Mi­grants learn French on banks of Paris canal

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Sit­ting in rows on a grassy em­bank­ment over­look­ing a Paris square, around 50 asy­lum-seek­ers re­cite the al­pha­bet in French fol­low­ing a young woman point­ing to let­ters on a white­board. “Ew”, 22-year-old Louise shouts, at­tempt­ing to make her­self heard above the pass­ing traf­fic and the mu­sic spilling out of a nearby bar. “Ooh!” comes the re­ply from the group of mostly Su­danese and Afghan youths, strug­gling to pro­nounce the tricky French ‘u’.

The mi­grants are at­tend­ing free open-air lan­guage classes or­gan­ised by a refugee sup­port group at a dozen lo­ca­tions around the French cap­i­tal. On a warm July evening two classes are un­der way on the banks of the Bassin de la Vil­lette, part of the canals in north­east Paris near where mi­grants are of­ten found sleep­ing rough. While Louise, who did not wish to give her full name, teaches be­gin­ners, Pierre Pi­a­cen­tini, a re­tired nurse, instructs Level 2 stu­dents on how to de­scribe the var­i­ous ail­ments they may find them­selves ex­plain­ing to a doc­tor.

Many in Pi­a­cen­tini’s group are reg­u­lars at the daily classes, who show up come rain or shine. “They were here when it was mi­nus five de­grees Cel­sius (23 Fahrenheit), they’re here when it rains, when it’s hot, when they have the sun in their faces. They’re re­ally into it ba­si­cally,” the en­er­getic, white-haired vol­un­teer said. A rare sight any­where in the world in the 21st cen­tury, the teach­ing tak­ing place un­der the trees in Paris causes passers-by to stop and stare.

Founded in Novem­ber 2015 at the height of the mi­grant cri­sis in Europe, the as­so­ci­a­tion BAAM aims to give asy­lum­seek­ers some of the sup­port with­held by the state while their asy­lum claims are being pro­cessed. That in­cludes lan­guage classes, with the French gov­ern­ment only of­fer­ing lessons to peo­ple who have re­ceived refugee sta­tus. “The problem is that the asy­lum pro­cess­ing times are very long. Peo­ple want to learn French and they can’t,” com­plained Ju­lian Mez, one of the founders of BAAM (French acro­nym for Of­fice of Re­cep­tion and As­sis­tance for Mi­grants). He ac­cused the state of hold­ing up the in­te­gra­tion process.

From street to school

Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron, elected in May, has promised to cut the wait­ing times for asy­lum claims from around 18 months at present to six months. By the time the changes take ef­fect the Level 2 stu­dents may have grad­u­ated on to the sub­junc­tive tense. Omar, a 28-year-old Su­danese, be­gan classes nine months ago. Be­fore, he said, he knew “noth­ing”. “Now, I speak well,” he said proudly, in cor­rect French.

On the evening AFP visited the stu­dents were learn­ing the vo­cab­u­lary for the var­i­ous parts of the body. “I’ve got a pain in my back,” Pi­a­cen­tini tells the class, press­ing a hand to his lower back and winc­ing with mock agony. The stu­dents, all males aged be­tween 15 and 30, re­peat the sen­tence in uni­son and jot it down dili­gently on note­books bal­anced on their knees.

The open-air class­room in the multi-eth­nic Stal­in­grad neigh­bor­hood in north­east Paris is next to an over­head metro line un­der which a sprawl­ing mi­grant camp sprouted up last year. In Novem­ber, po­lice cleared the camp that was home to over 3,000 peo­ple and an of­fi­cial shel­ter was opened nearby, but mi­grants from across Africa, the Mid­dle East and Asia con­tinue to ar­rive.

For those who at­tend the classes, France is the des­ti­na­tion and not merely a tran­sit point on the well-worn route to Eng­land via the port of Calais. His­san, a 27-year-old Egyptian in the be­gin­ners’ class, roamed for years around Europe be­fore de­cid­ing to set­tle in Paris. He has found work in con­struc­tion and can un­der­stand a lot of French. “But I can­not speak it,” he said rue­fully in English. — AFP

PARIS: A vol­un­teer mem­ber of the non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Re­cep­tion and As­sis­tance of­fice for Mi­grants (Bureau d’Ac­cueil et d’Ac­com­pa­g­ne­ment des Mi­grants - BAAM) de­liv­ers a French course at the Place de Stal­in­grad to mi­grants. —AFP

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