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Taking her knowledge to the streets -- literallySenior Zibaa Uyghur Adil is majoring in international development studies at the International Institute. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Taking her knowledge to the streets -- literally

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, December 15, 2023 — UCLA senior Zibaa Uyghur Adil originally hoped to study international relations at a university in the Washington, D.C. area. Although she applied to several UC campuses as a backup, she didn’t expect to be accepted by UCLA because “so many qualified students get rejected,” she shared.

“I didn’t even know that international development studies (IDS) was a field until I was applying to schools and saw it was an undergrad option at UCLA,” she continued. When she received an unexpected acceptance, the IDS major and the benefits of in-state tuition convinced her to become a Bruin.

Adil began her undergraduate studies in fall 2020, during the remote education days of the coronavirus pandemic. Two-and-a half years later, she departed for Paris to attend a four-month intensive French-language field research and internship program offered by the Institute for Field Education through the UC Education Abroad Program (UCEAP).

The IFE program began with five weeks of lectures (in French) by local university professors on French history, politics and society — together with a “cours practique” that stressed public speaking, debates and presentations in French. Adil and her fellow IFE students then spent 11 weeks working as interns in organizations related to their individual academic interests — in her case, migration — while researching and writing a paper in French under the guidance of an academic advisor.

To grasp Adil’s dedication, it helps to know that she began studying French only after her freshman year, when she completed levels 1-3 during a summer intensive course. She then took levels 4-6 in her sophomore year, followed by a French 7 elective (an IFE requirement) in fall quarter of her junior year. Roughly five months later, she completed the longest research paper she had yet written in college — in French! (Among her current classes is a course on Francophone African literature, also in French.)

Working at the ground level

“I’ve always had an interest in migration studies, as my parents are immigrants. But I never really had the chance to dive deeply into the reality of migration at close quarters,” related the Bruin student, who is regularly engaged in promoting Uyghur culture and education.

“So I was happy for an opportunity to be able to explore [the topic] further, but with the background of UCLA classes that had introduced me to some of the theory surrounding migration and development. The [IFE program] let me understand on a personal level the things that I’d been learning about in classes.”

Indeed, Adil learned some hard lessons at Utopia 56, a Paris-based NGO that works to provide undocumented migrants and asylum seekers emergency housing. The organization is part of a network of civil society support organizations that do their best to provide these migrants the bare minimum of support that the French federal and Parisian municipal administrations frequently do not deliver, including emergency shelter, baby formula, clothes, help in filling out asylum claims, accessing medical care, temporarily storing belongings and pro-bono legal services.

December 2022. Migrant camp in front of Louvre Museum in Paris. (Photo: Tanopaso via Wikimedia Commons; https://bit.ly/3NsmA2M.) Public domain. Adil worked on a team that handled the huge logistical task of matching single migrant women and migrant families with available housing on a night-by-night basis. Three sources of accommodations were available: rooms in private homes volunteered by individuals; churches and parishes; and an encampment in a Paris garage (a site that closed after Adil completed her internship).

In a process akin to plugging a leak in a boat, Utopia staff members would meet migrants who needed housing at 6:00 p.m. every evening on the plaza in front of the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), an historic public space in the center of Paris. Using handheld devices, they would register new and returning migrant families, liaise with a Utopia colleague who maintained a list of that night’s available housing and assign housing to the families. A large percentage of the migrants came from Côte D’Ivoire.

“Frequently we would get five to 10 new families a night. When less people showed up, we might have 40 families, with the upper end going to 80 and even 100 families. We could work with as many as 200 people a night,” recounted Adil.

“The largest category of people we worked with were undocumented families; either they didn’t want to apply for asylum, or they had already done it and had been rejected, or they had already been in France beyond the three-month limit to submit an application.

“It’s an understatement to say that the work was very hard; it took a big toll emotionally,” reflected Adil. “Because we liked to give each family some time to talk to us about their day, we often became witnesses to the trauma and adversity that [they] were facing.

“There might be families who didn’t get housed, or hadn’t been housed for a while, but I would go back to my apartment. There’s just a level of guilt that comes with that at the end of the night.”

Utopia did its best to protect staff from emotional burnout by limiting them to a maximum of three evening shifts a week, as well as making psychological counseling available. Still, the young staff were highly aware of their privilege and struggled not to become emotionally attached to the people they served.

Occasionally migrants decided to hold a protest in front of the Hôtel de Ville to force the Parisian municpal government to provide the emergency housing required under French law and international human rights covenants. Utopia staff would then accompany them for a night or longer on the plaza and make arrangements for hot coffee and food.

Sometimes such protests succeeded in producing an offer of longer-term housing solutions, but those options could be located far from Paris and the sources of migrants’ ongoing legal and medical support. Other times, migrants were arrested and received deportation orders, which attorneys working with Utopia were able to overturn.

“Toward the end of my internship, we started having less solutions because a lot of churches only had the resources to house people during the winter,” said Adil.

Experience informs research and life lessons

While witnessing the grueling realities of unhoused migrants without the legal right to work, Adil was busy working on a research paper that put that experience into the context of economic development.

“La Précarité au-delà des frontières : Le Carrefour entre la migration familiale précaire et le développement (Precarity across Borders: The Intersection between Familial Precarious Migration and Development.)” looks at the role of precarious — as opposed to legal — migration and its relationship to development, with a focus on the growing numbers of undocumented women and families from Côte d’Ivoire that Adil was seeing on the streets of Paris.

The research paper, which the IDS major is now expanding into a Senior Honors research thesis, argues for “the importance of adding precarious familial migration into discussions of development. I think there’s a lot of optimism about how great migration can be for development — for both sending and also destination countries — but I’m not so sure,” she said.

“Historically, in the 1950s and 1960s, Côte d’Ivoire was a destination for a lot of migrants in West Africa. But over time it became a net sending country,” she continued. Some development agencies still considered the country a development success story in the early 2020s. Adil, however, pointed out that women and families with whom she spoke at Utopia frequently mentioned disparities between the educational, employment and social opportunities available to men and women in Côte d’Ivoire. “The economic success of the country hasn’t translated into overall well-being for everyone,” she reflected.

Looking back at her time in Paris, Adil said, “I really enjoyed living almost at the center of a big city. I also felt relatively safe because there were so many people out at all times.” (Her time in Paris coincided with huge, virtually daily, demonstrations against a change in the pension retirement age in France introduced by President Émmanuel Macron.)

“I definitely gained a lot of confidence in myself, not just in my mastery of the French language and my ability to contribute meaningfully to Utopia, but even in the small things of being able to talk to strangers and navigate my way around and learn a metro system.”

The UCLA student also gained insight into how differently urgent social issues are looked at in the U.S. and France. Recalling an evening with a French friend, she said, “[We talked] for hours about how different social issues were introduced to me, growing up in the Bay Area in California, versus how they were introduced to her in France. I talked about how we conceptualize race at the university level in the U.S. [as opposed to] France, and she was so shocked by it. It was really interesting conversation.”