From camp to campus: Students from the Calais ‘Jungle’

In 2016, Lille university invited people from the refugee camp to enrol. Is the ‘experiment’ working?

It's one year since the "Jungle" refugee camp in Calais, northern France was demolished but the area is still a magnet for migrants trying to reach the U.K. Video: Thomson Reuters Foundation

 

Seven women and 124 men from a dozen countries survived the Calais “Jungle” and other refugee encampments to enrol as full-time students at the University of Lille.

The first 80 were taken directly from the Jungle when it was dismantled in October 2016. They were joined by 51 new migrant students last month. Thanks to the generosity of a few professors and humanitarian workers, the experiment is a glimmer of hope in the often tragic migrant saga.

Mohammad Nihan (26)
Mohammad Nihan (26)

Mohammad

Mohammad Nihan (26), is the success story of the pilot programme. The son of a civil servant in Kabul, he will this year complete a master’s degree in political science.

Mohammad studied business in Kabul. The US embassy sent him twice to the Asian Youth Congress in Pakistan. That inspired him to found an association to fight drugs in Afghanistan, where opium poppies and heroin are the mainstay of the economy.

Afghan drug lords threatened to kill Mohammad. After encouraging his association, the Americans couldn’t protect him. In 2015, he fled Kabul, by commercial flight to Tehran, then overland to Europe.

“I heard about the fires in the Calais Jungle when I was in a closed camp in Serbia,” Mohammad recalls. He was perhaps the only one of nearly 10,000 migrants in Calais who went there expressly, not in the hope of reaching the United Kingdom, but to help fellow refugees.

How can it be that some French people want to help you, and some want to kill you?

On arriving in the Jungle, Mohammad volunteered to work as a translator in the camp’s clinic. “It was very hard to live in the Jungle,” he recalls. “It was filthy. The mafia preyed on people and police beat them up. There were traffickers, unaccompanied minors, people separated from their families.” Secours Catholique hired Mohammad and gave him a room in Calais town. He applied for, and was granted, political asylum. Already fluent in English, he learned French quickly.

Maya Konforti, a volunteer with the Auberge des Migrants NGO, was a mother figure to the lost souls of the Jungle. She put Mohammad in touch with the programme in Lille. He intends to write his master’s thesis on “international solidarity in time of crisis”. After he graduates next June, he wants to become a humanitarian worker.

“I want to help people,” Mohammad explains. “I have almost reached my goal.” He takes in his stride the bureaucracy that paralyses some of his fellow students. “The French put up with it too,” he shrugs.

 

Abuelgassim

About 50 of the original 80 students are Sudanese. A dozen are Afghan, five are Iranian, four Pakistani and three Syrian. This year, the prefecture insisted on a broader selection of nationalities.

Like Mohammad the Afghan, Abuelgassim (25), from Darfur, is a lesson in the benefits of a positive attitude. He fled the war in southern Sudan in 2015, crossed the Mediterranean and was fingerprinted in Italy and Germany, which ordinarily would have prevented him seeking asylum in France.

The prefecture made an exception for the inhabitants of the Jungle, waiving the rule that those fingerprinted in other countries must return there to apply for asylum, as specified in the Dublin II convention.

By the time Abuelgassim arrived at the Porte de la Chapelle encampment in northern Paris, he was weak and feverish. Other Sudanese advised him to continue to Calais, where he could at least find a tent, food and medical care.

“Life in the Jungle was hard, but not bad, because I began learning French there,” Abuelgassim says. “From the moment I arrived in France, I wanted to make my life here. I spent all day every day in the école des Dunes [a makeshift school built by NGOs], and I met a lot of teachers and volunteers.”

Abuelgassim was not part of the initial intake of 80 students, and spent the past year at a refugee centre in the French Alps, where he continued to study with volunteers from Secours Catholique. His French is now better than his English, and he is proud to have scored A++ on a recent exam. “I have met many sympathetic people who help refugees,” he says. “In Aix-les-Bains, families invited us into their homes. They were like our families. For me, life is getting better and better.”

Nasser Muhanna (43)
Nasser Muhanna (43)

Nasser

Nasser Muhanna (43), from Sudan, is one of the oldest former inhabitants of the Jungle admitted to Lille university. He holds degrees in agronomy and computer programming from the University of Khartoum, and worked as an accountant and human resources supervisor in Saudi Arabia for 14 years.

Nasser was imprisoned in Sudan for opposing the regime of Gen Omar al-Bashir. When Saudi Arabia concluded an agreement with Sudan, his Saudi employers became frightened and terminated his contract. He obtained a tourist visa to Italy, took a commercial flight to Rome, then made his way by train to Calais.

“Such things should not exist in this day and age,” Nasser says of the Jungle. “People lost their morals. They raped and killed and set fires. There was no security. It was full of disease. I tried many times to cross to the UK, but I finally told myself, ‘This is not the way I want to live. I am educated and I don’t have to live in the UK. It is stupid to put myself in such danger.’”

More than two-thirds of the 80 members of last year’s class obtained refugee status. Nasser is in limbo while he appeals a negative decision. “You can do nothing here without papers,” he says.

While his appeal is pending, Nasser continues studying computer science. “I’m the only refugee in my class. The other students are very nice to me. We laugh and joke a lot.” He misses his wife and three children in Sudan, and hopes they will join him one day in France. About half the migrant students have enrolled in a programme that matches them with French families, who invite them home on holidays and weekends.

Naqeeb Sadat (23) with a friend
Naqeeb Sadat (23) with a friend

Naqeeb

Baby-faced Naqeeb Sadat (23), from Nangahar, Afghanistan, is studying French, science and mathematics. He was teaching local policemen in Afghanistan to use computers when his brother-in-law, who was a commander in the police force, was assassinated by the Taliban.

“I knew I was next,” Sadat says. “They thought I was a spy.” He flew to Tehran, then paid smugglers to bring him to Europe. “Every border has a price,” he says.

“It was very, very cold when I arrived in Calais,” Sadat recalls. “A volunteer called Aice gave me a small tent. We had problems with food, with clothes, with showers. Everything was a problem. The police were cruel. I tried to cross [the Channel] every day, and they sprayed us with tear gas.”

One night, Sadat was one of five migrants hiding in a container lorry in a parking lot. “Police burst in and started beating us,” he says. “I climbed out the hatch and I jumped to the ground. I sprained my ankle so badly that I thought it was broken. I couldn’t move. I shouted in English, ‘I can’t walk. Please help. Please take me to the doctor’, and the police came and beat me even more.”

One of Sadat’s friends died when he fell from the top of a moving lorry. Another, an Afghan who ran a shop in the Jungle, was attacked by vigilantes and thrown into a river, where his body was found 20 days later. “The night I fell off the truck, I thought the gang that attacks refugees would come and kill me . . . How can it be that some French people want to help you, and some want to kill you?”

Like other survivors of the Jungle, Sadat was thrilled to receive a key to his own room in the Évariste-Galois dormitory last year. But he remains suspicious of a country whose treatment of migrants is so erratic.

His biggest battle now is with bureaucracy. “You have appointments every day with the Pôle Emploi [unemployment agency], the CAF [housing authority], the prefecture, the immigration office . . .” Sadat says. “You don’t know what it’s for but they want you to go there. Tomorrow, I have a class and an appointment at the same time. It’s not easy to study.”

“An asylum-seeker belongs to the state,” says Konforti. “And the state does what it wants with him.”

The government uses the university programme to make people forget how violently migrants are treated elsewhere

Shahram

Shahram (22) is the son of a farmer from Logar, Afghanistan, who like Mohammad and Sadat fled the depredations of radical Islamists. Everything is difficult for him, starting with the French language. “If you don’t speak French, you can’t do anything,” he says. He wants to become a medical doctor, but administrators say he’ll have to lower his ambition.

Shahram doesn’t understand why his benefits suddenly dropped from €350 a month to €200. He shows me a letter from French authorities demanding his 2016 income tax return – an absurd request of a migrant who was expelled from the Jungle late last year.

“The way they treated the refugees in Calais – shame on the French president, shame on the British prime minister,” Shahram says.

He is convinced that migrants are better treated in other European countries. “I am forced to ask my family in Afghanistan to send me money!” he laments. “Why give us papers if you were going to treat us like this? I wish the French government would take back my papers and let me go to another country.”

A few weeks ago, Adoma, the housing authority that lodges migrants, tried to expel several students from the Évariste-Galois dormitory. Second-year students are required to pay rent, and Adoma needed to make space for new arrivals. Pro-refugee groups organised protests on campus, and the university mediated a temporary solution. But Shahram remains angry and insecure. He swears: “I’m going to learn French and go to medical school. Then I will go back to Afghanistan and I will never set foot in Europe again.”

Zahra Alizada (19) is one of six migrant women students admitted this year. Zahra and her sister Masomah (20) are famous in Afghanistan and minor celebrities in northern France, as “the Bicycle Sisters”
Zahra Alizada (19) is one of six migrant women students admitted this year. Zahra and her sister Masomah (20) are famous in Afghanistan and minor celebrities in northern France, as “the Bicycle Sisters”

Zahra

Outside the Ulysses Cafe on the campus, we meet Zahra Alizada (19) one of six migrant women students admitted this year. Zahra and her sister Masomah (20) are famous in Afghanistan and minor celebrities in northern France. From the persecuted Shia Muslim Hazara minority, they were encouraged by their father to become cyclists.

After placing second and third in a world championship qualifying race in Albi, France, in 2016, they were threatened by the Taliban. The “bicycle sisters” are living in Évariste-Galois while they learn French and train for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

 

A tiny example

The programme in Lille was initially a reaction to the publication of the heartbreaking photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian Kurdish refugee who drowned on a beach in Turkey in September 2015.

Because of the proximity of the Jungle, just 120km away, professors at Lille felt personally implicated. Camille Masse, now head of international relations for the university, and Giorgio Passerone, professor of Italian literature, organised forums on the migrant crisis in the autumn of 2015 and spring of 2016. They invited migrants to the second forum.

Before they knew the camp would be dismantled, the Lille professors envisioned an exchange. Migrants from the Jungle would be brought to the campus, while students from Lille would teach in the Jungle. Under fire for the brutal evacuation of migrants from the Jungle, the French government embraced the university’s programme. They were, Passerone says, exploited for government propaganda.

“The government boasts that it has welcomed migrant students to our university, but they’re a tiny minority,” says Judith Hayem, a professor of anthropology and self-described militant for the migrant cause. “The majority are still sleeping under bridges in Paris, or being denied showers and food in Calais, where they’re driven out with tear gas. The government uses the university programme to make people forget how violently migrants are treated elsewhere.”

Some 700 migrants still sleep rough in Calais every night. They are not allowed to build a new camp. The French council of state and the UN in recent months exhorted French authorities to stop their “inhuman and degrading treatment”.

Emmanuelle Jourdan-Chartier, vice-president for student life at Lille III
Emmanuelle Jourdan-Chartier, vice-president for student life at Lille III

Emmanuelle Jourdan-Chartier is the vice-president for student life at Lille III. “People have to stop seeing migrants as a problem,” she says. “Diversity is always a source of enrichment.” Jourdan-Chartier believes the vast majority of the 70,000-strong university’s staff and students support the programme. She dismisses hate speech on far right-wing websites as “a few people sitting behind their computers”.

The ill-treatment of migrants in Calais, and the fact that the prefecture no longer allows “Dublined” students to enter the programme, has led to allegations of a crackdown by president Emmanuel Macron’s administration.

“We’ve adopted a militant political position,” says Prof Passerone, who wants equal rights for all migrants in France. Despite its negative aspects, the Jungle was “an experiment in unprecedented relationships between volunteers, associations and refugees”, he says. “We created a sort of alliance, a new way of living together.”

The Lille programme “is a tiny example that has a lot of problems, but it works”, summarises Konforti. “The refugees are thrilled to participate. They know they are lucky. But it’s only a drop of water, and we need an ocean.”

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