Children Today, Tomorrow the World!

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The Italian Catholic Mission is in an old run-down building in La Belle de Mai, a modest immigrant neighborhood northeast of the Gare St Charles, Marseille’s main train station. The woman at the Marseille Centre de Volontariat (Volunteer Center) had given me this street address for the Association Enfants d’Aujourd’hui Monde de Demain (EAMD). This translates to the Children Today, Tomorrow the World Association.

I rang the big door, was buzzed in and entered a cobble-stone courtyard and saw a woman standing outside an open door. This was Valerie, an Italian nun who wears street clothes and has a no-nonsense demeanor. She founded the EAMD some 25 years ago, arriving in Marseille from Italy via Germany, speaking not a word of French. She is part of an order of nuns whose mission is to help immigrants settle and integrate themselves into their new communities. Converting the primarily Muslim children and mothers to Catholicism does not appear to be part of the agenda. The local Catholic diocese contributes no money to the association that supports itself primarily through its thrift store and some money from the departement (French equivalent of a county). I wondered why there was an Italian Catholic mission in Marseille. Another volunteer explained to me that when the mission was established, the immigrants living in La Belle de Mai were Italian. Now they are primarily North African, Turkish, and African.

Valerie’s office is modest and small, just a desk and a few chairs. Prominently displayed behind her desk is a poster of Martin Luther King with a long quote, in French, from his “I Have a Dream” speech. She explained that the EAMD provides le soutien scolaire (after-school tutoring) to children from the primary grades through high school in French, Math and English. French kids start studying English in the equivalent of 6th grade. As there is no school on Wednesdays (but classes are held on Saturdays), the EAMD has a full schedule of programs on Wednesday: tutoring, writing and reading workshops and a club whose theme this year is “You are not like me….So?” The EAMD also offers classes in alphabetization (literacy) for mothers of the children in the program.

I told Valerie that I would be happy to tutor English or help with the “alpha” as they call it. I hoped the students wouldn’t mind my accent. She said they don’t seem bothered by hers. She needed someone to take over the Thursday afternoon “alpha” class as previous volunteer had quit.

I agreed to step in and that is how I found myself, the following Thursday, standing in front of six head scarf-wearing Kurdish women from Turkey. They had their notebooks and pens ready as I attempted to teach them the basics of French. It’s hard to tell how old the women are but most have small children, some with them in class, so I imagine they are in their 20’s or early 30’s. Several tell me they have four children. One woman has never been to school and struggles to form letters in her notebook as would a three- or four- year old child. They all speak very little French and don’t read or write it at all. I told them I am an American and that I, too, learned French. They are impressed that I can pronounce the letter “h” (two of their names begin with h), as the French cannot. One woman told me that my writing is American as it is not in the typical cursive that all French students learn. I replied by saying that my writing is like what they see in books (sort of, anyway).

We are starting from zero – “My name is…”, “I have three children, one boy and two girls”, etc. They diligently wrote words and expressions in their notebooks but I am struck by how many silent letters there are in French. I told them, using a lot of pantomime, that speaking and understanding are more important than writing. They are lovely women, cheerful, receptive and very anxious to learn. I hope they understand what I am saying and pantomiming to them. We managed to laugh a lot and have fun together, in spite of the language barrier. We discovered that chocolate, piano and panda are the same in French, English and Turkish (or is it Kurdish they speak?)

The women, dressed in head scarves and modest coat-like dresses, left after two hours to go pick up their older children at school. I was happy to have found a weekly two hour place amidst the patchwork of Marseille ethnicities.

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