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.
* * *
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.
In France, refugees are too often the implicit scapegoat of a uniquely French crisis. The country has suffered three major terrorist attacks in two years; Marine Le Pen’s far-right party remains atop election polls; mayors are banning burkinis. The best-seller shelf in French bookstores is flooded with the likes of Eric Zemour’s polemic The French Suicide and Michel Houellebecq’s not-quite-satirical Submission. Laïcité, the French term for separation of church and state, is today the center of fraught debate, with critics claiming it discriminates against Muslims—no veil in schools, for example—and defenders insisting that it keeps France secular and equal.
It is a familiar theme. Across Europe and America, the left’s answer to a decade of mass migration and displacement has been multiculturalism. Let refugees import and preserve their culture; let us adapt to and tolerate difference. The right has responded with demands for nationalism and assimilation. Make refugees learn and adopt our culture; let us remain unchanged. But on both left and right, especially in France, the premise is the same: Refugees rarely integrate. They learn shoddy French and remain either hostile to or ignorant of French culture.
As a result, we often read a narrative of France’s and the West’s crisis as one of cultural disintegration—a clash of civilizations. In the press, we see refugees flooding shorelines and wandering the squalid “Jungle” at Calais. But at Claver, we see a more common truth: refugees who want to adopt their new nationality, and French people eager to help them do it.
Eight years ago, before Europe’s migrant crisis and before the populist shock that today surges through Western politics, a French philosopher named Ayyam Sureau began to envision a different way to welcome a refugee. She wondered if it would be possible to create a model for integration based neither on uncompromising French Republicanism nor strident multiculturalism, a model which might, in today’s polarized politics, seem impossible: accept refugees as they are, but make them French, too.
* * *
I came to Association Pierre Claver as a volunteer. I had taken a semester off from university and had heard about the school from a friend. I ended up spending six months there, volunteering and teaching. My first day, I walked through the large royal-blue doors and nearly toppled over a group of 30 refugees who were circled up, stretching. It was Saturday morning—running time.
Claver’s running coach, a growling Frenchman named Alban, stood outside the circle in a sharp brown jacket, a T-shirt, and tight black sports leggings. He smoked, sipped a Nespresso, and barked, “OK, runners, listen up! Regular route. And stick together. Push each other.” He pointed to the team captain, an Afghan in a sleeveless black running shirt, mid-30, built stocky like a baseball catcher, with a goofy child’s cackle and a twinkle in his eye. “Rahman, lead us out.”
I got to know Rahman well during my time at Claver. He lives with his wife, also from Afghanistan, and two children—both born in France. He speaks fluent French. Rahman is Pierre Claver’s success story, a refugee poster-boy.
He insists I would not recognize the Rahman who arrived in Paris eight years ago. “J’étais sauvage,” he says. He clarifies: As he uses it, sauvage means shy, uncivilized, where civilized means “to be civil,” to interact in the public realm of his new nation.
He grew up a shepherd in a village in the mountains of northern Afghanistan. He tended to 80 sheep and one donkey, and carried a rifle. He never went to school—not one day—and never thought much of that fact. In a short essay he wrote for himself about his life, he says:
I see myself there: I’m sitting under a tree, playing the flute for my sheep. The wind blows gently and my hair, as though it heard my music, sneaks out from under my Taqa (shepherd’s hat) to dance in the air.
When he was 22, he got into some trouble with the local Taliban and had to flee Afghanistan.
I arrive in France in August 2008, after traversing Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Italy, after a voyage full of dangers, adventures, and hardships! On foot, running, by train, in the trunks of cars, in trucks, crammed in with hundreds of other people packed tight like sardines, or hidden under those hundreds to get across the Greco-Italian border. This dream or nightmare lasts six months.
I met many students at Claver who have taken similar paths. They were pinballed around, nudged and shuttled and chased through Europe. They tended to see movement as linear: You start someplace and end someplace else. And more often than not—like Rahman—you move fast. You run. Massoud, a suave Iranian with a dry sense of humor, bitterly remembers one Greek policeman chasing him full-throttle through a camp. He croons the policeman’s words in French, lengthening his o’s into a bloodcurdling howl: coooours, coooours encore. Run, keep running.
But when Rahman arrived in Paris, he decided to stay. He spoke neither French nor English; only Dari with a thick village accent. But he wanted “a place where equality prevails,” and here seemed good enough. He was also tired, and wanted to stop moving. Some Afghans hanging around the train station told him to go request asylum. He got on the metro. Somehow—he’s not quite sure—he found Ayyam Sureau.
* * *
Ayyam Sureau, the founder and director of Pierre Claver, keeps a quotation pinned above her bathroom mirror. She reads it each morning as she puts her makeup on.
“If a human being loses his political status… [he] has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man.”
The line is from Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. In a chapter on refugees, Arendt—who was herself in exile—warns us of the “abstract nakedness of being human.” She cites Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke argued that the Revolution’s emphasis on natural rights—what we today call “human rights”—was dangerous. What counts is not natural right, but “a right to belong to some kind of organized community”: a state. Arendt says that refugees, who retain their natural but not their national rights, are “deprived, not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion.” Deprived, in other words, of a civic space. Burke called these national rights “entailed inheritance.”
Ayyam wants to solve Arendt’s problem in 21st century Paris: to offer refugees the tools—the entailed inheritance—to be treated as fellow man.
Ayyam herself is not a French citizen. Born in New York to an Egyptian family, she came to France 33 years ago. When French newspapers profile Claver, they make a big deal of her decision not to take French nationality. To which she simply responds: “More French than I, and you’d die.”
And indeed, she appears right at home her Haussmanian apartment where she and her husband François—both in their 50s—live with two of their three children, one block from Pierre Claver. When I interview her in October, we sit on deep-red velvet armchairs that surround old dark-wood tables in her living room. Ayyam holds herself in perfect posture, tall and slender. Her dress is impeccable. She wears a long black skirt, a flowing gray chemise with a single black stripe running down the middle, a dark-brown leather belt, and black leather boots: just a touch severe. Her voice, slightly different for each of the three languages she speaks—English, French, Arabic—is always rich and throaty with cigarette.
French as she is, though, Ayyam still insists on her foreignness. “I am very foreign. I enjoy my place… A very French way is to be foreign.” In university, she studied the ethics of encounter—a particularly French area of philosophy. “The whole grace of an encounter,” she explains, occurs when you interact with someone “without either imposing yourself on [him] or being crushed by who he is. By creating something dynamic between you both.” Her life mirrors her studies: one long, graceful cultural encounter. She is both French and foreign; neither element is crushed. It’s her kind of Frenchness—a Frenchness beyond nationality, independent of documents—that Pierre Claver tries to give its students.
* * *
In a sense, Ayyam founded Claver by accident. In 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed through a law making it more difficult to petition for refugee status in France. Asylum-seekers rejected by the French refugee agency (OFPRA) had only 30 days to appeal the decision in court. “For a foreigner!” she exclaims. “Someone who does not speak a word of French, without resources, legally lost—is is as though you were saying, ‘there is no appeal.’ ” She decided to create an organization to provide aid to asylum-seekers.
Claver’s name and symbol were also accidents. When Ayyam decided to found the school, her husband François was reading the journals of Pierre Claver, a 17th-century monk who aided slaves in Spanish colonies, and who is today the patron saint of slaves. She used Claver’s name because of a passage he wrote about a donkey:
Every time I do not behave like a donkey, it is the worse for me. How does a donkey behave? If it is slandered, it keeps silent; if it is not fed, it keeps silent; if it is forgotten, it keeps silent; it never complains…. That is how the servant of God must be.
Ayyam says that when she explains this choice, everyone misinterprets the symbolism. They think the donkey is the refugee. The donkey is the school.
Back in 2008, Pierre Claver had just four students. Rahman was one of them. He remembers noticing Claver’s symbol—the donkey. It reminded him of the one he guarded in Afghanistan. He came to class every day but didn’t like to talk and didn’t know how to act.
At the prefecture, I speak sign language. I make signs with my hands. The only thing I can say is, “Hello.” … I start to learn French. I, who don’t even know how to hold a pen, how will I learn, how will I write?
He went to OFPRA (the Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons) with François, Ayyam’s husband. It helps to have François on your side. He used to serve as a judge on the French court for asylum-seekers. “I lucked out,” Rahman says with a sheepish grin.
And yet OFPRA still denied his request for asylum. The interviewer didn’t believe his story. He thought Rahman might not even be Afghan. It had taken 11 months for OFPRA to issue the rejection; it would be another six before he could appeal his case to the court. In the interim, he was not allowed to work.
This didn’t bother him. He had a language to learn and could get by on €300 in welfare aid per month. Every day, he went to class at Claver. Then he went to the Pompidou library and watched French movies on its public computers. He preferred action films—Bruce Lee, he says. He binge-watched 24. Every time a character said something, he paused the film, copied down the subtitles, and looked up each word.
His dream, he says, was to be “just a normal person.” He clarifies: “French.” In a radio interview with France Inter this year, he says that “When I became a refugee in France, I didn’t know where my nation was. We don’t know. I couldn’t go back to Afghanistan, I wasn’t French. And so: Who am I?”
By 2009, Claver had nearly 100 students and dozens of teacher-volunteers—far too big for the church basement they occupied at the time. Ayyam began searching for a proper home for her school.
She scoured the fringes of Paris, where space would be cheap and where, she supposed, folks would be less snooty. She tried neighborhood after neighborhood. Each time, she found an ideal space. Each time, she nearly signed a contract. And each time, the owner backed out when he discovered she ran a school for refugees. These “fringes” were gentrifying—no one wanted trouble. Despairing, Ayyam happened to walk down Rue de Bourgogne one afternoon on her way home. She noticed a small hôtel particulier that she passed all the time. “I knew it by heart. And—shit!—it was for sale.” She bought it.
Almost immediately, she knew she’d made a good choice. The seventh, with its haute-bourgeois allure, is what refugees imagine Paris to be. “What we believe is that, when you have guests, foreign people who have just arrived from travel, you bring your best things out.”
* * *
The unfortunate side effect of offering only the best is that Claver must remain small. Ayyam takes no more than 150 refugees each semester—which means only 40 new students each fall and spring. To win a spot, refugees line up twice a year—September 15 and February 15—outside of the great blue doors. When Surreau arrived at Claver on enlistment day this past September, her mouth dropped. A line of 750 refugees stretched back to the Place du Palais Bourbon, all the way to the National Assembly. Claver, her husband joked, “has become the hottest school in Paris.”
Ayyam interviews each aspiring student. (Former Claver students act as translators.) There are two prerequisites: Students must be refugees or asylum-seekers, and they must be adults—minors go to public school. Beyond that, she searches for intangibles. She wants “ambassadors”: people who, 10 years down the line, will open their own associations and run their own businesses. “Active citizens,” she says, recalling Arendt. “That would be very important in France. Because there are very few people to embody [refugees’] presence, politically.”
The refugees who queue up for admission think of Pierre Claver as a place to learn French. To Ayyam, this is a mistake. She frequently notes an “urgency” in her classes: As soon as students obtain refugee status, they want to learn just enough French to get by, and then find work. She understands the urge. But she also knows that in order to regain Arendt’s “political status,” one cannot rush through language. She wants her students to slow down a bit. “Pierre Claver is not a language school,” she tells each class at the beginning of the semester.
Ayyam’s philosophy is manifest in her teaching style. Every Friday, she leads a class of beginners through a review of the grammar they’ve learned that week. There are four classrooms at Pierre Claver. Fridays, Ayyam teaches in Room C. The room is small and dark, draped in warm, heavy colors: deep-red curtains; red patterned oriental poufs for chairs; two thin, pitch-black wood tables for desks. The first time I observe her class, there are five students. Friday is the only optional class of the week. Normally, attendance is mandatory. There are no grades at Pierre Claver, but there is a single strict rule: If you miss three classes unexcused, don’t bother coming back. No matter, says Ayyam. Five students are enough. She writes the endings of the past imperfect tense on a whiteboard: ais, ais, ait, iez, ions, aient.
She turns to face the class and her eyes narrow. I want you to recognize that sound, she says. Ais. When you hear it, you should feel sad. Someone is telling you about something that once was, but no longer is. She pauses, searches for a good example, one that will sting a little. “J’habitais en Afghanistan,” she says. “I used to live in Afghanistan.” Three students nod, but two still don’t get it. Ayyam tries another, and this time everyone understands: “The Twin Towers were beautiful.”
* * *
A week after the terrorist attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, someone defaced and destroyed Claver’s blue doors. The attackers left the rest of the school untouched. Ayyam suspects a French person attacked the doors “as a sign of disagreement” with Claver’s model (and its members). “It wasn’t a threat,” she remembers. “But it caused a lot of pain because it was done to cause pain. A single message.”
As late as 2014, she says, the anti-Muslim sentiment that today chars so much of French politics simply “was not there.” But the Hebdo attacks, and the November 13 massacre 11 months later, changed everything. To heed Arendt’s words, Claver couldn’t teach French culture at a remove. They had to tackle French politics head-on.
One time this fall, a moody Syrian asked Ayyam whether one of his French-culture classes was “obligatory.” She didn’t sleep that night from anger. The next day, she pulled the student over. She took a blank piece of paper and drew a circle: Claver. Inside, she wrote little labels for all the activities at the school: French classes, drawing class, coffee and tea, history class, poetry class, running, evening concerts.
As she wrote, she told him, “Right now, France is in a crisis toward the foreigners. A very huge crisis. They think that you guys are coming to France only to come and get social services, social aid, take whatever you want to take from it, and not participate in anything. You’re not going to respect the laws, or the manners, or take part in the creation of the common project called France. So nothing is obligatory—but that’s exactly what people are hating you for. They are hating you because you are asking, ‘is this obligatory?’ ”
“And this school”—Ayyam pounds her hand on the table with every word—“is about not being hated here.”
* * *
One Friday in March, François Sureau marches through Claver’s blue doors with a canvas army backpack, belting French military tunes. François is, by his own definition, “of a time gone by.” He wears only suits, unless he’s going hiking, in which case khaki army pants, a blue button-down shirt, a light beige vest, and a cravat. The tips of his fingers are always charred black with the pipe tobacco he carries in a brown leather pouch in his breast pocket. And he has an astounding memory: songs, poetry, long passages of prose, the furthest depths of French history. The students at Claver see François as the Franc. “When he speaks,” one student told me, “you feel France.”
Every year, François leads 30 students and teachers at Pierre Claver on a weekend to walk to the Cathedral of Chartres, some 80 kilometers outside of Paris. The pilgrimage to Chartres is a Catholic tradition that dates back to before the town’s cathedral was built in 1193. The weekend before Easter—the weekend Claver makes the trek—is one of the most popular times to go.
François is well aware that the scene he and Ayyam have created here is a strange one. Thirty Muslim refugees taken on a Catholic march by their French school—by François, the Franc, himself a practicing Catholic—to mark the Holy Week.
I ask François if there’s anything to be made of this. He shakes his head. For our group, this trip has nothing to do with religion, he says. This is Claver camping for a night on our way to a beautiful cathedral that everyone ought to see. Plus, he adds, letting the main point seem like an aside, walking long distances builds solidarity. François served in the Foreign Legion.
It’s certainly true that none of the refugees seems concerned with any religious subtext. As we plod through vast stretches of pancake-flat fields (“What a shitty landscape,” François remarks), spirits are high. François bellows round after round of patriotic French songs, and some students join in. That afternoon, we stop in a town square and splay our aching legs out on the grass. The wind blows gently. Rahman sits under a tree and plays his flute.
Sunday, we reach Chartres. Ayyam, Alban, and a host of other teachers arrive by bus minutes later. Everyone gazes up at the cathedral’s imposing facade. The other groups begin to stream into the cathedral for afternoon mass. We go in, too. François, in his element, circles us and gives a history lesson. He points out the cathedral’s famous blue stained glass. He talks about Chartres’s principal relic, the tunic Mary wore when she birthed Jesus. He also points out some common features—the cross-like structure, the altar. Ayyam reminds me that many of the students have never been inside a cathedral.
Listening to François, it becomes clear that this is not just some hike through the French countryside. It is very much a pilgrimage; a way to show refugees a crucial piece of their new country’s history. Bernd, a kind-faced man with a delicate smile who teaches poetry at Claver and whose mind seems to always be somewhere yours hasn’t quite reached, put it to me bluntly: “We’re creating a school of French civiliz…”—he cuts off, searching for the more appropriate formulation—“A school of the French way.”
* * *
During the semester I spend at Claver, there is one class that every single student and teacher must attend. The class is taught by Didier Casas, a friend of François’s and a former member of the Conseil d’Etat (equivalent to the US Supreme Court). Over the course of four evenings during the spring, he delivers a sweeping history of laïcitié, the now hotly debated term for France’s separation of church and state.
Claver itself is strictly laïque, but not for the reason public schools are. Ayyam explains, “I wouldn’t want anyone to believe that we are forced by the French government. We are not, we carry those rules within us. We don’t give a shit what the French government wants or doesn’t want, it’s going to be that way because we believe in that—that life is much better if you protect public space from religions. That’s all. It’s the French way.”
Students at Claver tend not to mind this policy at all. “In laïcité, everyone respects everyone without knowing their religion. And it’s marvelous,” one remarks to me. But when Casas opens the floor to questions about laïcité in French society, some begin to push him. One asks: Religion can’t be present at schools; why, then, can parents ask for a chaplain who offers an optional class on school premises? Casas wavers; laïcité isn’t as steadfast as it sounds on paper. He responds:
“There’s also something that I call the ‘principle of reality.’ It means: depends on the neighborhood. Very simply. I mean, it’s not very systematic, but that’s nevertheless the truth.”
Students latch onto this “principle of reality.” Can one be excused from school for religious holidays? “Depends on the neighborhood!” a student yells. And what about serving halal food in school lunches? More calls of “It depends! Principle of reality!” ring out.
* * *
Sitting on a bench in the courtyard at Claver, I ask Rahman if he thinks he’s changed since arriving in France. He picks up his iPhone and puts it face-down on the metal table. “Before,” he says, “I was like that.” “Now”—he flips the phone over, face-up—“I’m like this. I’m open, I give advice. Often, when one comes from a country that has been at war ever since one was born, one thinks in a negative fashion. In France, that way of thinking has to change. I try as hard as I can to be French.”
He’s spent eight years in France. Things are going well. He was finally granted refugee status in 2011. With Claver’s help, he got a degree in mechanics and a driver’s license. He brought his wife over from Afghanistan. He writes:
Today I no longer learn irregular verb conjugations or complicated tenses…. I learn French songs, I take classes on politics and theater. I go on field trips the school organizes.
He also teaches. For the first time, Claver is offering a class for “Alphas.” These are students like Rahman; Afghans who don’t yet know the Roman alphabet. Ayyam hopes that “les Alphas” will become a new generation of Claveriens. And indeed: Early in the semester, Rahman makes an announcement in Dari. He’s recruiting runners. Saturday morning, he says. Meet in the courtyard.
A few weeks later, he recruits me, too. I join the team for the “regular route,” a 10-kilometer loop through central Paris. I try to imagine the scene from high above: 30 refugees racing through Paris, tearing past the Louvre and Notre Dame and along Boulevard Saint-Germain and through windy side streets with little cafés, pounding through Place du Palais-Bourbon.
The run ends where it began, in Claver’s courtyard. Alban, the coach, stands next to one of the benches, talking to Ayyam. She asks me how the run was. Good, I say. Hard. She laughs; most of these refugees aren’t used to running for leisure, she says.
I remember Rahman and Massoud: Run, keep running. On their journeys, refugees run from—or are run out of—place after place. Running means being unsettled. But in Paris—at Claver—refugees run loops. They start someplace and end in that very same spot. Rahman does not run through Paris so much as he runs in it (or, as Parisians say, sur Paris: on Paris). This is the Claver model: Take the refugee journey and transpose it, graft it onto a new life. Here, to run is no longer to traverse alone. It is to declare a desire—an ability—to stay in one place together.
A week or so after the last laïcité lecture, Rahman walks into the courtyard with a larger grin than usual. Without saying a word, he walks over to Ayyam and hands her an opened envelope. “What is it?” She asks. “Read it!” he says. She opens and reads. Then she too grins wide and pulls him into a tight hug. I peek at the letter and see the official watermark of the Republique. Rahman is now a French citizen.
* * *
In October, I return to Pierre Claver for a final interview with Ayyam and François. The three of us scrunch around a table in a small Vietnamese restaurant. I ask what impact they hope Claver will have on its students. Ayyam and François respond in dialogue. Slowly, they turn away from me completely, and speak directly to one another, still inventing the school together.
Ayyam: I think if we were to say it truthfully, we’re working for their children. There is absolutely nothing we can do—I know that—for a foreigner who has come as an adult from a foreign country to make him happy. There is no way in the world this is going to happen. You can make him less sad, less sorry, less bitter, but you can positively help him make his children happy. Of that I am sure. I’ll take this as a principle in marble.
François: It’s really true, that’s really it….
Ayyam: You know, that whole hullabaloo about French values, the Eiffel tower, the beauty of France… that hurts. No country is ever more beautiful than your own. That is a fact. And I think that this is important, and maybe this is very specific to Claver, is that we completely acknowledge and know the pain of exile.
François: This is a school of exile.
Ayyam: Voilà. And I think that this makes it a very human place.
Listening silently, I realize that, philosophy aside, Claver is simply pragmatic. It is a place where refugees can meet and model their new nation—and where the nation can meet and model its refugees. It is not about becoming French; it is about learning to live in France.
The day he became a French citizen, Rahman wrote the end of the piece he’d written for himself, and from which I’ve been quoting, in clear and beautiful French:
Today, I became a French citizen. I have two children, Youssef and, this past June, Rukhshana. They were both born in France. Youssef will start school next year. I hope that they will speak French just as well as they do Dari; that they will study in university; that they will treasure the value of liberty; and that they will have a heart big enough to love two countries.