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Learning French come rain or shine

Asylum seekers in France go the extra mile to learn the country’s national language at open-air classes.

SITTING in rows on a grassy embankment overlooking a Paris square, asylum-seekers recite the alphabet in French following a young woman who is 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 youth, 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 Two students on how to describe the various ailments they may find themselves explaining to a doctor.

The students in Piacentini’s group are regulars at the daily classes, and they show up come rain or shine.

“They were here when it was 5°C, they’re here when it rains, when it’s hot, even when they have the sun shining on their faces. They really want to learn,” the energetic, white-haired volunteer says.

A rare sight indeed as the teaching takes place under the trees in Paris, and causes passers-by to stop and stare.

Founded in November 2015 at the height of the migrant crisis in Europe, the support group known as BAAM (French acronym for Office of Reception and Assistance for Migrants) aims to give asylum-seekers some of the support withheld by the state while their asylum documents are being processed.

That includes language classes, but the French government only offers 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,” says Julian Mez, one of the BAAM founders.He says the state is 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 the current 18 months to six months.

By the time the changes take effect, the Level Two students may have graduated to another level.

Omar, a 28-year-old Sudanese, began classes nine months ago. “Before, I knew nothing,” he says.

“Now, I speak well,” he declares proudly, in correct French.

During the lesson, the students also learnt the correct words 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 neighbourhood in northeast Paris is next to an overhead metro line. It is under a sprawling migrant camp that suddenly sprouted 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 French. “But I cannot speak it,” he says ruefully in English.

Besides teaching French, BAAM’s volunteers help migrants negotiate France’s bureaucracy and complete forms.

Piacentini has been teaching every day for nine months. He’s hooked to it, but admits that it is a steep learning curve for both teachers and students. – AFP

Education , edud