonprofit is tackling the issue by building tiny houses that Parisians can use to host a refugee on their property. 

Charles Platiau/Reuters
People walk in the Trocadero gardens near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Feb. 8 as temperatures continue to drop during a snowy winter. In November, around 1,000 refugees and migrants were sleeping rough in Paris, facing harsh winter temperatures. A new social architecture project is building miniature houses for refugees in the backyards of homes in Paris to address the housing troubles facing refugees.

Afghan refugee Sadiq has a home like no other in Paris.

It is made of wood, with a tiny kitchen and toilet, a small living area, and – most unusually – is in someone else's garden.

The small-scaled house is in the backyard of Charlotte Boulanger and her partner Dominique – the first family to take part in a project aiming to put a roof over the head of refugees struggling to find a place to live in France.

"When I first arrived in France I lived on the street," said Sadiq, who is from Afghanistan's western Herat province and declined to give his full name for safety concerns.

"[It] is very good, it's a small house, very peaceful."

The United Nations estimates that more than 220,000 refugees live in France, where the number of people filing asylum requests hit a record in 2017, topping 100,000, giving impetus to demands for tighter controls on immigration.

Accommodation is a major issue, aid groups say.

Reception centers across the country have room for about 80,000 asylum seekers, said Nadege Letellier, who heads the refugee program at Samu Social de Paris, a charity which matches refugees with volunteers willing to host them.

Once people are granted refugee status, they have only six months to move out of reception centers and find a home. Many end up on the street, which can worsen their isolation and make it harder to integrate and find a job, she said.

"If they don't know where to sleep at night, all the time, or where to wash themselves, or eat something, they are too worried to try finding work," said Ms. Letellier.

The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said in November that about 1,000 refugees and migrants were sleeping rough in Paris, exposed to harsh winter temperatures.

France proposed tougher immigration laws last month, doubling the time for which illegal migrants can be detained and shortening deadlines to apply for asylum, sparking criticism from rights groups.

Yes, in my backyard

Not everyone who wants to help a refugee has room to spare and living with a stranger can prove tricky for both parties, said Romain Minod, the architect who designed Sadiq's home.

"So we decided to build a tiny house that goes into gardens and backyards," said Mr. Minod, director of Quatorze, a nonprofit that uses architecture to address social problems.

Sadiq's house is the first installed by the group as part of a project called In My BackYard, which aims to build 50 such houses over three years to accommodate up to 100 refugees in and around Paris.

The 65-square-feet building – equal to about five king size beds – is made of wood and walls are insulated with cardboard to retain heat.

"We wanted to build a house that was also environmentally friendly," said Minod, adding they plan to install solar panels and water-recycling showers in future models.

Minod hopes to cover costs by pre-selling the homes to camping and tourist resorts, which will take them over after they have served as refugees' homes for at least two years.

Second family

Ten refugees interested in learning the trade helped to build Quatorze's first tiny house, which was transported to the Boulanger's garden in the eastern Parisian suburb of Montreuil in November, Minod said.

"We didn't have space at home to welcome a refugee but we did have room in the garden," said Ms. Boulanger.

"We all have great autonomy, which is what seduced us about this project," she said, as Sadiq comes and goes through an opening in the backyard, without entering their home.

Her children, aged two and six, love the novelty of having something akin to a tree house in the garden and often play with Sadiq during the day.

A few times a week, they all eat together, she said.

"We are getting to know each other better and better every day ... we are becoming friends," she said.

Sadiq said he also loves his new-found independence.

After four months rough sleeping in Paris and about one year in a reception center, he lived with another family for a few months but was too shy to leave his room for fear of disturbing his hosts, he said.

"I came out only when they left, while now I am easy," he said.

Three years after he escaped Afghanistan following threats from the Taliban for working for NATO troops, he is now interviewing for a shop assistant job in central Paris.

Placing refugees with families allows them to learn French language and culture faster than in reception centers where social workers often are their only outside contact, said Celine Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency.

"It's like having a second family in France," added Letellier of Samu Social. "There is someone who waits for them to come back in the evening, and worry if they are not there."

This story was reported by Thomson Reuters.

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