For whom the bell tolls?

Crédit photo : Luizclas/ Unsplash

In October 2018, I started giving French lessons, as a volunteer, to Albanian minors who arrived alone in Nancy, without their families. In professional jargon in France, they are more recently known as Unaccompanied Minors-MNA.

A disturbing discovery would then begin for me, over almost a year, a discovery which would become more and more shocking; Arrived in France in 2017, from Albania, with my family, I already knew the main difficulties for the foreigners. Especially for those who come from poor or developing countries. So, I did not have great expectations the first day I crossed the threshold of the center where these boys were housed and where I would teach. But all my expectations were exceeded. In the bad sense of the word. Mother of two boys, a few years younger than the ones I saw around me, imagine all the crazy signals my brain started giving off when I realized I could easily walk into the building, climb the floors and even enter the rooms if I wanted, without being noticed by the staff of the center. The part where they stayed was separate, closed by doors, without any opening to observe the entrances and exits.

Mother of two boys, imagine all the crazy signals my brain started giving off when I realized I could easily walk into the building, climb the floors and even enter the rooms if I wanted, without being noticed by the staff of the center.

It was a temporary accommodation center, that is, where residents stayed until it was proven that they were indeed minors and not adults. It is a long procedure, which often takes months in France during which they are not enrolled in school. In the file that follows this editorial, what happens during these months is discussed in detail.

The main character in my story, the one who never missed a lesson, A. from a small town in central Albania, who had just turned 15 and remains one of the smartest and nicest children I have ever met, stayed there for at least 6 months. And he was never recognized as a child. In fact, he never got an answer… That's what he told me in a message, when he left as an immigrant in another country, Italy.

But I will come back to him.

Not only insecurity, but also old furniture, often broken, very dirty, in the hallway on the first floor, in what should have been the entrance. Many young people were poorly dressed, in old clothes and old shoes. And above all, they seemed so disappointed, so tired, upset that they were doing almost nothing. They had expected something else, of course. They expected at least to go to school. But before that, the Children's Judge had to recognize them as minors, a status which obliges the French state, like any democratic state in the world, to provide them with education and other services. But the files were still pending.

For A., as well as for many other minors from Albania, Kosovo, other countries of South East Europe and African countries, the waiting was becoming more and more unbearable. He spoke French well and constantly questioned the staff of the center about his file. Often, believing that I, an adult, could be more demanding, he would ask me to question those in charge of the center. Which I did, of course. But it was in vain; short and concise answers; They still had no news. Until that happened, he had to stay there. Or he could go back to Albania and the trip would be paid.

In the months that followed, it never happened that I taught A. in a real classroom, with a blackboard, chairs and tables. For the computer, it wasn't even the question. We made up corners either in the kitchen, as other people came and went, either in another room, where there were piles of clothes and sheets brought in from a foundation. Or we had to give up our lesson because we couldn't even find these small corners. In short, a total lack of organization which deprived this minor, I think like many others of this center, of the desire and the opportunity to benefit from the company, or from learning with the volunteers; A large majority of French people were interested in being close to these children. But, faced with this disorder, they left one after one, to go to other centers where they could give more.

The main character in my story, the one who never missed a lesson, A., who had just turned 15, stayed there for at least 6 months. And he was never recognized as a child. In fact, he never got an answer…

Crédit photo : Daan Stevens/Unsplash

I cannot say that all the employees were indifferent. I could clearly see that there were some of them who felt bad and were trying to do their jobs the best they could. But even they left in the face of all this chaos and hypocrisy. For almost a year during which I continued to go to the center, often as a volunteer translator, I rarely met the same social workers more than 3-4 times ... Certainly, the inability to fulfill their mission weighed on them.

What about my helplessness? Because, even if I'm ashamed to admit it, it's the truth: I was an adult, a journalist for the more, in front of an injustice, and I could not understand exactly what I could do to change the situation. It was clear that motivational conversations, constant questions to the center staff and teaching French, were hardly enough. So, I started digging deeper and speaking in public. In meetings with civil society organizations, among activists. And I realized that I was not the only one seeing what I was seeing. That it wasn't just a center. That it wasn't just Nancy. The lack of institutional consideration towards these minors in France, the delay in procedures, the difficult living conditions, the lack of education and medical services, were reported as disturbing by several human rights organizations. And I realized how dangerous, but also possible, it was to take myths for granted.

Because yes, I dare say: that unaccompanied foreign minors are well received in France, it is only a myth. Maybe once this statement was true. Perhaps. But today, this is just a myth. Which I myself had believed very easily, listening and reading what is published in mass.

This file is precisely devoted to the explanation of this myth, with the awareness that it only sheds light on a very small part of it. But above all, it is dedicated to A. from this small town in central Albania, an excellent student who, at the age of 15, emigrated to another country, Italy. To study seriously, in a good school, without impoverishing his family. It was only in Albania that he did not dream of returning. “You know what our public schools are reduced in, Elda. Even the private ones. At least here, I will learn for real”.

In the months that followed, it never happened that I taught A. in a real classroom, with a blackboard, chairs and tables. For the computer, it wasn't even the question. We made up corners either in the kitchen, either in another room.

And yes, definitely, this dossier is addressed to families, to the persistent social injustices and to political corruption in my country, just as in other countries from which these children leave every day. Without having in mind to analyze to whom the most serious fault falls. Far from there. We all have a part of it. We, the adults. We, the institutions. We just have to accept it and start working, doing the best we can, for real. Because these are children, after all. And above all.

 In the meantime, those who pay for all this, those who part alone, as immigrants, those who live in cold centers, those who cease very quickly to be minors because of fear, are the children. Will they be able, after all this denial, after all this journey, to fully recover one day? Without having a wounded heart in the chest ? I doubt it… (to be continued)

P.S The reception center for minors, referred to in this editorial, has already closed, after approximately 2 years of operation.

This article is produced as part of the “Migration, Youth and Internet” project. It is written by Elda Spaho Bleta, volunteer of the local group Oxfam in Nancy, who paid close attention to the information given. The sources of the information are cited, and when personal advice is given, it is the sole responsibility of the editor. If, despite her attention, an error had slipped into the document, please report it to her by writing to [email protected] This article is published with the funds of the French Development Agency, Grand Est Solidarités et Coopérations pour le Développement (GESCOD), and with the support of Oxfam France. The content of the articles does not engage the structures previously named.

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