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This is a typical school day for migrant children stranded in Calais

A recently opened classroom in the migrant camp has brought a sense of normalcy to dozens of children who have endured grueling journeys to Europe.
Pierre Longeray
Paris, FR
Foto di Pierre Longeray/VICE News

For most school-age children in France, June means the end of the school year and the start of the summer. But for students at the Jules Ferry migrant shelter, in the northern French port city of Calais, the academic year has just begun.

The classroom is a double-wide prefab unit nestled in the area of the refugee camp that is reserved for women and children, a stone's throw from the Lande camp, often referred to as "the Jungle." About 50 students from all over the world have been attending school here since May 23. On Tuesday, a dozen children — many of them from Eritrea and Sudan — were in attendance.


School starts at 11am because migrants and their children are often up all night, on the lookout for opportunities to reach the UK. Some of them turn to smugglers to leave the country; others risk their lives trying to storm UK-bound vehicles.

"And what's this?" Constance, a teacher in her 30s, asks her students as she points to a poster covered in drawings of animals. "In English, it's called 'a monkey.'"

Constance and her 51-year-old colleague Sylvain — both of them government employees — share the responsibility of teaching in the multilingual classroom.

"Un singe," the children say in unison.

The teachers try to stick to French, but sometimes revert to English when the children don't understand something. Many of the children, explains Syvlain, have picked up English in the camps.

Every school day begins with a roll call. The children, most of who are aged between 6 and 12, introduce themselves one by one to their classmates. "My name is Idris*, I'm from Eritrea, I am eight, I am a boy," announces a small child with a wide grin.

Next, the teachers introduce themselves. "My name is Constance, and I am a tiger," says the teacher. The students look at each other, confused. Eventually, with a little prompting from Sylvain, they correct her: "No! She's a girl."

In one exercise, students are asked to say whether statements projected onto a wall are true or false. (Photo by Pierre Longeray/VICE News)

After barely three weeks of lessons lasting from 11am to 3:30pm five days a week, many of the kids have made remarkable progress, says Stéphane Duval, who runs the Jules Ferry center and has been nicknamed "Big Boss" by the migrants. Sylvain, meanwhile, calls the children "sponges" for their ability to pick up French and other languages; after traveling through Greece on their journeys into Europe, some of the kids now speak Greek to each other.


"Adam, calm down," Constance tells one little boy who can't sit still during the French lesson.

"The idea is to treat them like regular students, despite the trauma they have experienced," she later explains. "Everyone is dealt with in the same way, including when it pertains to their behavior. It allows us to introduce some normalcy into a situation that is anything but normal."

Going back to school gives the children a framework and a rhythm — something they have sorely lacked since the start of their journey. One educator says that while children often played outside all night and slept during the day, classes have started to normalize their daily lives.

A child's workbook at the school. (Photo by Pierre Longeray/VICE News)

After an hour of French and math, the students move into an adjacent room for a different kind of exercise. Sentences in French are projected onto the wall, and the kids have to decide whether the statements are true or false. The words "Christine is in the classroom" appear in white letters on a blue background.

Christine, a schools inspector, observes the lesson from the back of the classroom. Some of the kids have a hard time telling apart the word dans [in] from danse [dance]. To help them understand, Christine gets up on her feet and starts dancing with Sophia, a 12-year-old student from Eritrea. Sylvain accompanies them on the flute, playing a popular French children's song.

Clothing hangs to dry on lines outside the children's school. (Photo by Pierre Longeray/VICE News)

The atmosphere is relaxed, and while they are in the classroom, the children appear relatively carefree. But reality is never totally forgotten. When some journalists from a French television channel set up their cameras to film the students, many of the children pulled their hoods up and requested not to be filmed.


Like their parents, the children are very guarded when it comes to their identity. In order to be granted asylum in another country, the authorities must have no visual proof that they have set foot in France. "In the classroom, we only ask them their first names, not their last names," Sylvain says.

At 12:30, Constance tells the children it's time to break for lunch. Some of the children seem disappointed at having to leave the classroom. While the students go back to their mothers in the women-only area of the camp, the teachers join the other Vie Active educators in the teachers' lounge.

Here, they discuss a variety of subjects, from providing formula to a new mother in the camp, to the difficulties of evaluating student progress and creating educational programs that are adapted to this unique classroom setting.

"For me, it's like teaching a big family, some [children] progress faster than others," Sylvain explains. "It's likely that some of the older [kids] will be able to help some of the younger ones, but for now, they want to learn for themselves, which is only natural."

Even children are careful to conceal their identities when cameras are around. (Photo by Pierre Longeray/VICE News)

At about 1:30pm, the children return to the classroom. Two 14-year-old unaccompanied Afghan minors join them. Unlike the others, who are staying with their mothers at the Jules Ferry center, the two boys live in the container camp that opened in January after the partial evacuation of the Lande camp.

"Usually there are more teenagers," Sylvain says. It's more complicated for teenagers to access the classroom, since they have to be accompanied by an educator in order to enter the women-and-children-only section of the camp.


Today is the Fête de la Musique — France's annual all-day music celebration — and the sound of drums floats into the classroom. Sylvain reads a sentence in English that the children must then translate into French. "An apple is a fruit," says the teacher. The students concentrate on the task at hand. "Yes!" yells one boy triumphantly when he figures out the answer.

Next is a math exercise. The two Afghan teens are quick to solve the problem, and are called up to the blackboard to explain the exercise to the others. It is their second day in the classroom.

The classroom is situated in the women-only area of the Jules Ferry migrant shelter, in Calais. (Photo by Pierre Longeray/VICE News)

At 3:30pm, the school day comes to an end. Some of the children hang out for a bit in the classroom while the teachers relax.

"I have to admit, it is physically exhausting — you have to be on the ball constantly to keep them engaged," Constance says. "That's why we give them little moments of distraction, like when we sing and dance…. The most important thing is to have a small core like the one we had today. It allows us to better integrate the newcomers in the classroom."

No one at the Jules Ferry center refers to the facility as a school — instead, they always call it a classroom. They know that, like the center itself, a classroom is a transient space in the midst of a longer journey.

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray

*Students' names have been changed.

This article originally appeared on VICE News France.