Manal is a young Moroccan woman who moved with her family first to Spain, then to France in 2020. When they first arrived, they hardly knew anyone. Manal’s husband was the breadwinner and she started looking for jobs too, but she had a hard time finding solutions to care for their youngest son Liad, who is two years old.
“It was difficult to know where to leave him,” says Manal. “The first week I left him with different acquaintances. For example, I asked a person whose husband works with my husband.”
Toulouse, a city in swaddling cloth
A 2019 report by Eurydice on early childhood education and care in Europe states that France is the only European country where home-based provision is the main form of early childhood education and care for under-threes.
On the other hand, Toulouse has one of the highest demographic growth rates in France, with a rate of 1.4% both in 2018 and 2019; 18 births on average per day and 4.4% of its population is aged 0-3. Even if 64% of children under the age of three benefited from childcare financed by Toulouse City Council in 2019, with a young population and births growing above the national average, it’s understandable how early childhood care remains a major issue in Toulouse. Manal is not alone.
“I had a lot of plans when we arrived in France,” says Manal, “to do a training course, take French lessons and all that. But when I looked into enrolling my child in a nursery, I found out it was complicated. So, I was really slowed down.”
I had a lot of plans when we arrived in France
Finding solutions for early childhood care can be especially tricky for migrant parents as there are often additional barriers. For example, they don’t speak the language, or like in Manal’s case, they haven’t had time to build a support network of trusted people. Cultural differences can also result in parents holding back.
Understanding comes before helping
Here’s the good news: Toulouse’s Early Childhood Department is exploring solutions that will hit two birds with one stone. That’s because Toulouse is looking at its 18,360 young foreign people under 25 – 3.9% of its population – to pair up with families in need.
For example, through the Melting Potes project, a young Bulgarian helped mediate between a Bulgarian mother and her children’s school staff. Thinking the French school would require children to sleep in their pyjamas during nap time, as Bulgarian schools do, she had stopped sending her child to school as she did not have enough pyjamas. With the help of the young volunteer, the misunderstanding was cleared, and the child went back to school.
This kind of volunteering can be beneficial for the young volunteers too. Ornella, who moved from Albania speaking very little French, decided she wanted to improve it by joining the Melting Potes project. Through the programme, she helped other migrants who didn’t speak French with their administrative errands, or making an appointment with the doctor. She was dreaming to later become a social worker, and thanks to the experience and the confidence the programme gave her, she has now fulfilled her dream.
A perfect match
The Melting Potes initiative – a play on the expression ‘Melting pot’ and ‘potes’, a French slang word for ‘friend’ – did not start to specifically help families with early childhood care. Originally, Unis-Cités, the NGO running the programme, wanted to focus on the integration of refugees and migrants more broadly. The programme therefore paired a young French person with a young ‘allophone’ – a foreigner who doesn’t speak French – with the objective of teaching French to the allophone and, as a pair, organising awareness-raising actions to guide migrants and Roma people living in squats, shanty towns, social hotels or requisitioned places on issues such as health, education, legal advice or discrimination. The allophone’s background and language skills are of great value as they can mediate with people coming from similar context and culture.
Of course, the pairs don’t work alone, they support professional social workers employed by the city. And the city supports the programme, not just by subscribing to its goals, but also financially. Since the programme has worked well, Toulouse’s Early Childhood Department is now planning to involve Unis-Cités and the youngsters from the Melting Potes programme specifically in early childhood services.
Happy child, happy parent(s)
Toulouse is paying attention to the early childhood period because having access to the French language and culture from a very young age promotes the integration of newly arrived families and helps their children better integrate the school system.
Manal has noticed the changes in her two-year-old now that he has access to day care. “The little one is learning French better, he is socialising, I see the joy in his eyes when I tell him that he is going to the day care centre. I believe that the first thing to think about is integrating the children.”
I believe that the first thing to think about is integrating the children
That’s also what the city is thinking. By receiving their children, parents will also feel more welcome, and this will break the feeling of isolation and help envisage socio-professional integration.
“Early childhood care means paying attention to all members of the family, from the baby to the adult,” says Laurence Katzenmayer, Deputy Mayor of Toulouse City Council for Early Childhood, Nurseries, Home childcare assistance. “This brings successful integration: integration of the adult parents through their babies.”
“When you arrive, everything is difficult, you are isolated. At first, I felt lonely, and I wanted to go back to Spain,” says Manal. “But afterwards, little by little, if we try to integrate our children and integrate ourselves for classes and all that, we feel better. When I discovered the social centre, it helped me a lot. It changed everything. Getting to know each other, going out, talking.”
Melting Potes expanded
Thanks to the European project VALUES, the Early Childhood Department has decided to collaborate with Melting Potes through two main actions: the implementation of an Early Childhood Referent for the support of allophone families in fragile situations; and the creation of an itinerant children’s and families’ meeting place within accommodation facilities under the guidance of the Early Childhood Referent.
The Melting Potes’ volunteers will work closely with the Early Childhood Referents and will offer mediation to migrant families in the early childhood facilities. They will also accompany early childhood educators and childcare workers to welcome families in the refugee accommodation centres.
This new project will develop a participative approach to the young migrant volunteers and the families. The young volunteers will join the discussion around the implementation of the project and will take part in the development of a multi-lingual glossary of everyday words, which will be a communication support tool for staff in early childhood facilities.
A plan that will benefit everyone involved: volunteers, particularly from migrant background, feel valued and participate in the actions carried out by their city; and families receive support and feel less isolated. These actions developed in the framework of VALUES will contribute to the fight against inequalities led by the city for years now. They promote social cohesion, language learning, and thus integration, parental and academic success.
Building rooms and community
Early childhood is the soonest the city can act to welcome migrants and support them in their journey towards integration, yet children aren’t the only ones in need and Toulouse made its commitment to welcome everyone clear.
Since March 2020, Toulouse opened ‘La Glacière’ to face the crucial need of housing for vulnerable people in the middle of a rising pandemic. Refusing to clear camps and squats without offering a solution, Toulouse invested €800,000 in renovating the old Hotel Glacière into a centre to house young refugee men aged 18-25.
Run by the association France Horizon, and benefitting from funding and a collaboration with the national level within the framework of the state’s strategy to welcome refugees, the centre offers shared accommodation to the young men and individual support. The men receive legal and administrative support, they get help for their job search and health care, or to find a long-term housing solution.
Residents also have access to workshops run by volunteers such as language classes, digital workshops, creative workshops, or workshops that will help them tackle the labour market, like writing a curriculum or practicing interviews. The workshops are useful to the residents for their daily life, but they also create social exchanges that can lead to lasting relationships.
Stepping it up
Not enough? France Horizon is also creating systematic collaborations with the private sector. The centre is close to the national market of Toulouse, a location providing many jobs, where there is no need for diplomas or qualifications or language skills. The centre therefore signed an agreement with the market, and some of the young men are now doing internships or volunteering there. The idea is for them to try out different jobs and discover different sectors while getting some professional experience.
For example, one of the young men is volunteering for an association of restaurants distributing meals to homeless people. He wants to work in the catering industry in the future, and thanks to this volunteering experience, he can already build a network and practice his French. The next step for the Glacière centre is to create more collaborations, for example with the many companies located in the neighbourhood.
Of course, it’s too early to claim success as the centre just opened its doors and the impact will need to be evaluated in the coming months, but some young men have already left the nest and spread their wings to fly on their own. The hope for the city of Toulouse is to continue working with migrant communities to support them in making their own nest somewhere in the city and to make them feel at home.
*Illustration: Fadila Benouahab, Toulouse Direction Petite Enfance