Place du Palais-Bourbon is a beautiful, cobblestoned little square in Paris’s seventh arrondissement. It is about as quintessentially French as a square can be. On its northern side sits the French National Assembly. To its east and west stretch vast wings of government offices. A marble statue in the square’s center named La Loi depicts Marianne—the symbol of the French Republic—seated with a scepter of justice in her right hand, a tablet of law in her left.
Every Saturday morning, 30 refugees jog through the square. They come from a host of countries—Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Tibet, Eritrea, Georgia, many more—but more immediately they come from a Parisian banlieue, or a night in a metro station, or a friend’s house where they’ve crashed for the month. A medley of languages echoes off the marble walls of the National Assembly: Dari, Pashtun, Arabic; French. The refugees cut through the center of the square and pass directly beneath Marianne’s gaze. They head one block south along Rue de Bourgogne until they reach number 28bis—two royal-blue doors. Next to them, a gold-plated sign reads: Pierre Claver: Aide aux Demandeurs d’Asile (“Aid for Asylum-Seekers”).
The royal-blue doors open onto a small, grassy courtyard. A foosball game with four built-in, well-worn ashtrays sits on the left. In the courtyard’s center, two slender benches flank a thin metal table, where breakfast awaits. The runners gather round and eat: slices of baguette from the patisserie down the street, spreads of fine jams in little bowls with little spoons, dollops of thick cold cream. A glass of tea. It makes for a rare and almost utopian scene: refugees passing by the seat of the French government, eating bread and jam in an old hôtel particulier, at perfect ease in their new home.
The runners are students at Pierre Claver, a small private school for adult refugees in the quiet, soft-with-wealth seventh arrondissement. Every day, 150 refugees cycle in and out of Claver’s grassy courtyard, up and down two floors of tiny but homey classrooms. They take classes on the French language, but also French history, art, poetry—and sport. Not two blocks away from the seat of French government, this school is trying to form the next generation of French citizens—and they are refugees.
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The question of how to welcome refugees into a nation wary of their presence may well be the defining issue of our time. This is especially true of Europe. In 2015, over a million migrants entered the Schengen zone, and over half a million requested asylum, petitioning a European government for refugee status. The International Organization for Migration expects that over 3 million migrants will try to enter Europe this year. The last time such movement happened on such scale was some 70 years ago, when the continent—the world—had just torn itself to pieces.