Ibrahima Condé (all images courtesy of Musee d’Orsay et d’Orangerie)

Ibrahima Condé had never worked in the arts sector before arriving in Paris in 2017 from Conakry, in the West African country Guinea. Certain basic aspects — like navigating the metro system — were challenging, let alone the larger hurdles of applying for asylum and work. 

But Condé, now 32, connected with Sama for All, a nonprofit that trains displaced people for employment in French museums and cultural organizations. 

Sama for All was founded by entrepreneur Souad Nanaa, a refugee herself who arrived from Syria just one year before Condé. Sama means “sky” in Arabic, which appealed to Nanaa for conveying a sense of limitless possibilities. Nanaa had spent 16 years in the catering sector and decided that she wanted a challenge. She spent some time volunteering with SINGA, an organization that supports cultural exchange between migrants and other Parisians. This includes visits to museums like the Louvre, which offers free admission to refugees and asylum seekers.

Eventually, Nanaa decided to start a non-profit of her own, building on France’s rich cultural offerings. “I believe that culture is above boundaries,” says Nanaa. And she saw culture as a way to build connections and opportunities.

A Sama for All training session

The Sama for All training program lasts at least six months for each participant. Trainers are artists, art students, and museum staff who teach on topics including conservation and security. The course also includes visits to museums and evening public events where trainees put their presentation skills to the test. And the organization works with museums’ HR departments to encourage them to develop more migrant-friendly recruitment processes.

Condé’s practical experience has included stints at the Louvre, l’Orangerie, and Fondation Louis Vuitton. He’s now a museum officer at the Musée Maillol, where he guides tours, assists visitors, and watches over paintings. 

Not everyone lands employment after participating in Sama for All. Of the 17 trainees in the 2017—2018 program, who hailed from nine countries, eight went on job interviews. Only four ultimately received an offer of employment. 

One of the biggest challenges has been language. Condé, unlike some Sama participants, was already a French speaker when he arrived in the country. Though Condé’s primary languages were Susu, Malinké, and Fula, French is the official language of Guinea, a former French colony. 

Most Sama for All participators are Arabic speakers with less experience in French. So that these individuals aren’t stymied by language barriers, Sama for All aims to provide more arts-specific language and culture training to supplement the free language lessons offered by the French government to migrants.

A training session for presentation techniques

Another hardship is that Sama for All’s training isn’t paid. Some trainees may need to work to add to the meager allowances that the French government provides to asylum seekers, and applying for asylum can be a job in itself. Condé admits that he considered dropping out “whilst I was preparing my documents to ask for the right to remain in the country. It was a little difficult for me to attend the meetings at Sama and at the same time go through the process of preparing my ask to stay.” (He declined to state why he decided to leave Guinea and seek asylum.

This is amidst an increasingly harsh political climate for asylum seekers in France, whose numbers are increasing. In 2019, asylum seekers’ welfare payment — €6.80 (~$7.57) a day — was reduced by 25%, and a waiting period was instituted for their access to public healthcare. The French government has been criticized in the past for rejecting people displaced by conflict while benefitting from the artworks taken from their countries.

While Condé is secure and content for now, he acknowledges that his Maillol position isn’t highly paid, and “of course I’d hope to further progress in this field and have a job role that fulfills my ambition.” The Sama for All program isn’t designed to lead directly to curatorial positions involving several years of training. 

But in December 2019, Sama for All received a boost with an award of over $200,000 from BridgeBuilder, a grantmaking program of the GHR Foundation that in 2019 focused on creative solutions to displacement. (Another of the winning projects was a streetwear brand established by a union of Senegalese street vendors in Barcelona.)

Amy Goldman, the foundation’s CEO, says that part of what’s compelling about Sama for All is the idea of “immigrants into France becoming the experts on French culture,” as one example of how “those on the move may hold the solutions themselves.” Nanaa is hoping to expand the program to libraries and theaters this year, and to reach Lyon and Marseille in 2021. 

As for Condé, the program has opened up new interests even beyond his hobbies of cooking and reading. “The cultural world is one that interests me a lot, especially as I’ve had the opportunity to study history, international relations, and art.” And with his museum position, he’s sharing that knowledge with others.

Christine Ro writes about culture and other topics from London. She's relentlessly lowbrow.