Mamoudou Gassama is a real-life superhero. The 22-year-old Paris man scaled a four-story building to pluck a child dangling precariously over a sidewalk in the 18th Arrondissement, earning the nickname “Spider-Man of the 18th.” For his heroism, he will be rewarded with legal status in France.
That’s more than deserved for Gassama, and as anti-immigrant sentiment continues to fester in Europe and the United States, it’s certainly gratifying to see an African migrant as the protagonist of an urban superhero story.
Of course, selfless, brave men who put their lives on the line to save a child are exactly who you want in your country. And indeed, as the BBC points out, rewarding heroism like Gassama’s is in fact written into France’s civil code: “Article 21-19 says that a fast-track naturalization procedure is possible for a foreign national who has ‘performed exceptional services for France, or whose naturalization would be of exceptional interest for France’.”
This story has revealed one of the oddities of the Western world’s relationship to immigrants. Consider that the very act of leaving one’s home, crossing borders (often dangerously) and relocating to a place one might not even be able to imagine is itself an act of extreme bravery, undertaken by people who are willing to assume great personal risk in the search for prosperity and the promise of a better future.
Some are fleeing violence and instability, others poverty; either way, it is never only desperation that gets someone across a desert or ocean; it’s also great ambition, resourcefulness and determination — desirable traits, to be sure. Yet with a swipe of a bureaucrat’s pen, people who go to unimaginable lengths to grasp at a brighter future can see all their dreams crumble – dreams that were not even so big, usually little else than a wish to have one’s family safe and sheltered and fed.
How odd, then, to use the same immigration system to reward the public risk of climbing a building to save one child, while punishing the less easily seen risks so many take to get to France (or America, for that matter) in the first place – often, it must be said, in the service of aiding children: their own.
This latest climb was not Gassama’s first time defying death: According to Gassama, he traveled to Libya and then across the Mediterranean Sea, landing in Italy in 2014. He came to France last year to join his brother. To get there from Mali, he would likely have traveled the perilous migrant route through Burkina Faso, into Niger, and across the desert to Libya (he said he spent a difficult year in Libya, where he was arrested and beaten).
In fact, if he had the standard migrant experience, he would have paid smugglers a hefty sum to get to Europe, setting sail from Libya in a dangerously over-crowded boat across the Mediterranean to Italy.
That he was living in Paris likely indicates he had some strokes of good luck other migrants didn’t. He did not meet his end in a Sahel desert after a truck breakdown; he was not left to die, as migrants sometimes are when they fall from an over-filled truck bed. He is not now trapped in a Libyan prison, some of them funded partly by the European Union, which have turned into slave trading markets, rife with violence and abuse.
Nor was he returned to his home country with nothing to show after having paid smugglers what is for most people across Africa an enormous sum, often borrowed from family with the expectation that a young man who makes it to Europe can help a family back home, and even pull the family out of poverty.
We don’t know precisely what Gassama endured on his travels to France. We know this year alone – and we’re not even halfway into it – 655 migrants have died in the Mediterranean. In 2016, the annual death toll reached a high of more than 2,500; that doesn’t count the many who die on their way to Libya.
These migrants, just like Gassama on the building, risk it all – not for greed, but more often because there is a large and extended family network in their home country, and not enough resources: not enough land, not enough food, not enough money. They spend their savings and imperil their lives not to line their own pockets, but to fill bellies and build houses back home. You don’t see the children whose lives they improve and sometimes save on viral YouTube videos, but the contributions migrants make to their lives are no less crucial for being less dramatic.
Last year, France received more than 100,000 applications for asylum. Most of them – more than 65,000 – were rejected. Just 13,020 were given refugee status. The United States, which has long styled itself as a haven for hardworking newcomers, isn’t any better; the Trump administration is actively limiting the number of refugees admitted into the country. Migrants who enter along our southern border, many of them fleeing gang violence and threats of death, are seeing their children torn away from them.
Yes, let’s applaud Gassama’s bravery. But it didn’t start the day he climbed that building. And migrants like him deserve more than an immigration reward for an extraordinary public act. They deserve the dignity of a fair process and humane treatment when they leave behind their homes and get to where they’re going. They shouldn’t have to be Spider-Man to be welcomed as people.