A group of 80 refugees from France’s “Jungle” camp in the northern port city of Calais have been selected to attend university as part of an initiative to help them earn a degree in preparation for life in their new host country.
They were chosen from a pool of 200 applicants from the “Jungle” – a sprawling camp that was home to as many as 10,000 people before it was demolished in October 2016 – to take intensive French language lessons and, eventually follow other coursework at the University of Lille in northern France.
"I spent two months in the Jungle, and was only able to learn the alphabet," said Abdul-Raouf Hussein-Fadul, a 26-year-old Sudanese man in a baseball cap and white sneakers. "I hope that one day I'll be able to become an engineer in France, like I was in Sudan... It's not easy, I'm going to have to work hard."
Prospective students were recruited by university officials with the help of volunteer organisations at the camp. To qualify for the programme, applicants were required to have already been students in their home countries, to demonstrate interest in the courses offered by the university – and to give up their dreams of one day reaching Britain.
The lucky ones selected were then split into four groups and put up in student housing at the University of Lille, where they are now taking 15 hours of language lessons each week.
'French is pretty difficult'
Mohsen Tajaddodi Paskiyabi, 28, left Iran in 2015, having played football for eight years before a knee injury forced him to quit.
He ended up spending a year at the camp in Calais before being picked for the new programme.
"I tried to learn French at the school in the Jungle, but there were lots of people so it wasn't really possible," he said.
Once he has honed his language skills, Paskiyabi hopes to become a football coach.
"In January we had some tests, it was pretty difficult, since we've only been learning French for the past three months," he said.
For the university, the goal "is to get their French as good as possible between now and June, so we can integrate them into the classic university curriculum in autumn 2017," said Hugues Perdriaud, one of their professors.
'Like any other students'
The students are also getting help outside the classroom, from a network of fellow students volunteering their time.
"We talk with them in French to help them progress, but we also go to the library, to museums, go shopping," said Solène, a 20-year-old pursuing an Italian degree.
"For us, they're just like any other students."
Most of the students already have refugee status, and advisers are helping them chart a path toward careers that match their experiences – as well as the realities of the French labour market, said Emmanuelle Jourdan-Chartier, a history professor and one of the architects of the project.
"They are extremely motivated, very capable – they were very proud to get in to university and they genuinely want to integrate successfully," she said.
For Djamel-Eddine, a 26-year-old from Sudan, "French is complicated because there are lots of exceptions" to the rules.
But he has found a trick: "I've watched 280 episodes of 'Hélène et les Garçons’" (“Helene and the Boys," a French sitcom from the early 1990s).
He had been at the Jungle since August 2015, attempting several times to climb onto trucks crossing the Channel to Britain without – success.
"So I gave up and in the end, I like it here, even if it rains a lot in Lille – I've made a lot of friends, and now I'm looking for a job for the school breaks," he said.
Adam, a student from Darfur who counts himself "very lucky" to have got in, has also found help from listening to the French rapper Black M and the Belgian star Stromae.
But hope is not lost for those whose French might not be good enough to start regular coursework next September – they will be able to take another year of language classes.
As Nathalie Ethuin, another professor involved in the project, said: "They wouldn't be the first students to finish their first year in two years."
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)