General view of a gallery of paintings at the Louvre museum in Paris, France, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

BARCELONA – Guinean refugee Ibrahima Conde arrived in Paris knowing little about French culture. Two years later, he knows enough to work as a museum guide, a job he was trained for by the charity Sama for All.

The charity, founded in 2017, works with two of Paris’s top art galleries to train migrants and refugees as guides as part of a French drive to strengthen ties between refugees and locals after a surge in new arrivals.    

On Tuesday, it won a share of a million-dollar prize split between five charities as part of the BridgeBuilder Challenge run by the GHR Foundation, a U.S. philanthropic organization.

The foundation’s chief executive Amy Goldman said offering cultural training to new arrivals helped lower social barriers as well as improving their career prospects.

“Culture is so elusive for a newcomer to understand in a new country,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Rome.

“By training newcomers to be art interpreters, they’re shifting the narrative around who can be considered an expert in cultural spaces.”    

France had 6.5 million immigrants in 2018, nearly 10% of the population, according to national statistics. The number of asylum claims last year rose 22% to 123,000.

In January, French President Emmanuel Macron launched a program to give community service jobs to 500 young refugees.

However, the European Parliament warned in August that refugees in France still faced problems accessing the labor market either because they have no experience in the country or because qualifications gained elsewhere are not recognized.

Syrian businesswoman Souad Nanaa, a refugee who co-founded Sama for All, said she wanted to promote cultural exchange.

“In the minds of the people, culture is for the elite – it’s not for all,” she said by phone from Paris.    

“I decided to take on this challenge because of my belief that these people have their own culture, and the exchange of culture among people is very good.”

Conde said the six-month program had given him a better understanding of France and, crucially, a foot on the career ladder in his new country.

Following internships at the Louvre and the Louis Vuitton Foundation, the 32-year-old works as a guide at the Musee Maillol art gallery.

“I have been able to learn about French culture and to integrate myself better … it has been a great opportunity for me,” he said.

The Sama for All scheme is one of several innovative, citizen-led projects aimed at getting refugees and migrants in France into work.

They include La Fabrique Nomade (The Nomad Factory), which helps refugee artisans to find work, and the Refugee Food Festival, in which Parisian restaurants open up their kitchens to refugee chefs.

—Reuters

By Sophie Davies