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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Migrations. Soulager les souffrances de l’exil. Marie Rose Moro

by Marie Barbier

Immigration: Easing the Suffering of Exile.

Translated Thursday 1 April 2010, by Gene Zbikowski and reviewed by Gene Zbikowski

In her latest book, pediatric psychiatrist Marie Rose Moro opposes the overly rigid French vision of assimilation and favors multi-culturalism, the better to take in the children of immigrants.

Marie Rose Moro, a pediatric psychiatrist for children and adolescents, is the leading ethno-psychiatrist in France today. At the Avicenne hospital in Bobigny, she directs France’s first transcultural clinic, where the children of immigrants and their families are treated. She has also been in charge of the Maison des adolescents in Paris since 2008. Her latest book, Nos enfants demain [Our children tomorrow] pleads in favor of multi-culturalism so that French society will at last be opened up to the contribution immigrants can make. Is this a utopia? No, answers Marie Rose Moro, it is a necessity.

You write that “we have lost faith in the virtues of meetings and exchanges.” How do you explain this withdrawal into one’s shell?

Marie Rose Moro: I see that we have become totally inhospitable. We have abandoned the idea of a generous society that is open to the world. What is new is that now, we justify this inhospitality by saying: “It isn’t possible, our society can’t do that any more.” And I just don’t see why not; these are political choices.

What results does this cold reception have on immigrant families in France?

Marie Rose Moro: First of all, a great deal of insecurity, especially for the children. Mental insecurity is added to the material insecurity, since the children say to themselves: “I am not welcome, I must pledge allegiance to values that I do not know in order to be tolerated here.” The English term, for which there is no French equivalent, is “insecure.” At every moment in the day, and wherever they may find themselves, these children feel insecure. This has very serious consequences for their development. They’re unwilling to be separated from their parents, and they don’t want to learn because they’re afraid of new things. Worry about being arrested adds to that. The hospital and the school are no longer sanctuaries. Now, to grow up, children need to feel secure and calm, and to know that their parents are respected.

You insist a great deal on the importance of the mother tongue...

Marie Rose Moro: The latest studies show the importance of the mother tongue in children’s success. In some families, speaking a language other than French is felt to be dangerous. Now, to learn French well, it’s absolutely vital to speak one’s mother tongue. This is known to all the linguists and specialists. In France, diversity isn’t valued and we oblige immigrants to give up their history in order to assimilate. But a person becomes assimilated all the better if he or she is treated as a human being who has a history and a language. We value, and quite justly, languages like English or Japanese, and we undervalue the mother tongues of immigrants. We set up a hierarchy of languages.

The result is that you see a lot of language problems...

Marie Rose Moro: The children who cannot express themselves any more are quite characteristic. At home, they express themselves in their mother tongue, but at school they stop speaking. That’s indicative of the work that immigrant children must do in order to switch from one language to another. And when the mother tongue is insufficiently valued, the shift from one language to another is jeopardized. I insist on this idea, which is not self-evident in France. It’s as if the French language comprised a whole identity. I myself am the child of immigrants, and I’m very happy to have mastered the French language easily. But what are the conditions for arriving at that result? The answer, apparently, is not self-evident. But awareness regarding this question is growing on the ground, in the schools and associations.

You distinguish three periods: birth, schooling, and adolescence. Regarding the first, you describe the doubts of immigrant mothers who give birth to children here...

Marie Rose Moro: The events surrounding birth are very important. It’s the moment when you transmit what is yours and when you present the French world to children. The mothers have to do this somewhat paradoxical double job: transmission and presentation. The child’s psychic structure is at stake in these initial years. Now, often these beginnings are marked by doubts on the part of the mother, because her way of doing things is cast into doubt. It’s necessary for us as a society and for us as professionals to learn to respect the mothers in their diversity. For example, here we advise breast-feeding on demand, but this is very much a Western theory! Children aren’t spoken to in the same way here and elsewhere – they aren’t caressed, cradled, or addressed in the same way. There are places where the mother carries the child around 24 hours a day and doesn’t talk to it much, because the language is much more physical. Here, they’re put in a cradle and are talked to a lot. These differences must not only be respected, they must also be valued. We always doubt whether those who do not raise their children in the same way as us are able to love them. But mistreatment exists everywhere in the world! In all social classes and in every country in the world. This means that this question is not culture-based.

You condemn a profoundly inegalitarian access to culture for immigrant children...

Marie Rose Moro: France puts up a lot of resistance to seeing the school failure of immigrant children. A European resolution (1) was necessary to prove that, everywhere in Europe, France included, that immigrant children fail more at school when similar social classes are compared. This study also shows that these children are very eager to learn. Now, in France, we have classes that are made up entirely of immigrant children. So these are ghettoes! It’s astonishing, all the same, and everyone knows it. We shut our eyes and say that there are no ghettoes in France.

How can schools be made more pluralistic?

Marie Rose Moro: We have to get away from the notion of abstract equality and adopt more that of equity. In places where there is a lot of school failure, there’s a need for very small classes where the teachers don’t change often and are given the means to take on board the problems linked to cultural and social questions. In that case, we would be giving ourselves the means to help these children. But what is happening is the exact opposite ...

In your trans-cultural clinical work, you are now treating second-generation immigrants. You say that it’s even harder for them than for their parents, that it’s a terrible admission of failure.

Marie Rose Moro: The first generation accepted its problems as linked to the situation. There was a sort of resignation, they said to themselves: “It’ll be easier for our children, they’ve been born here, and they’ve gone to school here.” And they gave their children this illusion that they would be like everybody else... When the parents discover that their child’s failing at school, it’s very difficult for them to accept it. It’s as if all their suffering and hardship served no purpose. There’s also the question of projections, of the vision that society puts on these children, as [the historian] Pap Ndiaye has explained. The boys, especially when they’re adolescents, are feared. They’re considered to be threats.

You’ve worked as a pediatric psychiatrist in the [underprivileged] suburbs for twenty years. How do you explain the growth in violence among adolescents?

Marie Rose Moro: In reality, as [the sociologist] Laurent Mucchielli has shown, the figures on juvenile delinquency don’t show greater violence or more female violence. Having said that, it cannot be denied that there’s a climate of violence in the suburbs, which moreover doesn’t affect the immigrants alone. With this impression that everything could explode at any moment. My reading of this violence is done through the individual histories that these suburban adolescents tell me. They often have a deep feeling of injustice because they haven’t had access to knowledge and success. I call that a feeling of disappointed love. They expected so much, and their parents expected so much of them... When you’re failing at school, you’re condemned to exclusion; you’ll always be on the margins, like your parents. If you haven’t learned to read and write well, you will no longer be at the center of society. The feeling of being on the margins creates violence. You want to show who’s stronger because you have very poor self-respect. Beyond the individual histories, this violence has real consequences on the social fabric. But this problem must not be treated backwards. We, the psychiatrists and the schools, have an essential role to play in preventing this violence. It’s born of desperate people, who feel they’re outside of society and no longer have anything to lose. This behavior can be prevented by working with the mothers and their babies, at school. As for the adolescents, they pretend to be tough guys who aren’t afraid of anything, but they’re extremely sad and depressed. I’ve seen some who break into tears as soon as I shut the door to my office. We mustn’t be blinded by the stereotyped images that prevent them from accessing the outside world.

The subtitle of your book is “for a multi-cultural society.” Is this a manifesto in favor of multi-culturalism?

Marie Rose Moro: We live in a complex society in which cultural diversity must be turned into an advantage. Instead of accepting this notion of diversity, we’re afraid of it, we say to people: “Come together to be part of this society.” As a result, we create margins and exclusions. So, yes, this book is a manifesto. If you want society to unite those who compose it, it has got to be multi-cultural. It is in fact multi-cultural. We have to stop excluding and classifying hierarchically, as if colonization were continuing. We know what colonization leads to, it leads to war. For my part, I favor using diplomacy to create social cohesion.

Political discourse at present is really not one of tolerance. Don’t you feel that you are going against the current?

Marie Rose Moro: Yes, it’s true that I’m going against the current, but I accept that! First of all, because on the ground I don’t feel that I’m going against the current, according to what I hear from the families. Secondly, because you just have to see what’s going on in the world, in Spain, in Canada, in the United States. I don’t feel I’m preaching in the desert or that I’m a Don Quixote! Quite the contrary. We’re getting a lot of requests, internationally, from people who want to train in the trans-cultural domain. These children and those who work with them are rather the pioneers of a new world!

(1) European Parliament resolution of April 2, 2009, on the education of immigrant children.

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