31-year-old Magdi Masaraa never went to school. After years of exile, this Sudanese has entered a special professional program at the prestigious Parisian institute, Sciences Po. For the student who had "no idea what subtraction was" when he first started school in 2020, the challenge is great. But he is determined to overcome the gap that he believes separates him from his peers.
Magdi Masaraa was forced to flee Darfur, a region in western Sudan, in 2003 at the age of 13. After many years of wandering between East Africa, Egypt, Libya, Italy and France, he obtained refugee status in 2017 and settled in Paris.
A friend told him about the "Welcome Refugees" program, a course at Sciences Po reserved for refugees, for which no prerequisite qualifications are required. It was an opportunity for the man who had never even been to elementary school to make a childhood dream come true: to study in the hope of perhaps having a "career" one day. But in this prestigious establishment, the thirty-one-year-old feels like a second-class student.
"I started this program in the fall of 2020 and I found it very complicated. We have courses in law, history, social sciences, political sciences, applied mathematics.
Before I entered this program, I had no idea what multiplication or subtraction was. I was forced to learn everything. I worked twice as hard as the other students because I was the only person without any academic background in the group.
'When I compare myself to the other students, I am nothing'
There have been emotional moments for me. Every time we meet a new teacher, we go around the table to introduce ourselves and all my classmates introduce themselves, they went to elementary school, high school... When I compare my background to theirs, I am nothing. I don't know how to introduce myself. In those moments, I just say my first name, my origin and the date of my arrival in France. I don't say anything else because I have nothing else to say.
Once, the teacher asked me to elaborate, to say in which college or school I had studied and what kind of degree I had obtained. I had to say, 'I never went to school,' which hurt. It was impossible for me then to calm my emotion. I went to hide in the bathroom to cry because there was no one else who could share that feeling. When others asked me if I was okay, I said, 'Yes, I'm okay'.
I felt really bad, because I'm not like the other students, I feel all alone in this institution. I don't know how to build relationships with professors and students. But all of this taught me a lesson: I should not compare myself to others.
'The nearest school to my village was a three-hour walk away'
Ever since I was a young child, I always wanted to go to school. But the nearest elementary school to my village was a three-hour walk each way. Some children made this journey from the age of seven, when they could walk well and be independent, but not me. I went to the Koranic school and studied religion.
I spent a year there, learned to read and write Arabic and then the civil war broke out.
Since 2003, the war in Darfur, which pits pro-government forces against ethnic minority rebels who accused Omar al-Bashir's regime of marginalizing the region, has left more than 300,000 dead and nearly 3 million displaced.
War destroys everything, you don't think about anything, just about saving yourself. I was separated from my family. As a child, during the day, I had to search for food. I found fruit to eat in the forest. I never felt safe.
Today, I am happy even though I feel alone. My family used to live in the Krinding refugee camp [the camp in Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, was burned to the ground in January 2021 in attacks attributed to the Janjaweed]. I have a younger sister and two younger brothers whom I have never met because they were born after I left. They all still live in Darfur, in a reception center set up in a school."
Details of the selection process for the Welcome Refugees program can be found here.
The program does not end with a university degree, but it does lead to a certificate equivalent to a bachelor's degree. A student who has not obtained the baccalaureate can thus, if he or she has followed the entire program and passed the exams, obtain a baccalaureate +2 level of study. However, as the teaching is very general, this certificate does not allow students to enroll in any degree at the L3 level.
The curriculum includes French courses, English courses and "courses on living in France and finding employment." The Sciences Po website indicates that, in order to access it, you must:
- have refugee status, subsidiary protection, or be a newcomer to France
- be at least 18 years old
- have a minimum level of A2 in French
- show great motivation and ambition to continue your studies in France
- be available for the entire period during which the programs take place.