With Home-Cooked Meals, France Warms To Mideast Migrants

Sep 13, 2015
Originally published on September 13, 2015 2:46 pm

Several dozen migrants, including mothers holding babies, relax in the sun at outdoor picnic tables at a retreat facility near the town of Cergy-Pontoise. The vacation center, about an hour north of Paris in a bucolic lake setting, usually hosts school groups or corporate workers. But for the next few months it will be home to about 200 people who have fled war in Syria and Iraq.

Omram Qassar is one of them. His parents pushed the 23-year-old and his younger brother to leave Syria before they were conscripted into President Bashar Assad's army. Qassar says French officials approached him as he arrived at a refugee camp in Munich and convinced him to change destinations.

"They told me I could get a resident permit in about two months and a permanent resident card shortly after," says Qassar. "The head of the French refugee office himself convinced me to come to France."

President Francois Hollande pledged to take in an additional 24,000 refugees over the next two years. Hollande said taking them in was France's duty. He said the right to asylum was part of the French soul, and that generations have sought asylum in France and helped make the country what it is today.

Qassar says he hadn't necessarily been thinking of coming to France. He heard the country has 6 million unemployed, and says that among the traveling migrants, asylum conditions in France are seen as less favorable than places like Sweden or Germany.

But Qassar says there are so many migrants in Germany that he's glad he is now in France, and that the accommodations are better than he expected. The migrants are served three home-cooked meals a day in a cafeteria on the site.

"We've had a huge outpouring among locals, wondering how they can help," says Sylvain Desmets, who runs the vacation center near Cergy-Pontoise. "And next weekend we're planning a giant, community picnic so the migrants' children can meet the local children and play together."

Though far-right figures such as Marine Le Pen have called on France to close its borders, mayors from a dozen French cities have agreed to accept refugees. And an Airbnb-type system connecting migrants with French hosts has been a big success. The warm welcome is somewhat of a turnaround for a country that recently wanted to close its border with Italy and has added more police to control migrants in the northern port city of Calais.

A spirit of solidarity with the migrants seems to be growing in Western Europe. Scenes of Germans welcoming migrants with flowers and cheers impressed the French.

Donia Alkayar and a friend volunteered to serve as interpreters for the new migrants. Alkayar and her family arrived in France from Iraq seven years ago. Now 21 years old, she says life is good, but it's never really like home. In Iraq, her father was a university math professor; in France, he drives a taxi. She says the new emigrants will find their way too, but she'll tell them it's going to take time.

"It's very difficult because it's not the same civilization, or the same traditions," she says.

Qassar says his parents are overjoyed that he and his brother made it to Europe, but they were surprised the boys ended up in France. Equipped with a bachelor's degree in economics, Qassar says he's anxious to get started in his new life and "merge into French society," he says.

Of course he knows he'll first have to learn French. The government is giving the migrants French classes, and Qassar reckons he can get a handle on the language in four to five months. Then, he says, he'll be "as productive as any French citizen."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

While there is resentment against the surge of refugees in some countries, yesterday, in cities across Europe, thousands rallied in support of those fleeing the violence in the Middle East. France is one of the countries that has opened its doors. President Francois Hollande has said his country will take in 24,000 refugees over the next two years - that's the number proposed by the European Union. Thousands have already begun arriving, straight from Germany, where the French government has sent buses to pick them up. That's where NPR's Eleanor Beardsley picks up the story.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: France, like the rest the world, was shocked by the now iconic photo of a neatly dressed tiny boy lying facedown on a Turkish beach. A grave-looking President Hollande said it was his country's duty to take more migrants in.

FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (Through interpreter) The right to asylum is part of the French soul, part of our very being. History compels us to take responsibility and respond with humanity because of the generations who have sought asylum in our nation and helped build France.

BEARDSLEY: Within a matter of days, migrants like 23-year-old Omran Qassar, had arrived in France. Qassar's parents pushed him and his younger brother to flee Syria before they were forced to fight in President Bashar al-Assad's army. Qassar says the French officials approached him as he arrived in a Munich refugee camp and convinced him to change destinations.

OMRAN QASSAR: They told me that I could get the resident permit in about two month. The chief of the refugees office in France, he himself told me and convinced me to come here to France.

BEARDSLEY: Qassar says he wasn't thinking of coming to France because they heard the country has high unemployment. He says among the traveling migrants, asylum conditions in France are seen as less favorable than, for example, in Sweden or Germany. Qassar and dozens of migrants relax at picnic tables at a retreat facility where they're being housed. It's in a bucolic setting, about an hour north of Paris, in a town called Cergy-Pontoise. Qassar says the accommodation is better than he expected and they get three home-cooked meals a day. Sylvain Desmets runs the vacation center.

SYLVAIN DESMETS: (Through interpreter) We've had an outpouring of support from people asking how they can help. And we're planning a giant community picnic next week so the migrants' kids can play with the local kids.

BEARDSLEY: Though far-right figures such as Marine Le Pen have called on France to close its borders, mayors from a dozen French cities have agreed to accept refugees and an Airbnb-type system connecting migrants with French hosts has been a big success. The warm welcome is somewhat of a turnaround for a country that recently wanted to close its border with Italy and has added more police to control migrants in the northern port city of Calais. It should also be noted that scenes of Germans welcoming migrants with flowers and cheers impressed the French.

DONIA ALKAYAR: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Twenty-one-year-old Donia Alkayar and a friend volunteered to serve as interpreters for the new migrants. Alkayar and her family arrived in France from Iraq seven years ago. She says life is good, but it's never really like home. In Iraq, her father was a university math professor. In France, he drives a taxi. She says the new immigrants will find their way, too, but she'll tell them it's going to take time.

ALKAYAR: It's very difficult because it's not the same civilization, traditions. It's not the same.

BEARDSLEY: Armed with a bachelor's degree in economics, Qassar is anxious to get started in his new life in France and, as he says, merge into society.

QASSAR: First of all, I have to learn French and just be as productive as any French citizen.

BEARDSLEY: Exuding an air of youthful confidence, Qassar says he figures it'll take him four to five months to get a handle on the language. He starts French classes tomorrow. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Cergy-Pontoise, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.