The number of Ukrainian refugees arriving on French soil has tripled in the last week. For those who plan on staying, Paris is setting up a special scheme to integrate Ukrainian refugee children in the French school system.
“The other day, a mother came in with her baby. It was so small it looked like a newborn. [The mum] wouldn’t stop crying. It broke my heart,” says Odette, a caretaker at the École Polyvalente Eva Kotchever, a kindergarten and primary school in the 18th arrondissement (district) of Paris.
Odette was on vacation when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, and only discovered the news upon her return. “I got a phone call on Saturday morning from the school. They filled me in on what was happening and told me that we had become an emergency reception centre of sorts,” she explains.
The school has been taking in refugee families since March 10, offering them some respite after long, stressful journeys fleeing the horrors of the war in Ukraine, where their menfolk of fighting age still remain to defend their homeland.
Most of them arrive from the reception centre next door that was set up on March 3 specifically for Ukrainian refugees by France Terre d’Asile, an NGO helping asylum seekers. There, they can get a meal, begin their asylum-seeking process, find temporary housing and see a doctor, from 9am to 6pm. With only one common play area for children, many refugee parents (mostly mothers) struggle to deal with the administrative procedures while having to care for their young ones. Called up by the City Hall for help, the school freed up three classrooms and a heap of toys to offer relief.
‘For now, it’s the best we can do’
Pushing past the school’s glass doors, a teacher walks through a short corridor with a reception desk to the left. Odette is the first point of contact and asks visitors to sign in with their information before entering the halls of the École Polyvalente Eva Kotchever. To the right of the corridor, a cement wall is embellished with children’s drawings, and arrows in the blue-and-yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag indicating the way to the first floor. “Most families and children don’t speak French, so we’ve put up arrows to guide them to the designated classrooms,” Odette says.
Families are never left unaccompanied. They are escorted from the next door reception centre by city hall facilitators who work for organisations like DASCO (“direction des affaires scolaires” or “direction of school affairs”), in charge of welcoming new pupils across Paris. “For now, we are just helping out and offering up our classrooms to children so that their parents can do what they need,” says Christine Serra, the school’s principal. “The teachers don’t really come into contact with the children. Things are still quite separated at the moment. The children aren’t integrated in the French classrooms, they don’t interact with the pupils.”
On the second floor, a classroom-turned-crèche is occupied by three facilitators. They are helping two Ukrainian mothers, one fast asleep on a floor mattress and another making arrangements on her phone, to entertain and care for their children. Marlène Mallard, a former nursery assistant who is volunteering as a facilitator, gestures to the sleeping woman. “We’re taking care of her son while she gets some rest. They arrived at 10am this morning and she hasn’t slept for god knows how long.” Her son kicks around a football, playing with 10-year-old Yvan, who has already picked up some French words in a few hours. Yvan’s little sister, no more than a few months old, is being rocked in the arms of a translator. “We never separate siblings,” she smiles, keeping her identity anonymous for fear of what could happen if she ever returns to her native Russia.
Meanwhile Paris’s Deputy Mayor for education, Patrick Bloche, who is working with the local education board to provide schooling for Ukrainian refugee children, visited the principal’s office to see how things were going with the emergency reception classrooms. “He said that the City Hall will most likely try and place Ukrainian children in schools with UPE2A units [programmes to help accommodate non-French speaking foreign children],” explains Serra. Of the 645 kindergartens and primary schools in Paris, only 60 have UPE2A units. As for secondary schools, 81 have the capacity to accommodate non-French speakers.
#Paris accueillera dans ses crèches et ses écoles tous les enfants des familles de réfugiés d'#Ukraine. Ils auront accès gratuitement aux cantines scolaires. Les PMI proposeront des consultations et un soutien psychologique aux enfants et à leurs familles. #StandWithUkraine pic.twitter.com/ENuAca3EzR
— Patrick BLOCHE (@pbloche) March 2, 2022
“We’ll see how things go,” Serra says. “Of course, if we can help in any way possible to integrate the children in our school, we will. But for now, this is the best we can do, and it doesn’t cost us much of an effort.”
First steps towards a French education
The number of refugees fleeing Ukraine and arriving in France has tripled in the past week. Around 13,500 displaced people have been controlled by border police and are now on French soil, according to France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.
“We can now accommodate up to 100,000 refugees on national territory. The state and local authorities have made a big effort. We are continuing to work on scenarios where we could take in more [people],” Darmanin explained at a press briefing on Monday.
Some are passing through on their way to other countries, others are here to stay. Around 4,600 refugees have been given accommodation so far, according to French Housing Minister Emmanuelle Wargon. And while the majority have only just arrived, 650 Ukrainian children are already enrolled in French schools, said Marlène Schiappa in an interview with French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.
The larger “plan d’accueil école” (school reception plan) for Ukrainian refugees aged 3-18 is still being finalised. For now, schools with UPE2A units are those welcoming the first Ukrainian refugee pupils, allowing the language barrier to be breached. The interior and education ministries will direct parents to OEPRE workshops, aimed at facilitating their integration through French language courses and helping them better understand the school system so they can support their children.
The Paris city board of education has also opened a Ukraine “crisis unit” to help refugee parents with the school enrolment process. The board has also provided teachers with an online pamphlet outlining how to welcome pupils who have suffered trauma.
The final goal is “getting refugee children into school”, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer proclaimed in a tweet. For Odette, it’s important to take it slow. “Speaking to some children, I see that many are afraid and a bit intimidated. This is a safe space for them, they don’t hear everyday sirens going off. It’s peaceful.” Perhaps in the near future, the École Polyvalente Eva Kotchever will be able to untack the blue and yellow arrows guiding Ukrainian refugee children to its classrooms.