PARIS — As millions flee Syria, Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East and Africa, France is processing hundreds of thousands of refugee applications every year. But even as they move forward with a new life in a new country, many wish for a day when they can return home.
Some refugees are seeking economic opportunities. Others are escaping life-threatening conflicts or the suppression of speech or religion.
“Yeah, I’m going to stay here for a long time, I guess, but I want to go back,” said Ridan Cetin, 26, who is from Turkey. “And, believe me, if you were to ask the same question to all these refugees here, 80 percent, 90 percent will say there’s nothing in their hometowns, but they would say, ‘I’d like to go back.’”
Cetin is an English teacher by profession. His first teaching job was in Libya because in Turkey, he said, “intelligent people were put in prison.” He lived in Libya and Madagascar before he was to be deported to Turkey. That’s when he decided to head to France illegally.
“There’s no future there for me,” Cetin said, and he feels safer in France.
Ever the academic, Cetin is currently a student at Pierre Claver, a school for refugees to learn more about the country and culture that is now home.
Ayyam Sureau, the school’s director, said refugees who cross the Mediterranean or mountains to get to France have a drive for a better life.
“A refugee coming to France is not a refugee who is just surviving because if he were just surviving, he’d go in the neighboring country,” she said. “Actually, he wants to live like you.”
For Krasimir Angelov, France beckoned because he could not get a job in Bulgaria because of his parents’ Turkish background.
“For those who are Bulgarian, they immediately have a job,” Angelov said in French. “For us, wait for a job. Wait. So I go ahead and call. ‘Wait. Wait. There is nothing.’”
Angelov chose France because his brother and his family had moved there in 2004. Once in France, Angelov picked up a few construction jobs, but at one point had to live in his car. He now lives at a Salvation Army shelter on the northern edge of Paris and studies French. Some time soon, he hopes to find a job and settle in a place like his brother did.
Abdallah El Abdi is director of that Salvation Army branch, which currently has 80 refugees, 100 migrants and 137 French families or homeless citizens. Later this year, the center will stop accommodating migrants, setting the number of refugees housed there to 180.
He said it’s much easier now for refugees to apply for asylum because of cell phones. Once someone is in France, the refugee can call a number and give their name and reason for seeking asylum. Once that refugee process begins, they can’t leave France, he said. And they will have to go through several appointments and submit a story of what they were facing in their home country in French – even if they don’t know the language.
Not all refugees are on their own as they change countries. Sulaiman Arwowal’s father worked with French media in Afghanistan as a reporter so when issues arose with the Taliban, the company helped the family of six move to France legally under political refugee status.
Arwowal said the difficult part of the move was when he was at the Kabul airport and realized he would not be returning.
“That was the most difficult part for me to accept,” he said. “For me it was difficult because obviously everyone loves their home. Everyone wants to live peacefully in their country. But, unfortunately, Afghanistan is a war-torn country for the last 40 to 45 years.”
So Arwowal decided he would just have to make the best of his family’s move to France.
Sureau called the refugees “very very brave.”
“They’ve always been brave throughout history,” she said. “It’s people who have chosen to change their lives. You know, it’s a very very specific sort of person who does that.”