In Paris, in the heart of Europe, bathed by the autumn light, Anna's Politikoskaja sculpture with the puckered face between her hands and looking longingly into the void, is the symbol of the Maison des Journalistes, an association that has welcomed journalists that ask for political asylum in France since 2000. It is a work that attracts the looks in the morning, it clears the mind of tired days and it redefines the fuzzy dreams of reporters, distant from the joys of everyday life. Like a brush, the sculpture redraws them with the colors of new hope in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
Long trips whilst suffering sleepless nights and agonizing days. Ever fearful of being pursued, beaten or even killed. They left Afghanistan, Algeria, the Cameron, Haiti, Congo, Togo, Turkey and many other countries. Countries where they could not write anymore, speak anymore, broadcast anymore. They could only live in fear. Brave people that were forced to run away from their nation all because they wanted to uphold the noble cause of press freedom.
They underwent many hardships before arriving in Paris and joining the great family of reporters. Two journalists welcomed them at Cauchy Street 35: Danièle Ohayon and Philippe Spineau, the founders of the "Maison des Journalistes", that have given hospitality to 172 reporters of various nationalities from the year 2002. "They are people that want to tell of the tragic experiences they have lived through. Here they receive support, suggestions and a place to reflect", explains Danièle Ohayon in her office, embellished with photos of reporters that lived at the "Maison" in the past years. Men and women with great professional experience that abandoned investigations that would have contributed to changing the future of their nations and so to make aware Afghans, Congolese, Cuban, Turkish, Chinese and many other people about the yoke that suffocated them and the threats that shattered their dreams.
At "La Maison des Journalistes" reporters can stay six months, the time needed to became a political refugee. In this waiting period, they are not authorized to work by law, therefore they start learning French and writing for the magazine of the association. "I would like to tell a beautiful story of a reporter from Senegal that attended one of the best schools of journalism in France after having been here and having got political asylum – says Danièle Ohayon – Unfortunately he could not find a job in journalism and he started working in a laundromat, where he quickly became the most important person. In the meantime he created a free newspaper for the African community in France. And he started working in the publicity business. This is only an example to show that the journalists we host are really good people. We are very proud indeed to welcome them and to give them the opportunity of a new life. This means to be European and to gain the inheritance of an important hospitality culture"
When we went out of her office, we visited the building. The silence of the autumn afternoon permeated the building to give an aura of peace and calm. The Maison des Journalistes, just as the name says, is a real house designed on three floors. It is a place in which everything seems to flow slowly. The kitchen, the laundromat, the TV room and the library are distant universes from the tribulations suffered by the journalists before escaping. Suspended on the door of every room are nameplates of Canard Enchainé, RFI, Canal Plus and of the French media that with the European Fund for the Refugees sustain financially the "Maison", by covering all the expenses.
Slowly moving along the corridors, we come to a small room where two reporters are working on the electronic version of the “Oeil de the exilé", the exile's eye, a magazine that allows residents to practice the profession and to understand the mechanisms of the French press. We are welcomed by the big smile of Jean Jacques Jarel, a journalist from Gabon who arrived at the "Maison" in August. It is his birthday. He has two big watery eyes, eyes as big as swamps. "I graduated in philosophy, but I have never taught. I was young when I became a journalist, just 19, and during my twenty-year career I have worked in the press, in the radio and in the television of my country".
By observing him while he is speaking, his face changes, it seems like a mirror where the enthusiastic expressions of his first article and his first broadcast service are visible. Then, after the initial impetus, his smile extinguishes and the mirror becomes grey, with the dark tones of his escape, of that fateful phone call: "You have to escape, someone is looking for you". "It was a few months ago, I had just transmitted the news of the illness that forced our President to go to a hospital in Barcelona. For you, it seems strange, yours is a democratic country. However in Gabon and in so many other countries if you spread news like that you end up going straight to jail to be tortured. To the people, the President has to represent the perfection, the "God on Earth". It is not permissible to know his health conditions, his problems, or his difficulties. And if someone tries to talk about it, then the persecution starts. I was aware that spreading news like this was dangerous. But I did it in order to inform all my countrymen because that was my duty as a journalist. In my country, human rights don't exist and press freedom is only a mirage. If you want to be a reporter and not live in fear for your life, then you have to caress the skin of power."
Jacques would like to keep on working as reporter but first he wants to gain a degree in France. All his thoughts are towards his family which gives him courage. The strong desire to integrate into French society stimulates him. Just like Ali Muhaqiq Nasab, an Afghan reporter, another resident at the "Maison". Pushing open the door of his room, he appears relaxed. Ali shows us his computer, there is a CD inside that translate some idiomatic sentences from his language, farsi, to French. “I was editor in chief for a magazine based in Kabul, Haqoq-e-Zan (Women's Rights), and I reported about the injustices suffered by women. In 2005 I was stopped in Afghanistan and I spent two years in jail, accused of publishing articles against the Islamic religion. For the same reason, in March 2008, I was arrested in Iran, near Teheran". Ali wrote about women, he fought for their rights. And like Jacques, he did it with passion and a critical spirit.
Ali, Jacques and many other journalists in the world didn't caress Power. They reported the irregularities, the corruption, and injustices. They were fighting simply with words and a mission from the heart. Now that heart, thanks to Europe and its hospitality, has started beating again, giving voice to the voiceless.