Massa’s Story

I was born in France of Syrian parents. I lived there for about 12 years before my parents left for Syria. In France, my father was a shopkeeper. He moved his business to Syria. My family left in order to continue respecting Syrian traditions, especially Islamic ones, because in France my mother suffered a lot of religious racism because of her headscarf. She was stopped several times in shops on suspicion of theft, with obvious discrimination and restrictions on her religious freedom, particularly during the 90s. Because of this constant harassment, the family preferred to move back to Syria so that we could continue our studies there. I faced a lot of difficulties when I returned home, particularly with the classical Arabic language, which I didn’t master very well. Despite all this, I passed my baccalaureate in the humanities with an overall average that enabled me to enter the faculty and subject of my choice.

I was advised to study English literature, because it’s a world language that gives you access to the world of work. So I did, and went on to do a BA and MA in English-Arabic translation. In 2013, events began to unfold in Syria. The family decided to move to Egypt because my younger brothers hadn’t learnt French. I enrolled for a PhD. At first, everything went well, but then we had a number of problems because Egypt is a country where density, poverty and the cost of living are very high. My family had to spend all their savings without having any other resources or job opportunities. My family decided to move to Turkey. At that time, I was at university and had met my husband, who had also immigrated to Egypt. We got married, I became pregnant and as I have French nationality, I decided to come to France, my second country. As our marriage was not recognised in France, I came alone and applied to bring my husband; he joined me later.

Racism in the workplace and the veil that prevents you from working

When I arrived on my own, I was taken in by a friend. I was six months pregnant and I started to take the necessary steps to register the pregnancy and apply for child benefit from the CAF, as well as activating health cover with the CPAM.

My husband got his visa a month before my due date. When he arrived, he had a lot of problems with everyday activities, such as going to the chemist’s, because of his lack of French and the difficulties he had in adapting. He didn’t come to France as a refugee, but as part of a family reunion.
His English didn’t help him much, as English is not widely spoken in France. He encountered many obstacles despite his degree in Dialogue between Civilisations. He started to learn French, but naturally that took a long time. He tried to find a job as a teacher, because that was his profession in Syria, but he couldn’t find a job, so he washed dishes for two hours a day for only twenty euros. He had problems at work. His employers forced him to carry vegetables, but he had back problems. He found a new job in another supermarket where he was ridiculed for his accent and his French. The racism he experienced caused him serious psychological problems; he began to consult a psychiatrist who advised him to quit his job immediately. He tried to do a Master’s degree to work as a teacher in France, which he had wanted to do from the start.

For me, the fact that I wear the veil has reduced my opportunities to work, even though I know French. I started working at home, on the Internet, and thinking about my own project. I looked for work in Islamic schools, but they prefer people with qualifications, so I took the C1 exam.

Despite my family responsibilities towards my children and husband, I was able to do my Master’s again, with the possibility of doing a doctorate later on. I’m currently working in translation. The work is part-time, which reduces my income. But working online allows me to avoid racist harassment. My husband is trying to get unemployment benefit.

What bothers me is my children’s inability to understand their identity. They still feel like outsiders and know very little about Syria and our life there. I think it’s for the best at the moment, but what I really want is for the French people to be more receptive and tolerant of Islam. Among other things, the freedom to wear the veil would allow us to work without obstacles. I love France, which is my second country, and I’ve lived there for part of my life without being subjected to racist harassment.

My Syrian period

In Syria, I had no responsibilities. My family was well-to-do and I agreed with the general climate, ideas and traditions, despite the religious and ethical differences between my friends and my Kurdish and Shiite colleagues. I also had a Jewish friend and we never felt any difference, we lived together without any problems. But at that time, I was dreaming of being a university lecturer and translator, but I didn’t have the time for a professional life, given the growing number of incidents. I couldn’t get a job in Egypt and when I arrived in France, I couldn’t choose my profession and I was forced to turn to the private sphere. My husband and I thought of setting up a centre to teach French and English to refugees. That’s our aim.
As I’m French, I have to do the administrative paperwork for the whole family. I help Syrian refugees with their administrative formalities in general and with the CAF in particular, because I understand the difficulties of being a foreigner, the lack of knowledge of the administration and the language barrier. The fact that they don’t master the language makes it difficult for them to adapt; it’s as if they were reborn and had to learn to speak all over again.

Before the incidents in Syria, there were very few Syrians living outside Syria, and the best living conditions for a Syrian were in Syria. The rumour circulating that Syrians leave their country for 350 euros is incorrect, because any Syrian citizen could earn that amount in Syria before the incidents and 150 euros was enough to live in Syria. Nobody chooses to leave his country and his family just for the money.
In my case, I faced fewer difficulties, because I had already lived in France, I have a privileged status.

What’s more, as soon as I arrived in France, we met a Syrian who owned a house. He was helping people who wanted to take refuge; he welcomed us and opened his house to us, where I lived with my parents for a month before my husband arrived.

I was pregnant at the time and went straight to the Hôpital de la Conception for pregnancy monitoring. The PASS Gynaecology service helps people who don’t have a Carte Vitale. At the time, I didn’t have a social security number, so they helped me to get AME (Aide Médicale de l’Etat), a medical service for a month while I waited for my Carte Vitale. I monitored my pregnancy there, and was able to meet a social worker. I told her about my search for accommodation, and she helped me to get the addresses I needed to find suitable accommodation, and to prepare my CAF application.

I had a lot of trouble finding a place to rent, despite my father’s good income and his ability to vouch for me, but the laws here didn’t allow it.

By complete chance, I met some employees in a Lebanese stationery shop next to the hospital (I was making photocopies for the CAF) who pointed me in the direction of someone who could rent us accommodation. We went there – it was next to a bar – and we were able to rent a 25m² studio apartment, which was damp and in a poor state of repair, but at least it was habitable. Unfortunately, the accommodation wasn’t registered at the start, so we weren’t able to get any help from the CAF.

Later I was able to take all the necessary steps with the CAF; I applied for RSA. The social worker helped me to contact the French embassy in Egypt to do the paperwork for my husband, to officially register our marriage and to obtain official papers. The social worker at the Maternity Clinic followed me up and helped me with the housing formalities. She was so kind, I moved into the studio a month before I gave birth and when my husband came, he helped me to furnish it. It was too small, so I stayed there for two years, then we moved to a bigger house with three rooms. My husband is learning French and moving from one profession to another.

What’s more, there’s a problem that Syrian refugees face when it comes to getting their driving licence certified, which is always refused and not recognised. You need a French driving licence, but it’s too expensive and very difficult to get, because of the language and the lack of understanding of the examiner’s instructions during the driving test.