Touching a different part of the elephant - Grace, an illegal immigrant

As I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks ago, my experiences as an American expatriate in Paris differ from those of other residents. Therefore, I would like to inaugurate a new feature called, "Touching a different part of the elephant" by introducing you to Grace*, an illegal immigrant, and the woman whose descriptions of the city first made me realize that I need to do more than just touch the elephant's tusk if I want to have a better understanding of the entire beast.

When Stephane and I are transferred to a new country, his company pays for language lessons and hires a relocation expert to help us find housing, connect our utilities, set up a bank account, select a school for our children -- in short, they assist us with almost everything and it still isn't easy.

Compare that with Grace, who financed her move to Paris by selling her house, car and small businesses in Saint Pablo City in the Philippines, thus giving her the money to gamble, as she puts it, on a better life for her husband and two young daughters. At the age of thirty-six, Grace said good-bye to her family and boarded a plane for the first time in her life. After asking if she was terrified about moving to a new country where she doesn't speak the language, Grace told me that thoughts of her children and providing for their future gave her courage. While she was deliberately vague about the specific route that she took to Paris in March 2010 because she doesn't want to cause problems for future migrants, she revealed that she landed in another European country and spent many hours traveling by train to France.

If you've ever spent much time in the 16th arrondissement, you've probably noticed that the majority of  fashionably dressed babies and small children are being cared for by women who aren't their mothers. There's such a large community of Filipinos, both legal and illegal, working in this elegant district that a couple of ethnic grocery stores selling durians and dried fish have invaded the stylish boutiques, florists, and luxury food stores. Through this network, Grace was able to start earning money by giving manicures and pedicures to her compatriots until one of her friends introduced Grace to her employer as a trained masseuse. Her healing hands and ability to work the last vestiges of stress out of her clients' bodies is what prompted another American expat to enthusiastically recommend Grace to me.

During our first meeting last June, Grace and I compared notes on life in the Philippines, where I had lived on the remote island of Mindanao that has the reputation as an unruly place where foreigners are frequently kidnapped, versus Paris where I usually feel safe wandering around on my own. Grace revealed, however, that it's very different for her because Filipinas are prime targets for thieves since they know that many of them are illegal immigrants who won't report crimes committed against them to the police for fear of being arrested themselves. Additionally, Filipinas and other illegal immigrants are known to carry large sums of cash because many of them don't have bank accounts and don't want to leave the money that they're saving to send home to their families in the meagre rooms that they rent.

Curious to know how Grace would describe Paris, the city that most people consider to be the most romantic in the world, I was surprised when she replied that it's strictly a place for her to earn money. Not quite believing her, I started listing the city's virtues -- the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, the museums, the cafés -- to which Grace replied, "It's not the same when you're alone, without your family." Her goal is to earn enough money to bring her husband to Paris later this year. Their two daughters, who are 13 and 5, will stay with Grace's mother in the Philippines until they can raise the funds for their plane tickets. In the meantime, Grace sends money home for their schooling, books, uniforms (all of which are not free in the Philippines), and additional lessons because she wants her daughters to excel in school.

I've had the pleasure of meeting Grace's husband and youngest daughter via Skype because she's usually chatting with her family on her iPhone as she takes the public transportation from one job to the next. Even though she's far away, she yearns to be present in their lives and to participate in important moments, like when her youngest daughter wants to show her the latest moves that she has learned in ballet class.

Those of us who move to Paris come here for different reasons and under different circumstances. Grace came here to build a better life for her daughters. I hope that she achieves her goal.

*Please note that Grace is an alias and that the photos of her and her daughters have been blurred to protect their identity.


  1. Ah, I admire your push for more depth in your blog--I struggle with it myself, as I'm really interested in people rather than things, but things are easier to write about. And I've not really spent time interviewing people. This will be a great addition to your blog; I'm very happy for you.

    Best wishes to Grace. I can only imagine the challenges and know that even my imagination could not match the reality.

    1. Thanks, Joseph. Like you, I find people infinitely more interesting than things, so I really enjoyed chatting with Grace and learning more about her life. While I was listening to her, I couldn't help but wonder if I would have had the courage/determination to do the same thing for my family. I'm thankful that I'm not in a situation that requires me to answer that question.

  2. Very interesting, thanks for that. Just a tip - I think you may have slipped up and put here real name on one time. You might want to revise

    1. her real name. Talking of revising...

    2. Phew! Thanks for catching that slip and letting me know about it, Gwan! I read and re-read the post numerous times to make sure that I didn't use Grace's real name by mistake and it still happened. Thanks again!

  3. What a fascinating report...I don't want to call it a post because it's so much more.

    I have been curious about this ever since I came to Paris, especially with all of the manifestations and articles that I have read about the topic. I remember what a pain it was for me to relocate and have always been curious about the experiences of an illegal immigrant in Paris.

    Thank you for giving us a peek into another side of expat living.

  4. what a fantastic post - so beautifully dealt with, without political bias. Reminds me of when I met up with and heard the stories of some of the refugee population of Leeds whilst I was a student there. I remember thinking 'would I be that brave in their situation'? - and what a brave lady Grace is. Love the Kipling reference too - you should be proud to be stepping out and showing a diverse Paris. Sarah.

  5. Mary Kay; I too know people who are living here illegally and some work in a regular employment, something that would be absolutely impossible in my home country. I also see others who - same as 'Grace' - earn some money and like her can't put it into an account because they have no permits and because they have no permits they can't get any bank account etc.
    And I too struggle immensely about those situations I got to know in this country. Although I lived in other countries before, I never encountered the tragedies I see here and I understand both, the French for not wanting any more people with hardly any means to sustain themselves and the illegal immigrants for having left their home and families in order to hopefully find a way of living abroad for their beloved ones.
    It hurts immensely to see this kind of life, because these people have none of the benefits, we ‘other’ immigrants had – nobody to look after them, helping them to get ‘installed’, opening accounts, finding housing, giving advice. Plus; nobody ‘wants’ them and they don’t speak the language etc.
    It’s very good of you to do those ‘talks’ from time to time, MK. I only subscribed to your blog a very short time ago, so I am looking forward to what you have to tell us.
    Good luck with that mission; it just might make a difference to people’s understanding of his/her next human being.

  6. There but for the Grace of God go I...

    Your Friends in Boston

  7. It's tough enough being a legal immigrant at times. I can't imagine what it must be like for Grace. I hope things work out for her and that her family can be reunited soon.

  8. This is a very poignant post. Thank you for sharing Grace's story with us.

  9. I'm so excited to read more of this series as it comes! A great idea and thank you for this interesting view of Grace and her family.


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