Fouad Kerbage checked online nearly every day to see if he was now a French citizen. When he spotted his name in a list of people whose applications got the green light this summer, it capped a long journey for the 33-year-old oncologist.
“I had worked during the crisis when there was a need for doctors, when there was a lot of fear of COVID,” said the Lebanese doctor. “We didn’t know much about the virus. There was no vaccine. It was a difficult time, but it was our duty to keep doing our jobs.”
With his new passport, “a new page has opened” — in the words of Kerbage, who has lived in France since he studied there as a resident in 2017.
Like him, around 12,000 people have just become French, under a special fast-track program for workers standing on the front line of the battle against COVID-19.
They include doctors, nurses, cleaning staff, cashiers and garbage collectors, France’s citizenship minister, Marlène Schiappa, said Thursday.
“These front-line workers responded to the call of the nation. It is normal for the nation to take a step toward them,” she added. “The country pulled through, thanks to them.”
The pandemic has also prompted calls in other countries for visa and residency restrictions to be lifted for foreign workers who have put their lives at risk in health-care systems that need them.
In the United States, nearly 29,000 health-care workers — out of many more undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” — feared losing their permits last year when the Trump administration sought to end a program that protects them from deportation. The Supreme Court later blocked the attempt.
Britain, meanwhile, gave thousands of health-care workers a free extension of their British visas, although proposals for migrant medics to keep paying visa fees have faced backlash. Doctors’ associations have urged the British government to let overseas workers, who make up about 13.8 percent of the country’s National Health Service, stay in the country indefinitely.
Under its pandemic initiative, France took in 12,012 new nationals out of more than 16,300 people who sent applications for citizenship, a process that includes interviews and tests. The government sped up their cases and cut the requirement for residency from five years to two.
For Kerbage, the good news brought comfort. It also gave him stability, at a time when his home country Lebanon is sinking into chaos, in part because of bread, electricity and medicine shortages.
“It was a journey,” he said. “But it was great to go through it, to study for the interview, to learn all the history of France and how it got here today.”