News & Reports

Universities in France Help Refugees Succeed as Students

(This article is one of two in a package. The other is “Volunteers Find Rewards in Helping Refugee Students in France.”)

LILLE, France—Riaz Ahmad had no intention of going to France. The round-faced 29-year-old fled his home in northwest Pakistan after the local Taliban threatened to kill him if he didn’t work secretly for them in his job with a nongovernmental organization.

His destination was Britain. But after ending up in “the Jungle,” a sprawling refugee encampment in Calais, in northwestern France, and injuring himself trying to jump on the back of a truck headed to England, he enrolled at France’s largest university, the University of Lille, in 2016, in a new program to admit refugees.

Now in his final year of an undergraduate program in mass communications, Ahmad still struggles with French but sees a bright future for himself in his adoptive country. “Sometimes I record the lectures and listen again and again after class,” he says. “My fellow students are very nice; they always try to explain the lessons to me.”

Successful Preparation Programs

Approximately 2,000 asylum-seekers are currently enrolled in special programs in France, like the one that Ahmad went through, to prepare them for university studies. The programs were created by half of the country’s roughly 80 public universities, including nearly all the major institutions, after the huge influx of migrants to Europe in 2015 and 2016.

University officials say these programs have been largely successful for two reasons.

First, admissions standards are strict: Refugee applicants must have roughly the same academic qualifications as French applicants, even if considerable flexibility is allowed in documenting high school or higher-education diplomas from their home countries. (When documents are missing, or from academically weak regions, students can take tests to determine their academic level).

Second, refugees accepted into these programs receive language training and social support for at least a year to help them adapt to their new environment.

Despite opposition from the far-right, French higher education has been largely united behind these programs. The association of university presidents has signed on, and last fall the government strengthened its support: Refugee students accepted in these special programs now qualify for the same living stipends as low-income French students.

“Today, fewer refugees are arriving, but many already here were not informed and are only now applying.”

Mathieu Schneider  
A vice president at the University of Strasbourg and the coordinator a network of about 40 French universities with programs to enroll refugees

That decision was a victory for the Migrants in Higher Education network, an association of about 40 universities with programs to enroll refugees in France.

“Today, fewer refugees are arriving, but many already here were not informed and are only now applying,” says Mathieu Schneider, a vice president at the University of Strasbourg and the network’s coordinator. “We continue operating at full steam.”

A Similar Effort in Germany

France’s efforts are modest compared to those of one of its neighbors. Germany accepted far more migrants than any other European country during the 2015-16 crisis—over one million. The German Rectors Conference estimated that more than 10,000 recently arrived refugees had enrolled in academic programs in German universities by 2018, and officials expect that number to jump to 40,000 by the end of this year, as students exit from various academic preparation programs.

French university officials estimate that approximately 5,000 refugees are enrolled at the country’s public universities—2,000 in the refugee preparation programs, and the rest in academic programs.

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In France, the University of Lille, with a total enrollment of 73,000, has been among the most active. It was the closest major institution to the Calais Jungle—just 70 miles from the now-defunct camp where nearly 10,000 migrants lived in tents without water or toilets while trying to find a way to Britain.

Camille Doré, (front right) founder and director of Pangea, a group that supports refugee students, in discussion with the group’s members (Photo: Courtesy of Pangea).
Camille Doré, (front right) founder and director of Pangea, a group that supports refugee students, in discussion with the group’s members (Photo: Courtesy of Pangea).

When the French authorities announced plans to dismantle the camp in the fall of 2016, the university scrambled to finalize a new program to enroll some of the refugees. With the help of local migrant aid organizations, they identified 250 candidates.

A university commission chose 80 people, ranging in age from 19 to 46, but only one was a woman, since most of the inhabitants of the camp were male. Just over two-thirds were from Sudan and South Sudan. Their qualifications ranged from high school diplomas to having been lawyers, veterinarians, engineers and other professionals.

Lille’s Transitional Program

The University of Lille’s program is called PILOT, for Program for Linguistic Integration and Orientation for a Transitional Year. The program waives France’s small tuition fees (270 euros a year for residents, 2,700 euros for international students), provides for up to three years of French language training, and offers support with asylum claims and social integration through weekly conversations with student volunteers and visits to museums, concerts and restaurants.

The French authorities agreed that participants would be allowed to remain in France to finish their university studies even if their asylum claim was rejected. And, at least in Lille, local officials agreed to pay for free room and board for the refugee students during their first transitional year.

On the eve of the arrival of the first year’s 80 refugee students, the administration put out a call for used clothing, shoes and small household items. “We were swamped with donations,” says Emmanuelle Jourdan-Chartier, Lille’s vice president for student life.

Not everyone in the region was happy with the initiative. The far right railed against it, saying all support should go to French students. Jourdan-Chartier received death threats, and the address and phone number of the home where she lives alone with her four young children was published on some far-right social media sites.

As participants in the PILOT program graduate into normal academic studies, Lille has admitted 40 to 50 new refugees into the program each fall. Last fall’s entering group was chosen from 400 candidates; one-third of those enrolled were women.

Learning a Fourth or Fifth Language

Jourdan-Chartier estimates that, all told, Lille currently has nearly 400 refugee students—80 in the PILOT program and the others enrolled in academic programs after completing PILOT or through applying like any other French student. Most are eligible for the exemption from tuition fees and a small living stipend of up to 500 euros a month.

Most are in three-year undergraduate programs, although a few have enrolled in master’s-level studies. Jourdan-Chartier says that overall they have about the same failure rate as their French peers.

Participants from Syria and Iraq, who have dominated the more recent incoming PILOT classes, tend to be at a higher academic level and are better acquainted with foreign languages than earlier groups. “It’s not nice to say, but some come with a high school diploma that is not worth the same as those from other countries,” says Martine Bourduge, who teaches intensive French classes.

“That’s often the case with the Sudanese and South Sudanese.”

Many refugee students struggle to learn French. Jourdan-Chartier complains that in Germany, refugee students receive considerably more hours of language instruction than the 15 hours per week provided in France.

For a number of Lille’s new students, French is the fourth or fifth  language they must master. Sedra Idris, 19, fled Homs, Syria, with

“It’s not nice to say, but some come with a high school diploma that is not worth the same as those from other countries.”

Martine Bourduge
 A teacher of intensive French classes.

her family to neighboring Turkey six years ago and graduated from high school there. In addition to Turkish, her native Arabic, and fluent English, she recently began intensive French lessons.

“Sometimes your brain can’t focus,” she says. “Sometimes I want to speak Arabic with my family and I can’t find the words.”

Psychological Concerns

The transition to a new life can be psychologically wrenching. “We noticed this difficulty quickly with the first students,” says Jourdan-Chartier. “When they arrive, they are happy at first. But after some weeks or a couple of months they start feeling lonely and depressed. Often, they have sleeping problems and sometimes they begin abusing alcohol.”

Several students have gotten out-patient psychiatric treatment; three required psychiatric hospitalization. After noticing that the refugee students were often too embarrassed to avail themselves of the university’s psychological counseling, Lille began having master’s-degree-level psychology student volunteers sit outside the intensive French language courses and offer tea and cookies. Officials say this created an informal setting where refugees could be gently encouraged to talk about their problems and be referred for counseling if needed.

“It typically takes 12 to 18 months for them to forge a new identity,” says Jourdan-Chartier. “You’re no longer a refugee, but a university student.”


One Comment

  1. Hello,

    I am Mohammad Abid Rahimi one of Afghan refugees, I have been here in France for almost three months as a asylum seeker.
    I don’t have residence permit in France yet. I have bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Afghanistan. I would like to continue my studies in France for a master’s program i hope you will be able to help me in this field.

    Best regards,
    Abid Rahimi

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