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Story Publication logo March 13, 2018

Creating Home in Refuge


Applause for the blue shirts. Image by Ayyam Sureau. France, 2017.

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On the Friday evening before the last week of classes until winter break, Ayyam Sureau, director of Association Pierre Claver, was passing out wine to fellow students who sat around in the front room smoking cigarettes and speaking in French, Arabic, and Dari. Her husband, François Sureau, a distinguished lawyer who provides legal assistance to students, resembles a general in the French revolution, bellowing old French songs, black pipe in hand. He loves to sing.

Glasses of wine get refilled while students wind down from the two-hour poetry class they just attended with Bernd Pichon-Euzen, who started teaching at Claver two years ago when he discovered the school due to his interest in the Middle East. At Pierre Claver, a private school for refugees in the seventh arrondissement of Paris, a majority of the students are from Syria and Afghanistan.

This quintessential French evening is a stark contrast to the life that many asylum-seekers experience in France, being dispersed to different accommodation centers throughout the country or spending the night in metro stations. The students at Claver are welcomed into a community that works to combat the loneliness that comes with leaving their countries behind.

"If integration [is] ever going to happen, it has to start right now with the feeling that you are granted some dignity, that you are welcomed," says Ayyam Sureau, who started the school in 2008 with the goal of creating a sense of belonging that exists outside of the students' origins. Ayyam's goal is that students care–about each other, about themselves, about the society to which they now belong–and have a commitment to their own lives.

In many ways, this mission has only gotten more important.

In the run-up to the French presidential election in March 2017, the country became acrimoniously split between followers of Emmanuel Macron and the right-wing National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, who received 33 percent of votes after proposing an anti-immigrant agenda causing many migrants to fear for their lives. Those on the right, supporting Le Pen's "French First" agenda were in favor of cutting immigration to 10,000 people a year and for France to leave the EU.

Many observers tied the rising nationalism to the "jungle of Calais" image and the increase in asylum seekers looking to make France their own home. In the northern most point of France, those seeking a better life in the UK lived in make-shift campsites, until 2016 when the "jungle of Calais" was cleared by French authorities, dispersing people to different areas around the country where they could apply for asylum. 

In 2017, there were 100,000 asylum seekers of which only 27 percent were granted refugee status. With France's strong sense of nationalism, the idea of integration for the 27 percent becomes one that involves falling in line with French principles–and it often means renouncing anything that isn't French. Refugees then have to deal with adjusting to this new place permanently on their own. Ayyam says Pierre Claver provides a space where they are valued for their full identities and where they feel that they can create a new life in France.

For the public, Claver transforms this image of a refugee into someone who could sit next to you on the Parisian metro, says Alban Dupla, the running coach at Claver, who trains his runners every Saturday morning with the goal of having them gain self-confidence. He recalls the admiration that passersby have shown when they see the group of refugees running, wearing their blue Pierre Claver shirts, at times even receiving applause. 

Ayyam explains that Claver was created in support of the government, to provide aid in the vital integration of refugees necessary to establish a more civil society. She says it is a very French attitude to criticize the government without actually doing anything about it, but that the matter of refugees is one that concerns everyone.

"These people are going to live among us. That they understand the laws of the country, that they feel happy being here, that they have a sense of belonging here, that they contribute efficiently and creatively to this land's future is a matter that does concern every one of us."

Still, Ayyam says she values individuality.

"Who you are already counts–the novelty of who you are, the different languages you speak, the different skills you have, the different memories you are bringing with you, the different voice that lies inside you, it's going to be needed here," she says. "It can be precious here."

Ayyam says that from the very beginning, she did not want Pierre Claver to burden public finance. The school is entirely privately funded through small donations on their website and bigger donations from companies. 

Over the past decade, 2,800 students have been enrolled in the school. There are now 150 in the program, with another 20 engaged in professional training or continuing higher education through scholarships that Claver provides. Those in the school participate in a variety of classes and activities–a long list consisting of classes in the French language, history, poetry, drawing, choir, theater, and activities such as private tutoring, the knitting club, running club or soccer. Students are constantly in the front room, talking, laughing, and studying; they eat Afghan meals prepared by the chefs on the third floor kitchen, and play foosball in the courtyard.

Many of them commute almost two hours to get to school, returning at 11 pm at night. To attend Pierre Claver, you must participate in one class and one additional activity, but many students surpass this requirement and are committed to Pierre Claver full-time.  

Ayyam says she aims to create a "community of future not a community of the past" in which people can fully immerse themselves in their new lives in Paris.

One former student, Saba Kidane, a journalist and published poet from Eritrea, comes to Claver on a Monday evening to see what events are coming up because she does not want to miss the Christmas party. She points to a picture of her daughter and Ayyam hanging above the piano, one of hundreds of photos hanging throughout the three floors at Claver, showing students on their annual hike to Chartres, the victorious running club holding up a trophy, students playing guitar, laughing together.

"In order to achieve long-term integration, you have to feel home," Saba says. "This spot, I call it home."

Saba, who says she never thought she would be a refugee, explains that her gift to herself each week is making it to Pichon-Euzen's poetry class on Friday evenings. She found herself fleeing her home country after the deaths of fellow journalists left her no choice.

Pichon-Euzen is a man in his fifties, impeccably dressed, who before his class began, was playing the piano downstairs outside of a language classroom. Outside of Claver, he is not a poetry teacher–he is an epigraphist, translating ancient languages of the Middle East. He specializes in cuneiform writing. He found Claver by chance, after striking up a friendship with the owner of the store where he buys wine and being surprised when one day he went and discovered that the storeowner had hired Iranian employees. He found himself reflecting on the fact that his job is focused on the language of their ancestors.

"I worked with the Middle East in a distant way, so why not work with the people directly?"

He then found Ayyam and proposed to do a poetry class, not knowing whether or not it would work.

"I don't like poetry, I need it," explains Pichon-Euzen, who does not plan his classes beforehand.

He wants the class to be spontaneous–to create itself in the classroom with his students and like poetry to be ephemeral itself. When he sees the surprise in his students' eyes, he understands that his work has been done, he says.

He says that he understands the point of Pierre Claver to be that the students understand what France is and the mentality of the French and to make them understand how they can have a place here. In his two-hour long class on Friday evening with about 20 students in attendance, he covered Robert Desnos. He explains that his nephew was learning Desnos in school and memorizing his poems but that this is not poetry for children.

He begins the class by writing "MCMXLV" on the board to denote Desnos' birth year. He goes through each line, explaining the oxymoron of lines like "death was breathing" and the surrealism of the poem. Around the class, students are captivated by Pichon-Euzen's vibrancy. His explanations are poetic, themselves–drawing a comparison between a certain line and the dreams we escape when we wake up, for instance.

When the poetry class is over, there is a sense of marvel in the room. They have all experienced this poem together, its stanzas, the meaning drawn out by this man who spends all morning writing and does not find he is of use to the world until the afternoon.

"I moved here (Paris) just to come to Pierre Claver," says Samir, an 18-year-old originally from Syria who attends the poetry class on Friday evenings.

Samir is the youngest student at Pierre Claver. He arrived in France in 2014 and moved to Paris with the purpose of being able to attend Claver, where his sister was already a student. In the B1 French class, where students learn to distinguish the future proche and the future simple, Samir is always the first to turn in his assignment to the teacher. Back in Syria, Samir's father was arrested for working against the Syrian regime and he was later killed in prison, says Samir. After his father's death, Samir and his family stayed in Turkey for nine months until they got the visa allowing them to come to France. Upon arriving in France, Samir remarks that the bureaucracy was stressful and they struggled for a year and a half without knowing the language.

Samir says Claver will make it easier for him to continue his education, work, and continue life in a normal way. He says the point of Claver is to help refugees who cannot deal with their situation alone, and to help them live "a normal life" in peace. For now, Claver takes up all of Samir's time. Samir was involved in the theater classes which he says helped him control his imagination and better express his emotions. Aside from the language class he takes every day for two hours, he takes guitar lessons at Claver, attends the history and poetry classes, and is on the soccer team.

"I feel free," he says. "They're helping me."

Rita Mahmoud, 22, who arrived in Paris from Syria in January 2017, worked at Claver after being a student there. She says Ayyam forbid her from pursuing the safer career option of being a translator and that Claver gave her a full scholarship to pursue her passion in audio-engineering.

"I was lost about a lot of things…she always explains things to us…about life in general, how to deal with people, with death, war."

She says she is lucky to have Ayyam in her life. Claver gave Rita and 20 other students the opportunity to go to the Élysée for a concert and dinner where she met and spoke to Macron. Rita explains that Claver is a home, not an association or a school.

"You know when you start planting something and you put it in a small bowl and then you transport it in a bigger one, and then you put it out in the open? It's the exact same thing. We're in the middle."

She explains the resistance that is instinctive when you have to flee your home.

"When you come here, you're forced to live the French way, knowing that you will never ever go back home…you become very defensive, it's not something you can feel or think about, you just find yourself doing it, like you don't want to learn French…there's this identity change."

Rita says that the process of integration occurred slowly and the feeling of belonging here comes from bonding with others over many things–disliking certain cheeses, having a hard time pronouncing certain French words, trying to understand why French people dress up when they are just going to stay in their houses all day. She says among refugees, there is a joke–if you are going to visit a French family over the weekend, bring snacks.

She realizes the unique environment at Pierre Claver, saying "you don't feel strange because everyone is a stranger."


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