The Global Refugee Crisis, in a Small French Town

Aug 18, 2016

Most of us learn about the global refugee crisis through news coverage rather than personal experience.  WMRA has been telling the stories of many refugees who have settled in Virginia. But what is the refugee experience in quieter parts of the world, far from the global media's attention? WMRA’s Marguerite Gallorini takes us to her rural hometown in the east of France, called Saint-Loup.

[Bells sound]

Meet Hebaj Bore…

HEBAJ BORE (as read by Emily Richardson-Lorente): I am 37, married; I have two children, a boy and a girl. I have been in France for two and half years.

… And Arjeta Gjoni.

ARJETA GJONI (as read by Emily Richardson-Lorente): I am an Albanian language and literature teacher. I am 33 years old, and arrived in France on September 8, 2013.

Arjeta and Hibaj are both Albanian refugees resettled to Saint-Loup, a small town close to the German and Swiss borders. Due to security reasons, they preferred not to reveal why they fled their country.

Out of the city's thirty-five hundred inhabitants, about 100 are asylum seekers. Many now come from Syria, but they also come from Kosovo, Russia, or – like Hebaj and Arjeta – Albania. They are usually fleeing war, starvation, or persecution. In addition to this, Hebaj could not visit her father before he died four months ago. That is a lot to deal with psychologically, says Saint-Loup’s Mayor Thierry Bordot.

BORDOT (as read by Jordy Yager): Sometimes we even encounter problems of a psychiatric nature, in families who already have gone through tragedies in their lives, and when they leave their country it can be in very challenging conditions. This psychological welcoming is still, in my opinion, something to be improved, so that we can really allow them to thrive faster in our country.

And while Arjeta's asylum request has just been granted, Hebaj is not done yet.

BORE: I still don't have legal papers. I am waiting... I’m hoping it will come one day!

Her nervous laugh hides a deeper anxiety. Procedures to become legalized are becoming increasingly clogged and can take up to two years, or more.  It all begins with the OFPRA – the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and the Stateless, which is in charge of examining the legitimacy of asylum requests.

Then, the French Ministry of the Interior determines how and where asylum seekers are to be resettled. In that process, Mayor Bordot says that, by law, he is out of the loop.

BORDOT: It is all dealt with internally, between the State services and private and public landlords. I guess it could be explained by a kind of mistrust of local powers, which would not deliberately want to welcome that many refugees if they had a say in it.

Not every request is granted though – because of insufficient proof of danger to the asylum-seekers in their home countries, for instance. Critics say the OFPRA even turns down valid requests. According to the French newspaper Les Echos, while other European countries usually grant 45% of asylum requests, France grants only 22% of them. So… What becomes of these denied refugees?

BORDOT: Then, families can be taken back to the border – but it is not always implemented because, on a human level, when you have to deal with families with children, it is always complicated to use the public force to expel these families. So in general, the State lets things run their course.

[bell signaling the start of class]

We are now at Saint-Loup's primary school, with headmistress Anna Breysse. She tells me about the on-line State database called Casnav, which provides official documents translated into the refugees' language. But she admits she doesn't use it often.

ANNA BREYSSE: I think that to integrate them, nothing's better than approaching them directly and talking to them – even if it's in broken English, even if they don't understand 100% of the conversation. I think it's better to create a human bond than give them a piece of paper, very well written in their language, sure, but which once again places a barrier. So with them, we have erased all written communication... and we try to choose them in priority for school trips – it's a way to show them they are valued.

Refugees take French classes four times a week, and their lodgings are close to the city hall and primary school, which facilitates their social integration. That way, as Arjeta and Hebaj are finding, other parents interact easily and keep them and other refugees in the loop.

GJONI: There is everything here. A lot of solidarity, a lot of people help asylum seekers... There are also much more activities for children here. We found a lot of good things in Saint-Loup.

Their children don't find it too hard to make new friends in spite of language. But in the classroom, French remains their biggest challenge. So in Saint-Loup, an external part-time teacher comes twice a week to help refugee children study according to their needs. This proves to be efficient: after only a few months, they can integrate a normal class.

[children during a classroom activity]

For now, Hebaj hopes to be legalized soon; and as for Arjeta, she wishes to continue working with children, just like she did in Albania. In the meantime, the European Commission now wants to reform the current system to standardize and streamline procedures across Europe, to make it easier for everyone.