The Paris Academy Grooming Migrants For A "Refined" Life In France

A school founded in 2008 offers classes in literature, cuisine and the finer points of French culture and language to a new class of refugees from around the world every year to help them integrate to their new home.

Two symbols, one country
Two symbols, one country
Maryline Baumard

PARIS â€" On the dance floor, a sneaker brushes past a ballet shoe in a slow waltz. "Left goes back, then right. Now together." Roland d'Anna, dressed in all black, is directing the class like an orchestra conductor. It's an old habit. D'Anna says it's hard to keep track of the celebrities â€" from Charles de Gaulle to Karl Lagerfeld to Laure Manaudou â€" who have graced the parquet of his prestigious dance studio Georges & Rosy.

But today his pupils aren't so illustrious. Abid, Lemlem and Andro are among the students at the Pierre Claver Association, which welcomes, educates and provides legal assistance to migrants. Just steps away from the National Assembly, the Pierre Claver school offers made-to-measure education to refugees from around the world. Dance is a part of its unique approach to teaching national culture. Along with literature, cuisine and drama, the finer points of French culture are given a place next to intensive French language lessons.

"Dance, for example, is about more than putting together the steps," d'Anna says. "It helps these young people feel at ease in society. Dance is, above all, about communicating, about understanding the social codes in France. In the first class, the women might refuse to dance with a man. Look at them now." He gestures toward a Syrian woman in the arms of an Afghan man.

Dancing in pairs with strangers is a real cultural shock, as Rhaman discovered when he arrived from Afghanistan seven years ago. At the time, he neither read nor wrote in his own language. In the village where he was born, he rented his services as a shepherd by the day. Now, with a mechanics degree, he's working to open his own garage.

Between his old life and his new one, Rhaman ran from the Taliban, crossing thousands of kilometers on his way to Europe via the Balkans. In Paris, he slept in the cold in what's known as "little Kabul" behind the Gare de l’Est train station before gaining refugee status. When he heard someone talk about the Pierre Claver Association as the "school where you learn to be French," Rhaman came running.

A lucky few

Since 2008, the association has selected 120 refugees every year and committed to helping them learn the customs, language and people of France. "You can't hope to become French without learning the history, culture and language,” says Sandro, a 38-year-old who arrived from Georgia in 2013. A painter and designer, he's already excelling in his literature classes at the school, where his understanding of Guillaume Apollinaire, Honoré de Balzac and Jacques Prévert demonstrate an appetite for the classical French canon.

"The country has welcomed me," Sandro says. "Today there's still so much left for me to learn, but I already feel close to the language, to the culture of openness, to the French tradition of laïcité or secularism. And to tartes au citron." Sandro posits that you can tell a lot about a country's traditions and its level of refinement from its pastries.

"Refinement" is certainly the key word for the Pierre Claver Association (named for a 16th century Jesuit monk). Ayyam Sureau, the school's headmistress and a former UNESCO staffer, founded it with her attorney husband François in 2009. They are committed to putting France's best foot forward for the refugees who are admitted to the school each year. In interviews with the students, Sureau herself evaluates their motivation to learn, their plans for the future and their "desire for France."

Lemlem, an Ethiopian, remembers the January morning when she went to meet the headmistress at 8 a.m. "I was expecting a severe lady," she says. "Then I saw Ayyam Sureau, smiling and humming to herself. For me, who had just spent the night in a sad public dormitory, this was walking into another universe."

During the interview, the director asked her about her future plans and presented the school's pedagogy to her. "The contract was very clear," Lemlem says. "The school offers a lot, but on our end we are expected to really work, because French is not an easy language."

After the interview, Lemlem entered what is as much a family as a school. The Pierre Claver Association is a place where beauty is afforded a place, and details transform the days of students whose lives have been all too precarious. Here, sandwiches are served in little white boxes, and dinner is served at an impeccably set table. Classes are overseen by the best professors.

The matriarch

Sureau, 50, is the heart of the school, and the headmistress is herself an immigrant: Egyptian by descent, American by birth and educated in France. She attended the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, worked 11 years at UNESCO, adapted One Thousand and One Nights for French youth, and is now trying to help real people adapt.

"Exile in the 21st century, the experience people are living all around us, it's no different than that of the Old Testament," she says. "But it's possible to reconstruct a new, plural cultural identity without feeling piecemeal."

Small miracles occur at her school daily. Rhaman, the young man from Afghanistan, isn't the only one. From force of hard work, Svetlana, a Syrian doctor, managed to reach the level of French necessary for her diploma to be recognized here. Fahim, a former agriculture student who fled Kabul, is now working at Chaumette, a storied bistro in the 16th arrondissement, while Adem has found ways to use his skills as a tailor to alter haute couture.

The magic moments that keep the Sureaus and the association turning would often go unnoticed by an outsider. For example, the first text message from a student who didn't speak a word of French a few month before. Or an Afghan girl smiling back at the man sitting next to her, an unthinkable gesture not long ago.

As a rule, Ayyam Sureau doesn't ask her students about their pasts. These Iranians, Syrians, Afghans, Georgians and Chechens are taking control of their lives, with all their attention trained on the future.

No one could have predicted that Lemlem would call the same country home as her beloved Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet she loves for both his work and the ties he had to her native Ethiopia. She has finally been able to validate her visa after finding a job. She's also working on a degree in bilingual workplace support. Lemlem no longer tries to guess what will happen to her.

"It seems like life decides for us."

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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