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France's unique experiment in schooling refugee children

By Alison Hird

On the outskirts of Paris the children of refugee families from countries like Afghanistan, Eritrea and Sudan are being schooled within an emergency refugee centre. The unique experiment, launched just over a year ago, is challenging for staff and pupils alike but is deemed a success and has attracted huge attention abroad. Is this a model to follow?

The reception centre for refugees in Ivry-sur-Seine describes itself as a “humanitarian village” with 400 beds providing emergency shelter to vulnerable women, couples and families before they're given a longer-term solution.

During its first year close to 2,000 migrants, the majority from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Sudan and Syria, were offered shelter, food, healthcare and psychological support during their average six-week stay. Since May 2017 children aged between six and 18 also get schooled in what is a unique project in France.

On any day of the week around 60 children can be found at their wooden desks in four purpose built classrooms adorned with drawings and posters of leading French figures. They learn to speak the French language but above all how to be pupils in preparation for entering mainstream school should their families settle here.

A global response to refugee needs

The reception centre, a joint initiative between Paris City Hall, the charity Emmaüs Solidarité, and the Ministry of Education, has a budget of 3.2 million euros a year for five years.

Delphine Jardin from Emmaüs Solidarité says it offers a global response to the needs of the most vulnerable migrants.

“What’s innovative is the fact they’re taken care of in this multi-disciplinary way, with the socio-educative aspect through Emmauüs, education through the ministry and then the healthcare. As everything is on site, it’s easier for them to access these different forms of care.”

“We hope the kind of centre can be copied,” she adds.

Stéphane Paroux, the school’s co-ordinator, is equally upbeat.

“We’re more than happy,” he says. “It was vital to set up a project like this in France and it’s a shame we didn’t think of it earlier.”

He cites the importance of getting the kids into class “within a couple of days” whereas going through the normal channels can take weeks. “You run the risk of losing them,” he says.

Other advantages include keeping the siblings together and having more regular contact with the children.

“We monitor their progress better and as we are coming to them not vice versa, it makes them feel valued.”

It's also helped the five teachers provided by the Ministry of Education to function as a team, "working together and supporting one another" in dealing with often traumatized children.

Psychotherapists run weekly family therapy sessions at the centre and once a month come to listen to the teachers.

Still in the experimental phase

The centre's innovative approach has attracted the interest of education ministries abroad. Halften Thorsfeisson, head of a recent delegation from Iceland, was impressed by "how quickly" the centre seemed able to address the children's needs.

But Paroux says it’s far from clear whether on site schooling should be systematically rolled out in other emergency refugee centres.

“These children don’t mix with French-speaking children as they would in a regular school and they don’t interact with children of their own age.”

They compensate by encouraging contact with local schools, media libraries and cultural institutions.

“This is an experiment and we’re still thinking it through, seeing what can be improved.”

Given the average stay for a family is about six weeks “we’re still thinking through just what you can teach children in such a short period of time,” Paroux says.

What’s clear is that, however temporary, the centre in Ivry sur Seine offers children a haven of security and the chance to be kids again.

 

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