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Hope, education and football: What France represents for some Darfuri refugees
It is simply a matter of access to education for refugee Kamal Hydara. The 28-year-old, who fled the violence in Al Geneina state, Darfur, in 2003 to come to eastern Chad, wants to go to France, improve his French, and get a good job.
“You see the people going about [here in the camp], but you don’t know what’s in their heart. They are dying. But they’re alive,” he says in fluent English that he learned in the camp school. “There’s no higher education, no jobs.”
Kamal* is a part of one of three families pre-selected by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, to assist the French office of Refugee and Stateless Person Protection (OFPRA). The French government body announced in late 2017 that France would accept some 3,000 refugees in Chad and Niger for resettlement in France. Each family is now going through the French interview process, and spoke to RFI about their hopes for resettlement.
“We welcome them gladly,” says French Ambassador to Chad Philippe Lacoste, who sat down with RFI on the sidelines of a working trip to eastern Chad. Lacoste had been visiting UN and local humanitarian aid programmes for refugees and the local Chadian community.
“Three thousand, of course, it’s not enough, but there are refugees from lots of countries,” he adds.
Individual refugees or families who have suffered are placed at the top of the list. France will not accept polygamous families, however, which eliminates many Darfuri refugees.
“We passed the first interview with UNHCR, and after that, they said, ‘You want to go to France?’ and we accepted” to be a part of the French process, says Kamal. “Then they said, ‘Your father had two wives before, so under French law we cannot accept the two wives,’” he adds.
Kamal’s family, which includes his mother, her four children, a son-in-law and two grandchildren, hit a snag after their first interview with French authorities.
He was able to explain the family dynamics. “My father and my mother, they divorced before we came here. We had a large family, but we lost many family [members] so now there are less of us. The [French] people, they say my father has two wives, but that is not true. Now, my father is with one woman.”
Football stars of the future?
The Aladeen family, including mother, father, and six children, also hope for a better life in France. Their three eldest sons, wearing sports jerseys, say football is a big part of their lives along with the hope of a good education.
“First, I want to go to school. Then, if I have the opportunity, I’ll play football,” says 18-year-old Samir, wearing an Atlético Madrid jersey.
Eleven-year-old Abakar, sporting a jersey from arch rivals Real Madrid, is even more ambitious. The budding striker says he is prepared to work hard in France.
“I’ll go to school, I’ll play football, I’ll work if I can find a job, and then I’ll be a French teacher,” he says.
Families with young children are particularly favoured for resettlement, according to French Ambassador Lacoste.
“The choice that we make, which, in my opinion, is a policy, we’ll see if it works, is to resettle them in villages in France, in small communities,” he says. “If the communities are well prepared, and they’re willing, and are asking to have families with young children, it means the schools can stay open, it keeps the hospitals running.”
Lacoste believes that this can help save many small towns and villages which are suffering from people leaving to live in larger cities. He also says this policy takes the strain off crowded, urban resettlement centres.
“It’s a gamble, it doesn’t work 100 percent of the time, but there’s a good success rate, especially when the children are young. You put them in school, they’re like sponges, one year later, they speak French,” he adds.
The quest for education is a theme among the three families who are part of the French resettlement selection. And while the refugees maintain that they would like to return to Darfur, none RFI spoke to believe that it is safe enough to go back home right now.
“We don’t want to go back because there’s no security, no protection, there’s no women’s rights in Darfur. Even now, people are suffering there,” says Kamal.
Some 330,000 Darfuri refugees live in 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad many have been in the camps for the last 14 years. After the UNHCR signed a tripartite deal with the Chadian and Sudanese governments in May 2017, the UN called on Darfuris to offer them the opportunity voluntarily to return to Sudan.
In April, 53 refugees were repatriated back to Darfur under this programme, with another 187 who returned to North Darfur in June.
But those RFI spoke to in Djabal camp say they are concerned about returning, especially after renewed fighting between rebels from the Sudan Liberation Army/AbdulWahid El Nur (SLA/AW) faction and the Sudanese army in South Darfur and Central Darfur states. Attacks have escalated since March in the Jebel Marra area, located in central Darfur. The SLA/AW was not party to a ceasefire signed in March.
The drawdown of UNAMID, the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force, that began in January after the UN Security Council vote in June 2017, is an additional deterrent for refugees who say they would feel unsafe back in Darfur. The cuts to UNAMID include military and police personnel as well as 11 team site closures.
Meanwhile, the third family RFI spoke to, husband and wife Mohammed and Hawa with their two toddlers, hope to be picked to resettle in France, because they do not want to go back to Darfur right now. She hopes that the stringent French process will become more accessible for others in the camp.
“I hope the settlement in France will be extended to more Darfuri refugees here, because life in Djabal camp is miserable people have no work and they’re suffering,” says Hawa.
If their family is selected, they agree that they will need to work hard to create a new life for their family.
“When you go to a place for the first time, you will face obstacles. But it’s important to be frank with people so you can adapt,” Mohamed says, speaking about his personal plan to integrate in French society.
“I’ll make friends and live in harmony with them. The first thing I hope to do is learn French. I want a better life. And I want an education for me and my children.”
*All the names in this article have been changed to protect the refugees identities in order to not unduly influence the ongoing resettlement process.