Paris: El-Baraka community school a blessing to Sevran

Dismayed with prospects available to young people, Faouzi Lellouche and wife Farida built a holistic community school.

Samir, left, Farida, Faouzi Lellouche, Marie-Therese, and Hocine at the el-Baraka centre [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]
Samir, left, Farida, Faouzi Lellouche, Marie-Therese, and Hocine at the el-Baraka centre [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]

Paris, France – Faouzi Lellouche stands in a small room flanked by a row of computers to one side and a shelf stacked with schoolbooks to the other.

“This is where they kept the rubbish bins,” he says with proud enthusiasm while giving a tour of the premises.

Within earshot his wife Farida ushers schoolchildren into their tuition classes.

Through their efforts and with the support of local residents, the ground floor of this otherwise unremarkable residential tower block has been converted into a training centre and after-school club for young people living in Sevran, one of the most deprived suburbs of Paris.

The centre provides tuition to primary schoolchildren, classes in English, Italian and French as a foreign language, as well as more tailored vocational courses to children who have fallen out of the traditional education system.

Just five years ago, Lellouche was a resident of a neighbouring building and managed a clothes shop.

Fed up with the poor level of education local teenagers received, lack of employment opportunities after graduation, and a high rate of petty crime, he took matters into his own hands.

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“It was important that they could envisage something better for their lives and have some hope. There was so much delinquency around here,” he says, dropping his smile.

“We had to provide these youngsters with the tools to construct their own futures.”

El-Baraka school of blessings

With Farida, he set up a tent in the grassy field that connects the estate’s tower blocks, and they began providing after-school classes to local children and teenagers.

Eventually, the scale of what was needed meant he had to choose between his job and developing the fledgling school.

Lellouche chose the school, and so “el-Baraka”, which means blessing in Arabic, was born.

He and his team say they step in where the government has failed, rescuing otherwise troubled characters from a life without prospects.

“I was motivated by the absence of public authorities and of public services,” Lellouche says, adding that at the time he had no experience of managing children other than caring for his now-teenage daughter.

“There was nothing here before … I was just a resident and it wasn’t the kind of thing I had ever done before.”

Lellouche in a computer room that was previously used to store local residents’ rubbish [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]

Initially, Lellouche funded the project from his own savings, but as it grew so did the associated costs.

El-Baraka now relies on some subsidies from the French state to pay its staff, mostly through government schemes that fund projects which employ the young and disadvantaged.

To that end, Lellouche has given several local young people their first jobs, employment and experience which he says they would have struggled to find elsewhere.

However, state assistance makes up just 75 percent of its wage requirements, and the rest comes from Lellouche himself and donations from local residents.

‘Donations enable us’

“The local authorities are not helping us much despite the service we are providing. It’s the donations that have enabled us to carry on,” he says.

Sevran is one of the poorest areas in France, and around 40 percent of the youth are unemployed.

Its residents complain of poor education in high schools.

El-Baraka is funded by grants from the French state and donations from Sevran locals [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]

Many of the young people el-Baraka supports do not have the qualifications needed to enter higher education or vocational training.

Marie-Therese, a Sevran local and youth worker at the organisation, tells Al Jazeera that the quality of education in the suburb is at the root of a lot of its problems.

“The education system is not adapted for today’s generation,” she says. “It’s not that they have learning difficulties, it’s more about being detached from their education.

“They have difficulties at school and they’re not into their studies … as a result, they don’t have any perspective for the future.” 

Government ‘failures’

Marie-Therese, who teaches English and Italian, as well as providing maths and science tuition to younger students, says this detachment stems from government indifference to the residents of Sevran.

The teachers sent to the area are often inexperienced and from regions far from Paris, she explains.

Consequently, teachers cannot manage their students, staff turnover is high, morale low, and students end up losing out on a proper education.

The government could redress these issues, she says, by training and employing teachers native to Sevran and other suburbs like it.

“Teachers should be close to their students when it comes to their experiences and should take into account their different social background and cultures.”

El-Baraka encourages young locals to volunteer: Here an intern receives his schedule [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]

Redressing what they consider the failings of the education system is just one aspect of the el-Baraka team’s strategy.

Many of the people Lellouche encounters come from broken homes and sometimes are in need of mentorship just as much as qualifications and training.

Lellouche and Farida’s style is to combine practical resources with the emotional support and encouragement their students need to stay the course.

Open doors

Hocine is a 25-year-old resident of Sevran who dreamed of becoming a veterinarian as child, but could not complete his secondary school diploma, which he says was a result of his upbringing.

“My parents got divorced when I was a kid. I grew up with my two brothers and a single mum,” he says, further describing in guarded terms his run-ins with the law.

“We didn’t have money. My brother tried to make easy money and ended up in jail.

“Then I tried to help him, but my mother got upset so I stopped messing about and I tried to get a job, but we were still confined to the neighbourhood.”

They know us, they know what we've been through, and they know the qualities we have ... generally, there's just more trust here.

Hocine, Sevran local

Hocine describes government facilities for further education as “factories” and criticises them for their impersonal style of teaching and lack of interest in where their students end up.

That, he says, is in sharp contrast to el-Baraka’s style.

“They [Lellouche and Farida] know us personally, they know our stories and with their organisation provide the tools to help us.

“They know us, they know what we’ve been through, and they know the qualities we have … generally, there’s just more trust here.”

Samir, a 19-year-old local, nods his head in agreement.

“Their doors are open to everyone,” he says.

The teenager enrolled on a course to become a baker but failed the assessments necessary to proceed.

With the help of Lellouche and el-Baraka, he is back on track to achieving his goal.

Like several other teenagers at the organisation, Samir not only studies but also works as an intern, volunteering in classes to to help the younger children.

That, Lellouche explains, helps to give young people like Samir a sense of belonging and structure, as well as reinforce a sense of community between them and other residents.

Despite difficulties with funding, Lellouche has no shortage of ideas on how to add to el-Baraka’s programmes.

We are taking the good qualities of the people who live here and we're trying to push them and to motivate them.

Faouzi Lellouche, el-Baraka centre founder

His future plans involve offering more training in sports and classes for adults in the surrounding area.

El-Baraka’s impact is small, relative to the issues affecting young people in France’s suburbs, but many say the intervention has been life-changing.

“I won’t say that we’re doing everything that the government doesn’t do, but we’re trying our best,” Lellouche says

“We are taking the good qualities of the people who live here and we’re trying to push them and to motivate them.

“We try.”

The Paris suburb of Sevran is one of the poorest areas in France [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera


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