BY VALERIE PETSCHE
On Wednesday, Feb. 15, Dr. Derya Kulavuz-Onal presented “La Cour de Babel,” a film showcasing a special education class at La Grange aux Belles as immigrants in junior high adjust to a new society in Paris. Through a course called “reception class,” the students learn the French language in a welcoming environment.
The film begins with students demonstrating how to say hello in their native language. Immediately, we see a diverse array of nationalities, including children from China, Egypt, Serbia, Romania, England, Ireland, Chile, Venezuela and Ukraine.
An argument erupts about religion, and conflict develops soon after due to the language differences.
The translations from French to English subtitles were not always grammatically correct. Of course, these students had learned French only recently so they were not always using the correct tense. Nevertheless, they spoke quickly and conversed well with their peers in French.
The immediate goal of this “reception class” was to teach French to the immigrants. Presumably, the viewer would observe a glimpse of students in the classroom scene as they learn to speak a new language.
The film offered insight into the everyday struggles of someone integrating not only into a new society, but a new life. Connections blossomed and bonds were forged between students sharing similarities as immigrants.
It was soon revealed that one student immigrated from Serbia for political asylum. His family was persecuted by a neo-nazi group. A student from China explained she had not seen her mother for 10 years before arriving in Paris. Classmate Djenabou started crying. “That’s tough,” she said.
Naminata had a hard time adjusting with the class because of attitude issues. “My father’s family didn’t let me go to school. I was mistreated. I would like to be a doctor,” she stated.
Naminata comes from a Muslim family. When her mother converted to Christianity, she attended both the church and the mosque, leaving her confused. Choosing among the two, she decided to remain devoted to Christianity. This is an extremely conflicting situation, as she was forced to commit to a religion at only 12 years of age. I could not imagine the gravity of such a predicament.
Throughout the filming of this movie, the class produced a documentary of their own which was showcased at a festival in Chartes, France. In the video, the students were able to display their colorful backgrounds while sharing their similarities as human beings.
On the last day of school, the tearful students gathered for a final hug goodbye. It was emotional, even for the audience present.
When the film ended, Dr. Claire Kew and Dr. Derya Kulavuz-Onal opened the stage for questions. An interactive discussion began around the effectiveness of such programs which help immigrants transition to new settings.
Kulavuz-Onal reasoned this is a good program for social learning which should be included in addition to the subject material students typically approach at their age, such as math and science.
During the film we observed the problems the students faced, such as fitting in with the local French students. Kew explained later, saying, “They are seen as stupid because they can’t express themselves.”
We explored the issues of agency and access which arise for immigrants. Most of the children did not have very many resources at home. Family was often elsewhere, or in another part of the world. In addition, we watched as students were located to different residences, including hostels, hotels and apartments. Stability seemed to be another issue.
These children faced unimaginable difficulties. While maintaining their past identity in a new locale, they had to become educated in a new language, make friends, perform well in school and assume an identity that can assimilate to their new life.
Among the audience was Angela Benedicts, a substitute teacher for Wicomico county, though originally from Nigeria. She worked with a Haitian student who learned to speak English through music.
“He learned through cognates,” Benedicts explains.
Additionally, she speaks of an experience working at James M. Bennett High school.
“When I open my mouth, they start laughing. I tell them, ‘Laugh as much as you want. This voice is going to stick with you today.’ Some of them laugh, but I don’t care.”
People often experience adversity for their diversity. It is a sad reality that is only increasingly relevant today.
Arthur Parks was also among the viewers present on Wednesday night. During the discussion, he mentioned that “the way you adjust is to imitate. You see how they talk and act and you do the same.”
Kew commented that “the language is a small part. Every single part of your life is different. It’s important to make them express their culture. It has to be life-relevant to some extent.”
Dr. Claire Kew was awarded the Tournées grant from the French cultural embassy, allowing the rights to screen this film along with five others at Salisbury University.
Dr. Kulavuz-Onal presented this film on behalf of the English department for its connection to education.
The next film will be presented Thursday, Feb. 23, at 7 pm in Fulton Hall room 111 by Dr. Arnaud Perret of the Modern Languages and Intercultural Studies department. Produced in 1965, the film is titled “Pierrot Le Fou,” and you can learn more about the event at salisbury.edu.