French university offers migrants crash course in student life

A lawyer from Sudan, a footballer from Iran, an aeronautical engineer from Eritrea: They are among 80 migrants who have traded France's "Jungle" tent camp for a chance to earn a French degree and a new life.

French university offers migrants crash course in student life
Current PM Bernard Cazeneuve meets a student at the inauguration of the programme in October, in his previous role as interior minister. Photo: AFP
They were chosen last year for intensive language lessons in the northern city of Lille — and a crash course in French university life and the chance to study for a career here.
Over 200 hopefuls who used to live in the huge camp near Calais, which once housed up to 10,000 people and was demolished last October, applied for the coveted slots at the University of Lille.
“I spent two months in the Jungle, and was only able to learn the alphabet,” said Abdul-Raouf Hussein-Fadul, a 26-year-old Sudanese man in a baseball cap and white sneakers who now ranks first in his class.
“I hope that one day I'll be able to become an engineer in France, like I was in Sudan… It's not easy, I'm going to have to work hard.”
The future students were recruited by university officials with the help of volunteer organisations at the camp.
When the Jungle was broken up, its thousands of remaining residents were bussed off to shelters around France. Initially there were fears of widespread resistance to the migrants elsewhere, but that has largely come to nought.
Applicants for the university programme had to already have been students in their home countries, have a course plan that was offered by the university — and give up their dreams of reaching Britain.
The lucky few were then split into four groups and put up in student housing, and are now taking 15 hours of language lessons each week.
'French is pretty difficult' 
Mohsen Tajaddodi Paskiyabi, 28, left Iran in 2015, having played football for eight years before a knee injury forced him to quit.
He ended up spending a year at the camp in Calais before being picked for the new programme.
“I tried to learn French at the school in the Jungle, but there were lots of people so it wasn't really possible,” he said.
Once he has honed his language skills, Paskiyabi hopes to become a football coach.
“In January we had some tests, it was pretty difficult, since we've only been learning French for the past three months,” he said.
For the university, the goal “is to get their French as good as possible between now and June, so we can integrate them into the classic university curriculum in autumn 2017,” said Hugues Perdriaud, one of their professors.
'Like any other students' 
The students are also getting help outside the classroom, from a network of fellow students volunteering their time.
“We talk with them in French to help them progress, but we also go to the library, to museums, go shopping,” said Solene, a 20-year-old pursuing an Italian degree.
“For us, they're just like any other students.”
Most of the students already have refugee status, and advisers are helping them chart a path toward careers that match their experiences — as well as the realities of the French labour market, said Emmanuelle Jourdan-Chartier, a history professor and one of the architects of the project.
“They are extremely motivated, very capable — they were very proud to get in to university and they genuinely want to integrate successfully,” she said.
For Djamel-Eddine, a 26-year-old from Sudan, “French is complicated because there are lots of exceptions” to the rules.
But he has found a trick: “I've watched 280 episodes of 'Helene et les Garcons” (Helene and the Boys,” a French sitcom from the early 1990s.
He had been at the Jungle since August 2015, trying several times to climb onto trucks and get into Britain, without success.
“So I gave up and in the end, I like it here, even if it rains a lot in Lille — I've made a lot of friends, and now I'm looking for a job for the school breaks,” he said.
Adam, a student from Darfur who counts himself “very lucky” to have got in, has also found help from listening to the French rapper Black M and the Belgian star Stromae.
But hope is not lost for those whose French might not be good enough to start class next September: They will be able to take another year of language classes.
As Nathalie Ethuin, another professor involved in the project, said: “They wouldn't be the first students to finish their first year in two years.”
By the AFP's Zoé Leroy

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.