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Youth in Paris projects talk about finding their place

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I got the chance to spend last week in Paris. Part of it was personal – I went for my birthday, but another part of it was born out of curiosity about the city’s recovery from the terrorist attacks last month.

Reminders were everywhere. Police with machine guns patrolling the streets. Happening upon the grave of a 21-year-old woman who was killed at the Bataclan. People staying home because they were just too afraid to go out.

I also got to go to La Courneuve, a suburb where many immigrant families live in government housing projects. Ten years ago, people rioted here over what they saw as France's failure to incorporate Muslims and immigrants into society. It’s a tension you can still feel in the neighborhood today, even as it starts to gentrify.

I went to La Courneuve to meet with Monte Laster, an American artist who works with kids in the neighborhood. I wanted to get a sense of what it's like to grow up there today.

Laster is a former missionary who moved to France 20 years ago. When he came to La Courneuve in 1999, he founded a non-proft called FACE, the French American Creative Exchange. It works with the people who live there to do artistic and cultural projects in the neighborhood. I spoke with six teenagers who work with FACE, and their own association Team 10, about their lives right now.

It’s a tense time. One of them, Yssoime Djae, who is 17, told me that the police raid the apartment buildings a lot, and that people are scared.

“Families have their lives upended because the police turn a whole house upside down for nothing sometimes,” he said.

The boys were also worried about the National Front, the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen, that has done well in regional elections.

“With everything that’s happening,” Djae said, “they’re gaining more and more ground because the French — the real French of old French origin — will say, ‘Actually  they’re right, the Front Nationale.  We let them [immigrants] in, we make a place for them, and they take everything from us.’” 

Still, the boys wanted to be a part of a multicultural France. Djae wants to get a masters degree in marketing, and work in France’s luxury marketing business. He told me he hopes that he can “mix” with other kinds of people.

“We like mixing” he said. “But when it's rejected we won't force it. “

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