Parlez-vous français? New Philly hub aims to connect French-speaking immigrants.
It’s the creation of four francophones from Africa, Europe and the Caribbean, who want to cut across national lines and connect immigrants based on language.
A new center for French-speaking newcomers in Philadelphia? Mais oui!
It’s the budding creation of four local francophones, come here from Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean, who want to cut across national and cultural lines to connect immigrants based on a single shared language. With that, they say, people who speak le français can help each other find jobs, grow businesses, and navigate government regulations that for many can spell the difference between success and failure.
“It will make their inclusion more easy in the city of Philadelphia,” said cofounder Amel Kherbachene, 32. “It’s really hard to find sources to help you integrate.”
She came here six years ago from her native Algeria, with its national languages of Algerian Arabic and Berber. Some English is spoken, too. But French, a legacy of the nation’s colonial history, is widely used in everyday life and in the news media, schools, and government.
In Philadelphia, Kherbachene said, the common absence of French blocked her from basic job-search information, and from having more nuanced conversations and contacts with friends and colleagues.
“The saying ‘You talk to someone in their native language, it goes to their heart. If you talk to someone in their second language, it goes to their mind,’” she said. “It made me feel how easy it could be if the francophones could have a space to share advice.”
The Centre Francophone de Philadelphie is brand-new, still a bébé. For now it exists largely as a French-and-English website and a phone number. The creators want to eventually develop a physical space, either standing on its own or housed within one of the larger immigrant-support agencies.
Right now they’re concentrating on stuffing the website with information. Its offerings include the official federal government guide for new immigrants — Bienvenue aux États-Unis — along with how-to steps for getting a state driver’s license or identity card. Separate sections provide contacts to community and professional organizations like Africom, the Alliance Française de Philadelphie, Haitian Professionals of Philadelphia, and the Welcoming Center. There’s also information on ESL classes.
Those with more or different questions can get answers the old-fashioned way: Call. The phone number is on the website, and the person who answers will try to help.
Several people have reached out to say they want to become involved, and at least one wanted to donate money. French-speaking Americans can sign on to become mentors or tutors but shouldn’t come simply looking for a place to practice the language.
“The idea is really to create a community,” said cofounder Ben Goebel, 32, who was born near Lyon, France’s third-largest city. “The idea is to build the website with a lot of information and see where it can go.”
Goebel was drawn to the United States by an ideal of freedom that he didn’t see in his homeland. After stops in China, Poland, and Canada, he works at the Welcoming Center, the Philadelphia nonprofit that supports immigrants, where he’s a manager of the International Professionals Program.
“There are other French-speakers [and] we can support each other in many ways,” said center cofounder Nahomie Laurore, 34, who grew up speaking Haitian Creole and French in her native Haiti, then learned English and Portuguese and some Spanish. “Finding resources in French for newcomers, for me, was something that was very difficult.”
She works as a program director at Community Center at Visitation in Kensington, which aims to improve education and job opportunities for vulnerable people, including many immigrants.
Today more than 275 million people around the world speak French, including 96 million in Africa and about 1.6 million in this country, according to Rutgers University.
Here, French is popular among language students because of its utility, ease, and beauty. But the global presence of the language is partly a result of the colonial era, when France imposed its will and language on colony nations as it extracted materials and wealth. That’s why so many Vietnamese speak French.
In the United States, English is the most-spoken language, followed by Spanish. That’s been consistent for decades. But since 1980 the other top languages have changed dramatically, driven by the passing of a previous generation of speakers and the arrival of new immigrants.
Italian, which was second behind Spanish in 1980, dropped to ninth in 2010, while German fell from third to seventh and Polish from fifth to 11th. Meanwhile, Chinese jumped from sixth to second, Tagalog from seventh to fourth, Korean from 12th to sixth, and Vietnamese from 13th to fifth, according to the Census.
French became more widely spoken, rising from fourth to third.
Today about 37,000 people in Pennsylvania speak French at home, and in New Jersey it’s 40,000, along with 21,000 who speak French Creole.
The new center says the number of French-speakers is rising in Philadelphia, due to immigration from Africa and particularly from West Africa. The city also has large numbers of French-speaking Haitians, as the Haitian population in the United States has tripled during the last 30 years.
The local increase can go unnoticed, the center founders say, because many immigrants don’t speak or list French as their first language, even though they’re fluent or nearly so.
“Something we all have in common [in Senegal] is we all speak French,” said center cofounder Mamadou Ndiaye, 38, who works at a biology company. “There’s an African community here. But there wasn’t an organization of African people who speak French.”
He managed, he said, because he studied English in college, and then taught English and French literature for eight years. But he knows other immigrants who spent years trying to get on track for a decent job or college classes because they lacked a French connection.
Kherbachene speaks four languages, holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, and worked as a pharmacy technician in Algeria. In this country she needed to transition to a new career, and now works for a medical implants company.
Ce n’est pas facile to be an immigrant to a new country, she said. But she wouldn’t give up life in the United States.
“There are more opportunities, that a good idea can become bigger and achieve your dreams,” she said. “I can find a way to help my community and also other communities.”