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Volunteers Find Rewards in Helping Refugee Students in France

(This article is one of two in a package. The other is “Universities in France Help Refugees Succeed as Students.”)

LILLE, France—Many university students and faculty members in France have participated in efforts to welcome those fleeing war, repression or poverty onto their campuses. What may be less obvious is that these efforts are often enriching for them too.

When an unofficial refugee encampment in Calais known as the Jungle began filling up with new arrivals in 2015, Camille Doré started accompanying her father, a doctor, on visits there. While he attended to more serious medical problems, she provided first-aid under the auspices of Doctors Without Borders, cleaning and bandaging cuts and scrapes, mostly for young men who could not speak her language, French.

When the authorities dismantled the camp in the fall of 2016, the University of Lille scrambled to admit 80 of the migrants through a new program that aims to prepare refugees for university studies.

Doré herself subsequently enrolled at Lille as a law student, and soon founded a student organization she named Pangea. Named for the supercontinent that scientists postulate once comprised all earth’s land mass, and thus suggesting the unity of all people, the group’s mission is to help the campus’s refugee students integrate into French society.

Football and Field Trips

Pangea organizes weekly get-togethers for the new refugee students. French student volunteers come to chat with the newcomers, helping them with their studies and reinforcing their French language skills.

Using modest funding from the university, volunteers take the refugee students on cultural outings in the city of Lille, visiting museums, attending concerts, and sometimes eating out. Last spring they took 25 of the exiles to spend a weekend in Paris.

The group regularly organizes gatherings where refugees and French students play badminton, football, basketball, handball and other sports. At the end of March, Pangea is staging a campus “Day of Immersion in the Daily Life of an Exile.” The event will feature such elements as an introduction to the Arabic alphabet and language, Kurdish dance and Turkish cuisine, as well as public discussions on various refugee issues.

“I didn’t know why [therefugees] were in France. I didn’t realize that many did notchoose to leave their countries but were forced.”

Margaux Nail
 A student who teaches French as a foreign language

Such events are “a win-win situation,” says Doré. “It’s like we can travel the world without leaving the campus.”

In July, Doré will return to Calais, this time to do a six-month internship as part of her law studies. She will work with two refugee-aid organizations, helping migrants with their asylum applications. Although the Jungle no longer exists, there are still many migrants in the area because Calais is the part of France closest to England and is near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel.

For Tutors, a Gratifying Experience

Meanwhile, the several dozen students hired by the university as French tutors for the refugees, often find the experience meaningful.

Margaux Nail, who is in a master’s-level program in teaching French as a foreign language, tutors an Afghan woman and a Bangladeshi man. She says the experience has taught her much about the refugee issue.

Before she started working with them, she says, “I didn’t know why [the refugees] were in France. I didn’t realize that many did not choose to leave their countries but were forced.”

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Just as university administrators lament that there is funding for only 15 hours of French language training for the refugees each week, some tutors express regret that they have not been trained for the task and receive no feedback or support in their work.

Still, many find the work gratifying. Noé Vervaecke, a second-year undergraduate student in history, meets once or twice a week with a student from Sudan. At each meeting they converse in French, discuss points of grammar, and make a new vocabulary list.

“I have the feeling of being useful,” he says, “and that what I am doing has a real impact.”


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