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The Toddler and the Tank: A Reflection on Mamoudou Gassama’s Heroic Act



On May 26, 22-year-old Malian migrant Mamoudou Gassama scaled the balconies of a Parisian apartment to rescue a young boy from certain doom. Videos of the event went viral and the world, including myself, watched them feeling chuffed that such remarkable people exist.


However, days before Mamoudou met Emmanuel Macron in the Presidential Palace, a migrant camp in the 19thArondissement was cleared and 2,500 people were left homeless. No videos of that went viral.


As a starting point for this series of posts, I thought it would be interesting to talk about how the bravery of one person can overshadow the suffering of many.


That’s not to say that Mamoudou’s saving of a young boy dangling from his balcony doesn’t deserve praise, but the coverage of his meeting with Macron has opened an opportunity for many (including British Labour MP David Lammy) to voice their cynicism over the treatment of refugees;




Lammy’s tweet highlights the supposed need for drama to elicit compassion. The public wants to devour the exploits of the brave, not listen to reports on forced deportation and general misery. As such, this report received much more attention than the clearing of the camp.


I’m playing devil’s advocate here; some people areconcerned about the treatment of migrants, and feel as cynical as Lammy about a possible PR stunt by Macron. But a lot of us already know about the dissolution of refugee camps in France, and the dreadful conditions of direct provision centres here in Ireland. So some tend to get distracted when a feat like this emerges.


A lot of this is because of the routine nature of cruelty. We know about it, it happens every day, and we’re not going to sit down for dinner and talk about it like it’s new. But we are going to talk about the toddler’s rescue like it’s new, and we’re going to be very impressed.


This craving for the dramatic is applicable to almost anything. Take writing a script- do you want to write an abstract three-hour film showing an inflatable banana floating in the bath, telling everyone afterwards that it’s a metaphor for hip-hop? Or do you want danger, excitement, action?


In a similar way, this story circulated like wildfire thanks to its gripping plot. Without the heroic act, we wouldn’t have heard about this. Nobody would have been interested. I’m using this comparison with narrative fiction to steer away from politics.


Now, I vowed not to get into politics when I started these posts, believing that writing about what people are doing internationally to accommodate migrants can be separated from a thing I loathe. Unfortunately, there may be instances where this is impossible. But I’ll try to keep away from politics as much as I can. In addition, some posts about past refugee initiatives and related topics may be included. I started this after joining the UCD branch of Fáilte Refugees Ireland, a great group and one I’d encourage you all to join. If you’re in another Irish university, check if there’s a branch of it there so you can join too.


In the meantime, three cheers for Mamoudou! But spare a thought for the many now living on the streets.




Matthew Tannam-Elgie is a UCD student, currently on an Erasmus for the next academic year (2018/19). Matthew will be writing blog posts about what other countries are doing to integrate refugees and asylum seekers into their cities and towns.


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