Abderrahim Abdellaoui, 57, picked me up at the metro stop in Aubervilliers, and greeted me with a smile. “This is where the sun is,” he told me. “I used to live in Paris, but there’s no sun there. Aubervilliers has the sun.”
His warmth was a welcome contrast to the icy December weather, just days into an abrupt shift from fall to winter. Thick clouds packed the sky, and Aubervilliers’s towering gray projects didn’t add much color.
“Everyone is afraid of the 93,” he said, referring to Seine-Saint-Denis, the low-income department just northeast of Paris that includes Aubervilliers and is home to numerous immigrant communities. “But when you come here, when you talk to people, you’ll see that it’s one of the richest places in France.” He parked in front of a sprawling public-housing project, known as the cent douze, or 112—for its address, 112 Rue Hélène Cochennec.
Seine-Saint-Denis, historically an industrial hub for immigrant workers, gained notoriety in 2005 when riots broke out in one of its townships, Clichy-sous-Bois, after two teenagers were electrocuted while hiding in a shed that housed a transformer to escape police pursuit. The ensuing riots rocked France and cast a shadow on Paris’s banlieues, or suburbs. Thousands of cars and hundreds of buildings were burned, and some 6,000 people were arrested. The government declared a state of emergency, and 13 years later, the area’s bad reputation remains. Seine-Saint-Denis is the poorest department in metropolitan France.
Abdellaoui migrated to France from Algeria in 1991, at the onset of the civil war. He eventually settled in Aubervilliers, a township of about 80,000 that neighbors Paris’ 19th arrondissement. He’s friendly and open, and as we walked around the neighborhood, he stopped every couple of minutes to say hello to residents, asking them how they were and how their families were doing.
“Before I got to the 112, even the police wouldn’t come in,” he said, shaking his head, before adding proudly that he “brought order to the neighborhood.” But while security there has improved in the past two decades, many of the residence’s youth are still unemployed. So Abdellaoui took it upon himself to chip away at the stereotypes plaguing many banlieue youth and help them find jobs.
“There are kids here that have never left the projects, that never see the ocean.” Sometimes, he said he organizes group trips to Paris—just a couple of miles away—to “show them that it exists.” Once they get off the metro, he added, police swarm: Black and Arab young men are stopped 20 times more often than the rest of the population, and are regularly subjected to the French equivalent of stop-and-frisk.