Refugees arriving in France are often forced to take low-skilled jobs. But one organization is providing them with the means to cultivate their careers and change perceptions. Erin Conroy reports from Paris.
Back home, Yasir Mohamed Elamin was widely known as a master of his craft. His pottery was renowned in Omdurman, Sudan's largest city, and his pieces were exhibited at art shows in Switzerland and Wales. Elamin, who has a degree from the College of Fine and Applied Art at Sudan University for Science & Technology in Khartoum, also worked as an interior designer.
But when the 48-year-old came to France three years ago, seeking asylum from his own war-torn country, working as an artisan seemed a distant prospect. He was placed in landscaping jobs which he found isolating. He felt, he says, as if he had left his soul along the banks of the Nile River where he had so often crushed and sieved his clay.
Carpenters, potters, tailors, sculptors and other skilled tradesmen are among the tens of thousands of refugees who have recently arrived in France. Deterred by language barriers, a lack of resources and bureaucratic red tape making it near impossible to have their credentials recognized, they are very often resigned to working jobs as janitors or loading trucks. But some, including Elamin, have found their way back to the studio with the help of an organization which pairs refugees with accomplished French designers to adapt their creations to a European market.
Recognizing their credentials
La Fabrique Nomade will launch a collection of their handmade items, from embroidered throws and pillows to pottery and sculpted marble shelves, this weekend at the Institut National des Métiers d'Art in Paris. The aim of the organization is to showcase the knowledge of these artists so that they might receive contracts from design companies, boutiques or professional decorators. The pieces will also be available for sale through an online store.
"I didn't think that I could do my work here," said Elamin, who now lives in the southern suburbs of Paris with his wife, who worked as a doctor in Sudan. "I just wish I came here to Paris to exhibit my work as a normal artist, not as a refugee. But of course, I am still so happy to be able to do this. It is like a dream," he told DW.
In a small studio provided by La Fabrique Nomade in Montreuil, just outside of the Paris city line, Elamin carefully studies the earthenware teacups which have recently dried, each piece uniquely shaped to fit like a puzzle into a matching saucer. Surrounding him are whimsical over-sized vases with winding, climbing limbs extending out and above them, and small flower pots enveloped in lattice layers and tiny, intricate designs.
Elamin is deciding on the finishing touches of his latest work with the help of Laureline de Leeuw, a French artist who works with reclaimed wood and who has volunteered as a mentor to Elamin.
Meeting of cultures
"It's a meeting of cultures, which is very important for the designers," de Leeuw told DW. "He has a very unique style, and I can offer my point of view to help him to adapt his aesthetic to the French market."
La Fabrique Nomade's founder, Ines Mesmar, says the idea is to help these refugees reclaim their pride and self-esteem.
"Most refugees suffer self-effacement," she told DW. "The mission is to help these people to state what they are, to be the same as they were in the country they come from - to be themselves. It's also to change the point of view regarding refugees and what they can do in France. They are not only refugees. They are human beings with rich skills, history and knowledge that could be of value to a company in France."
Mesmar was inspired to launch the organization last year after her mother, Menana, told her for the first time that she worked as an embroiderer in Tunis' Medina before emigrating to live in France as a young woman.
"She didn't feel that she could continue in that profession here," said Mesmar. "She didn't have the confidence or the networks, and so that passion that she possessed - which I clearly saw when she spoke of it - was something that for all of those years we never knew."
Mesmar says she launched La Fabrique Nomade as something of a business incubator, while also helping to organize workshops for refugees to share their expertise with people in the local community. Elamin, for example, holds a regular pottery class in his studio.
Mesmar has rustled up support for the organization through crowdfunding online, and with a network of volunteer artists, entrepreneurs and design start-ups.
On a recent Saturday, a dozen of these French design gurus got together and pored over pieces to be showcased during the Journées Européennes des Métiers d'Art, a three-day event held across France to promote artisans and ateliers.
Pillows and small cotton handbags with chain-stitched indigo blue embroidery were passed around and admired, as the Senegalese artist listened carefully to advice about adjusting the size of the items and the positioning of motifs.
Beside them, colorful marble shelves were neatly arranged in front of Abou Dubaev, a Chechen refugee who has lived in Paris for three years.
"It's very difficult to explain the feeling that it gives me to be working with these people," he said in Russian through a translator. "They are helping me to find work here, doing what I know, and in this way I can make a life with my family. I passed a very hard time in Chechnya and Russia. I need open hearts."