This article originally appeared on VICE France.“It’s not the life I wanted for him – it’s the life society gave him.” That’s how Assa, 68, from the French city of Lille, begins. Beneath Assa’s headscarf, thousands of worries plague her mind – all of them about her son, Samir, who’s been dealing drugs for the last 13 years. Samir’s name has been changed and Assa has asked to remain partially anonymous so as not to get in trouble with the police. The same goes for the other people mentioned in the piece.
I meet Assa and her son in the small social housing block where their family has been living in an unstable financial situation for generations. “For as long as I can remember, we haven’t had a moment’s respite, despite constant, daily efforts,” says Assa. She gestures towards a mountain of bills piling up on a corner table. “All of this – poverty, bills, outstanding debt… I know that’s what pushed my son into dealing, and it just breaks my heart.” Samir got into drug dealing around the age of 12. “When you’re that young, the cops aren’t as suspicious,” Assa continues. “And I had no idea what was going on; I just knew Samir was slipping bills into my wallet. When I’d balance my cheque book, I saw there was money.”Placing a tender hand on his mother’s shoulder, Samir gives her a kiss on the cheek. He knows she worries. “When you’re that deep in a financial hole, and you don’t know what else to do, it’s really hard to quit dealing,” he says.Assa says Samir quit school early because the family was in a difficult financial situation; they were struggling to pay for supplies and transportation without her son’s extra income. “We already had nothing, and now we were being threatened with foreclosure,” Assa recalls. When she opened up to a social worker about her son’s work, she was told, “Oh, we always have a choice in life – he could have tried panhandling instead,” Assa remembers.
Fatima, 70, is a neighbour and friend of Assa’s whose son Elias also deals drugs. Like Assa’s family, hers has a long history of financial struggle. “When his father left us – and stuck us with enormous debts – I think Elias tried to take his dad’s responsibilities onto his own shoulders,” Fatima says. “He ended up getting into dealing.”Both originally from Morocco, Assa and Fatima have struggled to access housing and work in France. “It’s so hard to get out of poverty these days, especially when you’re Arab and in an unstable situation,” Assa says. Fatima agrees: “There are so many obstacles that, after a while, the boys just kind of threw up their hands, and so did we,” she says, looking regretfully at her son. As small-scale dealers, Elias and Samir estimate their average monthly salary at just over £500 a month. They work afternoons and late nights, seven days a week. Both are on the police’s radar, have been detained overnight and even done stints in prison. “Even before I was dealing, I was already getting stopped by the police who suspected me of dealing,” Elias says. “Now, I’m running the risk of getting arrested but I’m bringing in money.” Both sons and their mothers feel the cards have been stacked against them from the get-go. “People have already decided you’re no good, just because of where you come from,” Assa says. “After a while, you start thinking that all the stories you hear about overcoming obstacles like ours are lies, you think it’ll never happen for you. It’s so painful.”
Fatima has spent many sleepless nights wishing for a different life for her son, and the anguish seeps through her words. Leaning back against the wall, Elias looks at her, making a motion with his sleeve as if to wipe away a tear. “I want to make my mum proud, I can’t bear thinking I’ll never manage to,” he says. “But then again, I don’t have a choice. I can’t do anything else – it’s too late.”Assa says she feels abandoned by the French institutions. “There’s no mercy for people like us,” she says bitterly. “Nobody ever tries to help us, they come after us for the smallest things. Every day I’m angry. I wake up enraged and I go to bed worn out by all the injustice.” In her neighbourhood, police checks have become more and more frequent in recent months, prompting Assa to fear her son might be sent back to prison. “This is not a choice, it’s a curse,” she continues. If there’s one little ray of hope in this whole ordeal, it’s that Assa and Fatima have formed a friendship that’s helped them through their daily struggles. Every day at 2PM, the women have tea together, exchanging words of support in between sips. “She makes me hang onto hope, and I feel less alone,” says Assa, squeezing her friend’s hand. “You’re strong, too,” Fatima tells Assa. “Tired, but strong.” The two families are currently putting together a debt relief claim, which should help lighten the financial load on their families. But with no other job prospects in sight, Samir and Elias do not plan on quitting dealing for the time being – as much as their mothers disapprove.