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.
PARIS — 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 — from Charles de Gaulle to Karl Lagerfeld to Laure Manaudou — 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.
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."