March 15, 2016 / 3:24 PM / in 2 years

"My life is safe now," refugee students say at elite Paris university

PARIS (Reuters) - Twenty-seven year old Minawar Ahmadzai slept in a park during his first few weeks in Paris. Three months on, the Afghani asylum-seeker is studying at one of France’s most prestigious universities.

Teacher George Ferenci writes on the board "Welcome migrants to Sciences Po" during his English class for refugees at Paris' Sciences Po university in Paris, March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

While much of Europe is building up walls and fences to try to stem the flow of people fleeing war in Syria and Afghanistan, 20 of the new arrivals have found an unexpected welcome at Paris’ Sciences Po university.

Thanks to a group of students who pushed the university to make room for them, they are studying French and English, trying to build on the university degrees they had at home.

“It is a first step for me to find a bright future in France,” Ahmadzai, a father of three who fled war in his country, said on Sciences Po’s 144-year old campus at the heart of Paris’ chic Saint-Germain-des-Pres area.

“I‘m starting relaxing, I‘m happy because my life is safe now here, I want to spend my life here,” Ahmadzai said, speaking in English, after taking part in a class where the refugee students took turn trying to explain who they are, where they come from, and how to introduce themselves in English.

A majority come from Syria, with others from Africa, Afghanistan and other Asian countries, with about 10 different nationalities in total. Some had just started university before fleeing from their countries, others have masters degrees.

Thirty-three year old asylum-seeker Mohammed Salah Uddin Ahmed had completed a bachelor’s degree in anthropology in Bangladesh before fleeing death threats. He wants to do a masters in social sciences but first needs to improve his English and French.

Teacher George Ferenci (2ndR) speaks to Minawar Ahmadzai from Afghanistan (R) as Mohammed Salah Uddin Ahmed from Bangladesh (C) looks on next to other migrants students during an english class for refugees at Paris' Sciences Po university in Paris, France, March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

“Je t‘aime beaucoup France (I love you a lot, France),” he said in slightly hesitant French. He said he had several times donated his blood as a way to say thanks.

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Ahmed had unsuccessfully knocked on the door of several universities in and around Paris before meeting a group of Sciences Po students including 21 year-old Alyette Tritsch, who launched the language class initiative after visiting refugee camps.

“We want them to create links with French society,” said Tritsch, who helped set up the French branch of Kiron, a group specializing in helping refugees get access to education. Tritsch wants to push more universities to host refugee students and give them diplomas.

Sciences Po university is also looking into helping refugees become full-fledged students in its political science curricula by loosening admission criteria, for instance if they don’t have with them a copy of their diploma, said Cornelia Woll, a vice president for studies and academic affairs.

Back in the classroom, English teacher George Ferenci said those students have a special meaning to him.

“I was myself born in a camp, I was a migrant, so it’s amazing for me to teach to them,” said Ferenci, who was born in 1951 in a refugee camp in Austria from Hungarian parents, before the family moved to Canada.

Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Andrew Callus/Jeremy Gaunt

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