Merid Estifanos was still in his afternoon French class when I arrived at the Maison des Journalistes (MDJ) this afternoon to meet him. I was greeted instead by Maison’s director, Philippe Spinau, who gave me the grand tour of the house that has been home to many journalists who, like Estifanos, were forced into exile for their work.
Spinau, who co-founded MDJ in 2002, told me that for journalists fleeing imprisonment and violence in their home countries, finding themselves in a community of their professional peers is a source of both comfort and pride. “They may be in exile, but here they still have a professional identity,” he said.
During my tour of MDJ I met journalists from Burma, Senegal, Paraguay, Iraq, and Sri Lanka. They all had horror stories to share–imprisonment, torture, months in hiding awaiting the opportunity to leave their regions and be able to breath again.
MDJ accommodates up to 30 journalists each year from around the world providing each with a small private room, courses in French language and culture, a public transportation pass, psychological services, and coupons to by groceries for a six-month period. Spinau showed me their rooms (each named for a media outlet that provided funding), the common area with TV and video library, and the office of L’Oeil de l’Exilé (The Eye of the Exilee) the publication run by MDJ residents. Our tour ended in the basement where Estifanos and a group of his colleagues were finishing their French class. When he spotted me he jumped up to give me a hug. Though this was my first meeting with Estifanos, I felt I knew him well.
For more than a year, CPJ and Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) worked together to get Estifanos out of Sudan where he had fled to escape imminent imprisonment in Ethiopia following a 2005 crackdown on the independent press. In Sudan, he was harassed by authorities, beaten and detained. For months he left the shelter of a friend’s apartment only to check for e-mails from CPJ or RSF who, he told me, were a lifeline during his ordeal. On May 8, following weeks of lobbying French officials for approval of his visa, Estifanos arrived in Paris and moved into the Maison des Journalistes (MDJ).
Merid and I spent the afternoon talking about his experience in Sudan and his transition to life in France where language is the biggest, but not the only challenge. “We prepare our own meals. I never cooked for myself before now, so this is a good learning experience for me,” Estifanos told me with a wry smile.
In two months, Estifanos’ time at MDJ will be up and he will have to find his own lodgings and the means to support himself. He is doubtful that he will be able to continue in the field of journalism. “You can’t work if you can’t compete,” Estifanos explained. “Even if I can learn French, I don’t know that there are opportunities for refugees to work in journalism.” For the time being, he is working hard to master French and completing a book about his experiences in exile.
Sitting at a sidewalk café near MDJ I asked Estifanos what he has found most surprising about Paris. “The beauty. I read lots of books about Paris, but I didn’t expect it to live up to its reputation.”
(Reporting from Paris)