Paris schools prepare to receive refugee children from Ukraine

The number of Ukrainian refugees arriving on French soil has tripled in the past week. For those who plan to stay, Paris draws up a special scheme for integrating Ukrainian refugee children into the French school system.

“One day, the mother came with her baby. She was so small that she looked like a newborn. [The mum] You will not stop crying. It broke my heart,” said Odette, who is responsible for school care at the École Polyvalente Eva Cuchevere, a kindergarten and primary school in the 18th arrondissement (area) in Paris.

Odette was on vacation when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, and only found out about the news upon her return. “I got a phone call on Saturday morning from the school. They informed me of what was happening and told me we had become sort of an emergency reception center,” she explains.

The school has been welcoming refugee families since March 10, offering them some relief after long and exhausting journeys to escape the horrors of war in Ukraine, where their men of fighting age still defend their homeland.

Most arrive from a nearby reception center set up on March 3 for Ukrainian refugees by France Terre d’Asile, a non-governmental organization that helps asylum seekers. There, they can get a meal, start the asylum procedure, find temporary accommodation and consult a doctor, from 9 am to 6 pm. With only one common play area for the children, many refugee parents (mostly mothers) struggle to deal with administrative procedures while having to take care of their young children. The school was called by City Hall to help, freeing up three classrooms and a pile of games to offer relief.

“For now, this is the best we can do.” After past the school’s glass doors, the teacher walks through a short corridor with the reception desk on the left. Odette is the first point of contact and asks visitors to sign in with their information before entering the halls of the Polyvalente Eva Kochevere School. To the right of the corridor, a concrete wall is decorated with children’s drawings, and the blue and yellow arrows of the Ukrainian flag indicate the way to the first floor. “Most families and children don’t speak French, so we put arrows to guide them to the designated classroom,” Odette says.

Families are never left unaccompanied. They are escorted from the adjacent reception center by City Hall Facilitators who work for organizations such as DASCO (“Direction of School Affairs” or “Direction of School Affairs”), and are responsible for welcoming new pupils throughout Paris. “Right now, we are just helping and providing our classes to the kids so that their parents can do what they need to do,” says Kristin Serra, the school principal. “Teachers don’t really communicate with the children. Things are still completely separate at the moment. The children are not integrated into the French classroom, they do not interact with the pupils.”

School children made drawings to welcome Ukrainian refugees. © Lara Bullens, JowharBlue and yellow arrows guide the way to classes for Ukrainian children and their parents. © Lara Bullens, France 24 On the second floor, a classroom converted into a nursery by three facilitators. They are helping two Ukrainian mothers, one fast asleep on a mattress and the other on her phone to entertain and care for their children. Marilyn Mallard, a former nursery aide who volunteers as a facilitator, points to the sleeping woman. “We are taking care of her son while she gets some rest. They arrived at 10 am this morning and she has not slept until God knows how long.” Her son kicks a soccer ball and plays with 10-year-old Evan, who has already picked up some French words in a few hours. Ivan’s little sister, who is only a few months old, is shaken in the arms of an interpreter. “We never separate siblings,” she smiles, keeping her identity anonymous for fear of what might happen if she returns home to Russia.

Meanwhile, Paris Deputy Mayor for Education Patrick Bloch, who works with the local Board of Education to provide education for Ukrainian refugee children, visited the principal’s office to see how things were going with emergency reception classes. Probably try to put Ukrainian children into schools with UPE2A units [programmes to help accommodate non-French speaking foreign children]Sera explains. 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 get free scolaires in canteens. Les PMI et al suggest counseling psychology to help children and care for families. # Stand with Ukraine pic.twitter.com/ENuAca3EzR

– Patrick Bloche (@pbloche) March 2, 2022 “Paris will receive in its nurseries and schools all the children of refugee families from Ukraine. They will have free access to school canteens. Mother and Child Protection Services will provide counseling and psychological support to the children and their families.” “We will see how it goes,” Serra says. “Of course, if we can help in any way we can to integrate the children into our school, we will. But for now, it’s the best we can do, and it doesn’t cost us much effort.”

First steps towards a French education The number of refugees fleeing Ukraine and arriving in France has tripled in the past week. Border police have taken control of about 13,500 displaced people and are now on French soil, according to French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

We can now accommodate up to 100,000 refugees on the national territory. The state and local authorities have made great efforts. We continue to work on scenarios where we can absorb more [people]Darmanin explained at a press conference on Monday.

Some pass on their way to other countries, and some are here to stay. According to French Housing Minister Emmanuel Wargon, about 4,600 refugees have been provided with housing so far. While the majority have just arrived, 650 Ukrainian children are already enrolled in French schools, Marilyn Schiappa said in an interview with French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.

Work is still underway to complete a larger “plan d’accueil école” (plan d’accueil école) for Ukrainian refugees aged 3-18. At the moment, schools with UPE2A units are those that welcome the first Ukrainian refugee pupils, allowing to break through the language barrier. The Ministries of Interior and Education will direct parents to OEPRE workshops, which aim to facilitate their integration through French language courses and help them better understand the school system so that they can support their children.

The Paris City Board of Education also opened a “crisis unit” in Ukraine to help refugee parents with the school enrollment process. The council also provided teachers with an online brochure explaining how to welcome students who have experienced trauma.

The ultimate goal is “to get refugee children into school,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer stated in a tweet. For Odette, it’s important to take it slow. “Speaking to some of the children, I see that many are frightened and a bit frightened. This is a safe space for them, they do not hear the daily sirens. It is peaceful.” Perhaps in the near future Polvalente Eva Kotchever school will be able to decipher the blue and yellow arrows guiding refugee children Ukrainians to their classrooms.


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