For most of us, news that the Calais Jungle was being dismantled in October 2016 was a story that caused concern, but had little impact on our daily lives.
But for the 6,500 refugees such as Sharif Hasrat, 25, from Afghanistan, the evacuation of the camp signalled the start of yet another journey into the unknown. “I have been a migrant for nearly five years now,” he explains. “Two-and-a-half years of that time was spent in the Calais Jungle.”
On that day, Sharif boarded a bus for Rouen with little idea of what the future might hold.
“I was a victim of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he said. “I had everything – a comfortable life, a job as an English teacher, my family. Suddenly I was in a situation where I didn’t have anything, I didn’t know anyone – I was from a different culture. You just feel helpless.”
The situation led to depression. However, a friendship with his French tutor, Nicole Fritz, has proven a light in the darkness of his journey.
“I met Nicole when she volunteered to teach French through an association,” says Sharif.
“Learning French was a first and basic need for me – and she also helped me understand more about the culture.”
Nicole, 63, a soutien scolaire support assistant was contacted by an association, Le Local St Vincent in Rouen, after she put an advertisement on a local website.
She said: “I was looking to give German classes to French people, but I had a call asking whether I’d be able to give French classes to English-speakers. I said yes – why not?”
Teaching the class has proved a positive experience. “Meeting people from other cultures has taught me a lot about the world,” she explains.
“Sharif and his classmates were very sweet. Sharif has often brought native Afghan treats in for me to try, including baklava. It was very kind.”
Over time, as well as teaching her students French, Nicole also began to assist some students with job applications and form-filling, forming a close friendship with Sharif in the process.
“It was not part of my job but I wanted to do it” she explains.
As well as assisting Sharif with administrative tasks, Nicole has helped him to learn his way around local brocantes and selling websites, to help him to furnish his flat.
“I try to help him get what he needs – not just for now, but for his future. I enjoy being of use.”
Nicole’s input also proved invaluable to Sharif when he became an admin helper of an online group ‘France and Beyond – Refugee Aid’ on which English-speakers in France collaborate to help refugees and raise awareness of their plight. “I became an administrator for the group recently and I struggled with my internet,” he says. “Nicole purchased a SIM card for me to use, and let me pay her back for the contract each month, as it was difficult for me to purchase one. She is a kind lady.”
While the past five years have been difficult for Sharif, things do seem to be on the up for the young teacher.
“I received confirmation that I can stay permanently in France last July,” he says.
“This year, I hope to go to college and improve my French. It would be my dream to be able to teach English; to get my old job back.”
Nicole is helping Sharif with job applications, although he has yet to find employment. “Unfortunately, for now, his French is too weak; but I help and we hope!” she says.
As for Nicole, she feels she has benefited from their friendship. “His story is amazing – and I am fascinated by his previous life. We have things in common because we are human.
“He could be my son!”