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At the La Villette basin in Paris, French courses for migrants

Ⓒ AFP/Archives – JACQUES DEMARTHON – | A voluntary member of the NGO Bureau d’Accueil and
Accompagnement des Migrants) July 27, 2017 in Paris

“This morning I got up, my toothache”: notebooks on the
knees, sitting on the steps of Stalingrad Square in Paris,
several dozen migrants repeat in chorus the sentences
pronounced by their French teacher.

The weather is nice, but it is “-5 degrees” like this winter
or during a heat wave, they are a little hundred, every night,
to follow an hour of French outdoor, on the slopes of Grass
along the square, in front of the la Villette basin.

“I hurt my back,” mime in front of his painting shouting
Pierre Piacentini, to be heard from all his “level 2” students
tight on the steps and, for lack of space, standing at the top
of the stairs. The sound of the fountain, the music of the
neighboring bar and the traffic sometimes complicate its task a

“I have a bad back,” chanted fifty men, aged between 18 and
30, mostly from Darfur or Afghanistan, while taking notes.

The scene, a bit incongruous, challenges the passers-by, who
are numerous to stop.

Omar, a 28-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker, says he has been
attending classes for nine months. Before he knew “nothing” in
French. “Now I speak well,” he said smiling.

Hissan, a 27-year-old Egyptian who has been taking classes
for a month, has struggled to define his level: “I understand
but I do not know how to speak,” he said in English.

He has been in Europe for ten years. “Greece, Italy, France,
United Kingdom, Belgium, Calais” enumerates the one who says he
renounced going to England and wants to stay in France. He has
no papers, but “a house, a trade” of a mason, he says.

– ‘Compensate for a lack of the state’ –

The courses, organized by the association BAAM (Office for
the reception and accompaniment of migrants), began more than a
year and a half ago in a dozen places in the Paris region,
including Stalingrad, where a gigantic Camp was dismantled in
November. While the French Office of Immigration and
Integration (Ofii) only offers French courses to statutory
refugees, the association wants to “compensate for a lack of
the State” by offering courses to all Migrants, irrespective of
their status.

“The problem is that the time of the asylum application is
so long, people want to learn French and they can not,” said
Julian Mez, one of the founders of the association. “It’s
wasted time” that delays their integration and the ability to
find a job, start studies or socialize, he adds.

Like Pierre Piacentini and Louise, his 22-year-old
colleague, who stretches a few meters down the stairs
“beginner” to repeat the alphabet to his students, all the
teachers here are volunteers and have other professional
occupations .

Pierre Piacentini, retired nurse, has been teaching “every
day” for nine months. “It’s become a drug,” he laughs.

He tells about sharing, cultural
differences and little blunders, such as the time when, during
a course on the family, he was amazed that all the Sudanese
only mentioned their brothers. “But you have no sisters?” He
had questioned. Later, one of them had taken him aside to
explain that it did not cause him to ask questions about the
women of the family.

The absence of women is notable here: there is not one.
“Never,” confirms Piacentini, adding that the majority of
migrants who attend the course are men who have undertaken the
trip alone from their country.

In addition to learning French, volunteers are also there to
help migrants in their everyday lives: explaining
administrative procedures, translating forms … “It is a
political act”, summarizes Piacentini, The asylum application
file of one of its students after the class.

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