PARIS, France—Barbès, La Chapelle, Marseille, are just a few of the places in France whose names have come to evoke images of their large populations of French people of Arab—mainly North African—descent. Given that large Franco-Arab communities have existed in France for decades, one might assume France would be a more hospitable environment for Syrian refugees than other parts of Europe. The answer, it seems, is more complicated.
“I have the impression that it’s more the people from the Middle East who come to France that have expressed the most difficulty with this community, with French people of North African origin,” says Ayyam Sureau who runs Pierre Claver, a small school for refugees in central Paris.
The situation calls to mind the notion of ‘faux amis’ or ‘false friends’ in language learning: when a word appears familiar because it’s the same as a word in one’s native tongue, but in fact it means something different in the new language. This seems to be somewhat the case when it comes to French Arabs and newly arrived Arab refugees.
Sureau attributes some of the differences between the communities to a question of social class.
“Syrians who aren’t used to being in contact with classes that they judge to be socially inferior, find themselves in cultural communities with people with whom they have nothing in common socially, and they express their differences with them very strongly, saying, ‘we have nothing to do with these people’… it’s social, it’s not racial.”
From a more generous perspective, though, it’s not a simple matter of classism. “Most refugees have lost all social anchors. In your country you are known by your neighbors, your family, you say your name and everyone knows who you are. People were in the same high school as you, the same university as you, the same mosque as you, the same church as you,” explains Sureau, “one of the cruelest things about exile, is that no one knows who you are.” Refugees, regardless of their social class, are often eager to explain who they were in their countries of origin, and that they are not accustomed to living in the street or in the conditions in which they now find themselves.
These social differences are exacerbated by a high degree of religiosity that Syrian refugees sometimes encounter in French Arab Muslims. The French population of North African descent is large and its members run the gamut of devoutness and political ideas. But some of the neighborhoods in which newly arrived Syrians find themselves are populated by a more religious segment of French North African society.
“It’s Daesh, Daesh where they put me! Why did I leave my home?“ One Syrian refugee told Sureau, after she was housed in a Paris neighborhood with a high proportion of very devout Muslims. Many of the refugees are themselves practicing Muslims. But a neighborhood full of such visibly devout people-- which made some new arrivals feel pressured to adhere to conservative social norms-- was not the Europe they had been led to imagine.
“If you hear them you’d think they were the National Front,” Sureau says, referring to the right-wing political party that spouts virulently anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric and has gained traction following the global economic downturn and Europe’s influx of refugees. In some neighborhoods, refugee women report being insulted by their neighbors for not covering their hair.
“Moroccan culture is far from ours,” says Dalia, a 52-year-old Syrian Arabic teacher from Deraa, where the revolution began. “You feel that they are very religious, even the way they talk. They say salaam aleikum. I am trying to say bonjour.”
Perceived similarity and underlying difference can lead to some misunderstandings.
One of the Pierre Claver students was shopping at a grocery store recently when a French man of North African descent approached him and said, in French, “No need to go to Syria, brother. The jihad is here.” The student, a Syrian who had fled in part because of Islamic extremism in his own country, was terrified. Presumably the man had approached him because he had a beard and the appearance of a devout Muslim.
In another instance, Dalia, the Arabic teacher, was given some unexpected advice when she tried to offer her services as an Arabic teacher to the parents of French children of North African descent.
A neighbor approached her and said, “I think someone should tell you: most people who want their children to learn Arabic, they want them to learn Qur’an and Sharia. Do you teach that?”
“No, I teach Arabic,” she said. “I’m a Christian, how am I going to teach Islamic law?” she asks, incredulous. Dalia lives in a largely Armenian neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris where many people are of Lebanese or Syrian descent and speak Arabic, which, she says, makes the transition a little easier. The neighbor who gave her the advice is himself a secular Frenchman of Moroccan origin and has faced some of the same difficulties: he tried to put his young daughter in a local Algerian-run school but decided against it when school administrators insisted she wear the hijab.
But on a more environmental level, the familiarity and cultural nearness, however superficial, does offer some comfort.
“There are many neighborhoods where things are written in Arabic where there are halal butchers and shisha cafes. A number of refugees tell me that, ‘in France, there is space for us,’” says Sureau, “we are not completely strangers here.”
And a few say that having someone who spoke Arabic but understood the French system was a life-saving gift. One young Syrian doctor reports having a “French-Tunisian guardian angel,” who helped him with his paperwork and translation when he first arrived.
Despite the potentially useful asset of having many French people who are Arabic-speakers, compared to its neighbors, France has welcomed a tiny number of Syrians in spite of the growing refugee crisis. Between April 2011 and March 2016, France received only 11,402 Syrian applications for asylum, compared to more than 300,000 in nearby Germany. Yet these small numbers do not alleviate the enormous bureaucratic obstacles.
Refugees report bureaucratic procedures that take months, to get everything from healthcare to that most elusive of all resources—housing. The other difficulty is language. In order to get a job or continue with their education, refugees must speak French. But the government-sponsored classes are overcrowded and comprised of students of varying levels, some of whom were not literate in their own countries. Progress is slow and procedures muddled. Sahar, a young Syrian woman, went to take her placement test to be admitted to government classes. She has an ear for languages and from her few phrases of greeting—to be fair, pronounced in a perfect French accent—the secretary decided that she was proficient in French and, ignoring Sahar’s protestations, gave her a certificate of proficiency saying ‘you have enough French.’ Sahar’s employment counselors were incredulous when she came back to them with a certificate for a language she patently did not speak.
Nevertheless, she is very happy to be in Paris. When her mother says, “if Syria were safe, I’d move back there,” Sahar responds, “I’d visit.”
Sahar’s mother is glad to be there too. “I prefer France to any other country,” she says, “this is the country that stood with me, and helped me. It helped when our own country was killing us…on our asylum document it says ‘we are responsible for your safety.’”
Note: The names of refugees have been changed because of their concerns that speaking to the press might affect their asylum claims.