'The Captain' challenges impoverished youth to love France

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Members of 'Laissez Les Servir' (Let Them Serve) attend a briefing prior to meal preparation in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, north of Paris, Thursday, April 29, 2021. Nourouddine Abdoulhoussen, a former member of the 8th Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, runs a tight ship, reaching into his years in the military to inculcate in his proteges, youths from poor French suburbs, confidence, courage and love of France. To the youth in (Let Them Serve) the white-bearded 53-year-old leader with the booming voice is the Captain. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

PIERREFITTE-SUR-SEINE – PIERREFITTE-SUR-The man they call “the Captain” runs a tight ship, reaching into his years of military service to inculcate confidence, courage and a love of France in his proteges, youths from poor French suburbs,.

But first they must learn how to wake up on time and brush their teeth, says Nourouddine Abdoulhoussen, a former member of the 8th Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, who heads an association called Laissez Les Servir (Let Them Serve) with a unique approach to integration.

In his own way, the white-bearded, 53-year-old Abdoulhoussen is working to uplift some of France's battalions of impoverished youth, often from heavily immigrant housing projects known for unemployment and delinquency, and to restore French values to create “the citizens of tomorrow.”

Abdoulhoussen, a Muslim originally from India, has no sympathy for complainers.

“I, too, have a background," he said. "I crossed the seas to come here. I lived the problem of integration. I know how it feels to have people stare at you because you behave differently. Or people look at you because you look different."

A group of young troops snaps to attention on command. They sing the French national anthem, then move to their assigned stations in a gymnasium in Pierrefitte-Sur-Seine, north of Paris. In a minutely calibrated, military-style operation, they prepare and pack at least 400 meals daily for delivery to the poor during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Instructions are spelled out in lists on the wall at the gymnasium that is their “command post.”

Around the corner, residents of Les Fauvettes, a decrepit housing project with holes in the walls and mailboxes torn apart, hang from windows awaiting their meals, delivered by a group of Abdoulhoussen's troops.

During a recent visit, 639 pieces of chicken, cut by the youth, were cooked along with vegetables in huge pots in a tent outside. During the year, the young people take kettles of soup into Paris train stations.