Hero Malian Got French Citizenship while Thousands Languish in Squalid Camps

Published May 29th, 2018 - 12:14 GMT
Mamoudou Gassama with infamous member of French aristocracy, Louis XIV (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
Mamoudou Gassama with infamous member of French aristocracy, Louis XIV (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)


  • Mamoudou Gassama, a Malian migrant in France, scaled a building to save a boy
  • The videos of Gassama went viral, but other migrants' acts of bravery and endurance remain unseen
  • Gassama got citizenship for his actions, while thousands are being forced out of makeshift homes in Paris
  • The juxtaposition marks how France has inadequately dealt with its migrant and refugee crisis


By Ty Joplin


Mamoudou Gassama, a Malian migrant who had lived in France for six months in a cramped hostel, is now a national hero. His act of bravery was not surviving the deadly Mediterranean passage to Europe in a rickety boat, or struggling to make ends meet in a country that wished he never came. These are the norm.

Gassama’s act of bravery was seeing a child dangling from a fourth-story balcony in Paris, and scaling the facade of the building with unbelievable speed and selflessness to save the child. A crowd looked on, cheering and taking videos of the act from different angles.

For this act, Gassama was awarded French Citizenship, given a job, and met with French president Emmanuel Macron in his palatial, gilded estate. But while Gassama is given citizenship after virally proving himself to be uniquely courageous, thousands languish in dingy, makeshift refugee camps around France and inside Paris.

The thousands who are like him except they aren’t able-bodied enough to scale a building will not be recognized by the government, will never set foot inside Macron’s palace. Instead, they will face security crackdowns, unsanitary living conditions and informal and exploitative work. Many will be expelled completely. 

Because they can't become viral sensations, they might as well not exist even if they have braved dire conditions to live in France.

Gassama broke out and became a public hero, but other migrants and asylum seekers in France are doomed to remain unremarkable; their shelters treated as obstacles, their lives as disposable, their deaths as inevitable.



"I saw all these people shouting, and cars sounding their horns. I climbed up like that and, thank God, I saved the child," Gassama told reporters after the incident.

"He's truly a hero," the boy's grandmother said.

Gassama’s ascent up the building was incredible to watch, not only for how selflessly and quickly he undertook the climb, but for how effortless he makes it look. He scaled four stories in about 20 seconds, plucking the child from the balcony and placing him safely on the other side.

After six months of living without documents in France, a one-minute video of him has given him a new life.

"I felt afraid  when I saved the child... (when) we went into the living room, I started to shake, I could hardly stand up, I had to sit down," Gassama said later.

Hours after the video went viral, Gassama received French citizenship, an invitation to Macron’s lavish palace, a medal and a job offer at a local fire department. His usefulness as a citizen sufficiently proven, he is allowed to stay.

Meanwhile, France has expelled almost 6,000 asylum seekers and migrants, forcibly taking many from makeshift camps in northern France and in Paris that the state dismantles.

France received about 100,000 asylum requests in 2017, up from 85,000 requests in 2016

Almost half of asylum seekers and refugees in France do not have access to housing, leaving tens of thousands throughout the country to squalid camps often without clean water or access to restrooms.


Police dismantle a camp of Syrian refugees in France (AFP/FILE)

In northern France, thousands of asylum seekers huddled in the Grande-Synthe camp, which is located right outside the coastal town of Dunkirk. Already over-crowded, the camp became squalid and virtually unlivable after another camp in Calais, nicknamed ‘the jungle’ was razed by the French government. Many who were expelled from the jungle made their way to Grande-Synthe.

In April 2017, a massive fire destroyed the Grande-Synthe camp, leaving nothing but “a heap of ashes,” according to one official. Those displaced were dispersed around France, forced to re-forge a place to wait and live until they are expelled or given refugee status and resettled. The process can take anywhere from six to fourteen months.


The Grande-Synthe camp burns (AFP/FILE)

A few days before Gassama’s heroic act, the French government ordered the forcible closure of a migrant camp in the 19th district of Paris that is home to nearly 1,400 people. The move comes amidst a broader order to shut down any and all such camps inside the French capital.

Many of those who will be expelled will not receive an alternative form of shelter from the government, which human rights organizations like UNICEF and the  French Red Cross condemned as an affront to the migrants’ basic human rights.

A considerable portion of those who will be forced from their makeshift homes come from Africa and braved the same route to arrive in France as Gassama did: taking a rickety boat from Libya across the Mediterranean Sea.

Naby Sylla, a 20-year-old Guinean, trekked across the French Alps after taking a raft from Libya to Italy. After being attacked twice in Italy, she moved to France.

"In Africa, we thought that Europe was a place of welcome. Unfortunately, we don't find that," he told The Associated Press.


The Deadliest Journey on Earth

Asylum seekers step over mounds of dead bodies after finding rescue in the Mediterranean (AFP/FILE)

Gassama, seeking a better life in Europe, took a boat from Libya towards Europe. "It was terrible on the boat," he said. "There were many of us, a lot of people."

Many migrants get caught up in human trafficking rings, where smugglers promising them safe passage to Europe take their money and coerce them into work. Some are sold in open-air markets as slaves.

For those that are able to make it on a boat, they face a journey that kills more people than any other active migration route on Earth.

In 2018 alone, 495 have died at sea trying to pass into Europe via ship in the Mediterranean, and almost 1,000 have died in total when accounting for land and other sea routes.

Over 10,000 drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014 while trying to seek refuge in Europe. In 2017, two percent of all those who tried to get from Libya to Europe drowned in the sea, their bodies sent adrift to be found by national coast guards or lost forever.

These acts of bravery are counted by the thousands and are treated as everyday, banal statistics. Videos of parents saving their children from drowning or human traffickers do not go viral or are simply not documented.

Gassama and others travelling the deadliest route in the world to reach France is not good enough.


What if?

For his life to be changed, Gassama likely had to succeed in saving the child.

In that conditional statement, the arbitrary and frightful nature of migrants’ pathways to citizenship are laid bare for all to see.

What if Gassama had tried to scale the building and fell? Worse yet, what if the child fell before Gassama could reach him? What if the building wasn’t high enough, so the feat wasn’t deemed daring enough?

What if people had, for whatever reason, not to record the videos? What if those videos hadn’t gone viral? What if the child was saved by the father moments before Gassama could pluck him up and secure him?

Would Gassama had been granted citizenship then?

What if Gassama had died on the route to France, like thousands of others have?


Disposable Lives

Macron speaks with Gassama, the hero who saved the child from the balcony in Paris (AFP)

Macron speaking with Gassama in front of cameras and behind a gilded palatial background makes for a good photo opp, but terrible politics.

Creates an insane level to reach for citizenship. Gives Maccron a photo opportunity to prove he’s a nice guy, one for the people.

Macron, intent on creating more refugees by hawkish policies in northern Africa and the Middle East, gets to look like the good guy for a day.

Gassama was commended for bravery for his very public, viral life saving feat.

Thousands of other African and Middle Eastern migrants braving deprivation and deadly routes to save members of their own family arrive in Europe only to find themselves homeless, without access to food or water, and subject to a lengthy asylum process that could see them expelled anyway are not considered heroes but logistical nightmares for governments and threats to some citizens who hold nativist prejudices and want to make life as hard as possible for the migrants.

Their bravery is not captured in singular, viral videos, so they are forgotten in the seas of migrants crashing against the side of European citizenship, drifting along its shores proverbially waiting to be recognized as people deserving of a home to call their own.  

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