Laguardia Community College student fellow Rodfrigue Ossebi interviews immigrants of African origin now living in France. This is the second installment of a two-part series. Click here for "Unfriendly Shores: African Immigrants in France (Part 1)."
Rodrigue Ossebi is a LaGuardia Community College student fellow, reporting on the experience of the African community in France—the discrimination recent immigrants face, their lack of acceptance, and their struggle to become educated and full members of society.
While living in the Republic of Congo, Ossebi studied to become a computer technician and electrical engineer and immigrated to the United States in July 2010. There he received help from Human Rights First, Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture, Morrison & Forester, and the International Rescue Committee. He also developed a desire to report on the immigrant experience.
For this project Ossebi traveled to Paris where he interviewed African immigrants. He found that many of them had little access to financial aid, housing or a decent education, and their families did not have jobs. He says he met wonderful people such as Adji Dramé, Chancelle Bongowa, Nzalankzi Irennee, Louis-Georges Tin, and Richard Okouere, all of whom shared their stories with him. "I learned things about their lives that I could not learn through books or media. In many ways their lives showed snapshots of how African immigrants were treated unfairly in France," Ossebi said.
Adji Dramé was born in Senegal in 1968 and arrived in France at 18. She studied at La Sorbonne and obtained a PhD as well as an education certificate. She is now working as an educator for the unemployed at the Association d’Actions de Formation et d’Insertion (Association of Training and Insertion Actions).
Chancelle Bongowa, born in the Republic of Congo in 1983, is an immigrant with a Master’s degree in social work from the Universite du Maine, Le Mans. She is a single mother of one child and currently unemployed. She has lived in France since 2011. Since she could not find a job she decided to return to school. She had wanted to major in finance and economics but was told to change her major to social work.
Irennee Nzalankzi lived a comfortable life in the Republic of the Congo, working for an oil company and supporting a small family. When civil war forced him from his country in 2013, he sought asylum in France. But what seemed like a land of opportunity quickly proved unwelcoming. Denied refugee status, Nzalankzi became a homeless, unemployed illegal immigrant.
Louis-Georges Tin, who is of African descent, was born in Martinique in 1974. He studied at l’Ėcole Normale Supérieure in the early 1990s, and in 2003, he presented a thesis on 16th century French politics. Currently, he is the president of the Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires de France (Representative Council of France's Black Associations) and professor of literature at the Université d’Orléans.
Richard Okouere was born in the Republic of Congo, in 1968; he is a married with three daughters and one son. After he obtained his high school diploma, he joined the Congolese Army, and served as an officer for 19 years. Under the current president of Congo, M. Denis Sassou Nguesso, children don’t have access to basic necessities like food, water, education, health care, the right to vote, and freedom of speech. Ossebi tells us that Okouere did not share the President Denis Sassou Nguesso’s vision and was forced to flee his native country because of his political activity. In order to save his family Okouere sought protection in France. Here he shares his experiences about the difficulties he had in obtaining asylum. Okouere has lived in Le Mans, Pays de la Loire in France, for almost 10 years.
Following are excerpts from interviews with Rodrigue Ossebi.
Rodrigue: What kind of treatment do African families face during re-integration? What housing opportunities are available?
Bongowa: I’m considering myself a victim for unfair treatment in this country. I would have to leave my housing to move out and stay in the street like the others, but I thank God because it doesn’t happen. My friends pay my rent that’s why I’m not moving anymore. I have no job and no income. I cannot find the job because of my skin color. I tell you one thing. For instance, two months ago, I sent about 10 to 15 applications every week, but for all of these I did not receive any good news. I remember one office where I met with a white lady who told me your applications in this area won’t work out. It would be better to apply to another place and she even emphasized to me that honestly it would not be easy to hire a black with all these master’s degrees in economics and finance and better to try to other areas. African immigrant treatment in France is very bad—I’m telling you.
Nzalanki: Discrimination is also rampant when it comes to housing. Africans are routinely treated differently. Another friend of mine is a mother of two, who was homeless for months because the system denied her housing. Many families live at their colleagues’ houses (including their children), because the housing system disfavors them. In the case that the government does give them housing, they receive what are known as “dwelling: unhealthy building.” In 2005, many black families died in a fire, in housing located in a poor neighborhood or where most people are poor.
Tin: In sum, African families are the first “victim of the economic crises,” the first to suffer in a crisis. Jobs are scarce for these groups, though African immigrants already struggle with social integration. Many African families have no access to financial aid, housing, or a decent education, and the French government hides ethnic demographics so that civil organizations don’t have access to this information. Most African parents don’t have access to job platforms. No one hires them, even for government positions. Without jobs, parents lose influence over their children: oftentimes, boys end up in the street and girls as sex workers. Further, if parents don’t have an income or a home, the system sometimes forces them to divorce, so that the wife and children can gain access to welfare.
Rodrigue: Would you tell us where and what kind of school discrimination children face in France?
Dramé: The racism is manifested by words from colleagues and employers. For instance, people say, you’re lucky to be in France—it is poor in your country. Upon my arrival at Le Mans, I joined an association before working because it was necessary for me to prove myself in service training. Currently I work for the Association d’Actions de Formation et d’Insertion (Association of Training and Insertion Actions). My job is to welcome people from difficult situations in their house. I noticed that there is racism on re-integration for African immigrants. For example, people in charge do not listen to the choices and the desires of blacks. They send them into fields such as cleaning, babysitting, restoration, and others. I always claimed we are not to condemn the dream of these young people experiencing difficulty.
Bongowa: Almost two years ago, in our classroom one white student discriminated against an African student. The white young student refused to work together with that black young lady and the professor did nothing about that.
Tin: Racial discrimination in France is widespread, targeting minorities for their race and national origin. It happens at all grade levels, and it can start with teachers, administrators, or other students. Black high school students graduating with a GPA 9-10 are denied access to university. At one school, Lycée Zola in Nantes, the students are racially diverse, but only white students go to general university, whereas colored students end up in vocational and trade schools. At Zola College, administrators direct black students, especially those with lower grades, to trade schools. These schools teach cleaning, cooking, plumbing, hotel work, and electrical work, to name a few. Of course, many black students do not want to take these paths. To black families, it is no secret that the administration is emphasizing these tracks. It is clear that the state public school system intentionally discriminates against black students.
Rodrigue: The majority of French say that immigrants contribute nothing to France’s economy. Do you agree?
Bongowa: Oh, I contribute a lot in France. I contribute right now when I work as a volunteer for an organization to help women’s rights. Before I worked for several organizations as a volunteer, just to help others, and I didn’t receive a penny from these organizations. I also worked for one in Paris almost for two years and paid my tax to the French government. How can they say Africans are not contributing in this country? I think the Africans contribute a lot in France.
Nzalanki: Some say that immigrants contribute nothing to France’s economy. I disagree. For instance, when immigrants renew one-year papers 7 to 10 times instead of, say, twice to receive 10 years, they pay €270 for each renewal. Imagine how much money the French government receives from immigrants per year. Go to any French immigration office, and you will see crowds of people waiting for renewals. Africans also contribute to the French economy via black markets, like Château Rouge and Barbes: almost €80 million per year. This is a giant contribution, but you won’t hear it in the media. The French government threatens to close these markets, but local leaders advise them not to close, because it is a great loss to the municipalities of Château Rouge and Barbes. Africans do contribute to France’s economy. Give papers to those who need them, and they will work hard to contribute to the economy. This case is unlike Germany, which is next door: If a person comes to Germany, within two months they will put you to work, and they know it will improve their economy. That is why the Germans are so strong in Europe, and the French are lagging.
Okoueré: This statement is not true and they cannot say it publicly. For example, I worked two years ago. During this period I paid my tax, so I also contributed to this country. If you can go to Chateau Rouge market you find most Africans who own a store. They also contribute in France. I think it is wrong to say Africans contribute nothing.
Rodrigue: Let me close by asking this: If the French Government accepted the Syrian refugees in France, do you think the French will provide jobs to those refugees?
Bongowa: I just explained to you right now that I have been here for years in this country and I even went to college here and obtained my master’s degree. I cannot find a job because of my skin color. I don’t see the difference—a black woman and those Syrian refugees. Sometime, when I see on the TV news the French authorities saying those Syrians are welcome, my question is how are they going to make it if those Syrians also are black like us. Giving the false impression to the world so that the world can say, “Ah look at French people—they are very nice and they welcome refugees.” That is not right thing do. Now they are trying to impress the world and I know they are not telling the truth to the world.
Nzalanki: It’s just a joke when the French government is sending messages to the world saying that they are nice people and they welcome refugees in their country. That is not true. Lying when others are suffering. . . If they are so serious about refugees why not give them jobs and papers and put racial topics on the table so that the country can be united—not separated. To be honest with you, this government is not serious about this issue, trust me.
Okoueré: I think this is an enormous issue. Let me be clear here: I think the French media doesn’t provide a clear picture of what is happening right now in France. They still have racism—therefore immigrants or people with skills are not being used. How can France handle or welcome other refugees like Syrians? Those refugees from Syria are Muslims, some are blacks, and they are not white French citizens.