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Realising dreams in Paris

By Natalia Chan

May 2013 marked the culmination of Maslaha’s first project in Paris. 

Over two days, the Gulbenkian Foundation’s conference room in the chic 8th district of Paris hosted 18 young women from various suburbs of Paris for a series of activities and workshops. 

The mission: to enable young women to take an active role in determining their future, and to make career choices that truly reflect their aspirations and their potential.

Realising dreams

The girls shuffled into the room, not quite sure what to expect. Some came with friends; others came alone with shy smiles, self-consciously settling into a chair as they waited for something to begin. Athina (our partner in Paris, facilitator and programme designer) and her team of volunteers welcomed them all into a warm and open atmosphere.

Over the next two days the slightly detached expressions became alive with curiousity and recognition. The kindling of small questions and adolescent uncertainty in each young woman was fanned into flames of possibility and inspiration.  Athina’s expertly crafted programme led them through a series of activities designed to explore themselves and build self-confidence, discuss opportunities for career paths, and to enable them to meet diverse role models from the same neighbourhoods as them – from Samira Ama, a doctor of biology, to Bouchra Aliouat, Secretary General of the KPGM Foundation, to Emira Zaag, who set up her own business specializing in site management, among many others.

Each of the girls formulated their own career plans, taking part in exercises in self-reflection and personality tests which enabled them to identify their strengths, weaknesses, and passions, and to build knowledge of the working world. The opportunity to meet and hear the stories of role models from similar backgrounds was extremely powerful – to hear the intricacies of complicated paths and human endeavour, charismatically told with humour and vigour, and to understand that very few of us embark on these journeys with easy and straightforward paths mapped out.

The emotional sharing circle at the end of the two days was a testament to the impact that Rêv'Elles had on the young women. There was a powerful sense of courage, determination, and self-belief. New ideas to explore and plans to put into practice. New friendships, and a new awareness of support and guidance; of possibility.

Some quotations from participants:

‘No one has ever told us we could do anything before. No one has ever asked us what we want to be.’

‘I really loved it. It helped me and still helps me.’

‘I helped me regain confidence in myself.’

‘I have come to know me, and not just what others thought of me.’

‘Rêv'Elles has changed my life.’


Why Rêv'Elles is important

These workshops were unique because there are very few projects like this in Paris – which target young women from such backgrounds and neighbourhoods, and use innovative practice in this way. As detailed in a previous blog, our extensive scoping exercise revealed an urgent need for projects like this which specifically target young women from disadvantaged areas.

Perhaps one of the most shocking things we learned from talking to the young women was how little they are encouraged or supported by their schools, or are actively discouraged when they express their aspirations. For example, as one of our role models said with disbelief:

‘Some of the girls told me that everyday when they go to school there is a poster on the wall that tells them that only a small number of people from the areas they live in will go onto professional careers or university. When they tell the teachers they want to do something or pursue a particular career, the teachers tell them not to bother as they won’t be able to achieve it, that the odds are against them. I am so angry about this.’


What this means for Maslaha

Our work in Paris has provided new challenges: our first long-term project based outside the UK in a country where projects cannot target groups based on religious or ethnic identity.

The concept of ‘laïcité’ and the legacy of the 1905 law on the separation of the Churches and the State contrasts with how religious and ethnic groups are directly acknowledged and represented in the UK. We estimate that about 85% of participants were from a Muslim background (based on those who requested halal food), all were from minority ethnic backgrounds, and many were second-generation immigrants. But it is very difficult to talk about this openly in France, and we even heard one or two comments criticizing the fact that this programme only targeted women.

This project was an opportunity for Maslaha to test its innovative approach to tackling social issues in a new context, to inform the development of a Beta version of a new toolkit which will enable others to replicate this approach. The opportunity to partner with Athina was extremely valuable, and Rêv'Elles has proven to her that she wants to set up an organisation to reach more young people with her pedagogical methods. Overall, this work has amplified our learning, and also proven that our approach can work in a completely different context. Our Beta toolkit is currently in development, and there will be more to come very soon…


What next

We are thrilled with the success of these pioneering workshops, and are intent on continuing this work through expanding Rêv'Elles and helping Athina to set up her own organisation. 

The young women who took part in Rêv'Elles have stayed in touch – some have passed their exams and have opted to follow their career plans, others have even decided to repeat the year so that they can achieve better grades which will allow them to pursue dreams and passions which they discovered through the programme.

The positive energy this project has engendered continues, and the question from the passionate team of volunteers will hopefully soon be answered: ‘So when is the next Rêv'Elles?’.


MORE: Bondy Blog sent a bloguer to cover this event, read more here