Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion find housing and employment thanks to the community initiative that is spreading throughout France
TILQUES, France, May 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In a peaceful corner of northern France, Ukrainian Olympic athlete Tatyana Kolesnikova tends to a freshly planted field of vegetables next to a medieval castle – the sounds from the war she fled were replaced by a chorus of birdsong.
The former world rowing champion is among some 400 refugees who have recently arrived in the rural area thanks to an initiative led by the French-American owner of the castle that has inspired similar community efforts across France.
Three months ago, Kolesnikova, 44, was awakened by the sound of bombs falling on her hometown, the capital kyiv, as Russia launched its invasion on February 24.
“I heard bombs falling just two kilometers away. It was really shocking. No one expected it, everyone said it was impossible,” said World Championship gold medalist Kolesnikova who participated in three Olympic Games.
She discovered the project in Tilques – 30 km (20 miles) southeast of Calais – after fleeing to Poland with her eight-year-old daughter. Her husband, like most men, remained in Ukraine.
“We had a happy, normal family life,” she said. “We had jobs and a big house, we loved sports and travelling. We had everything, but in one day it was all gone.”
She smiled wryly as she remembered that just weeks before the invasion, the family was planning a vacation and her daughter had begged to visit France.
Kolesnikova, who has joined the local rowing club, has taken a temporary job gardening but hopes to find work as a sports coach.
Most of the refugees are staying with families in the area around the castle and in the cathedral town of St Omer, said Mary Meaney, who founded the Solidarite Ukraine initiative.
“It’s been an amazing community effort and now we want to expand across France to help as many people as possible,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Some of the refugees were picked up from Poland by the local football club manager and a team of volunteers who picked them up from the club’s minibuses – a 3,000 km (1,860 mile) round trip.
The youngest to arrive is a baby born at the start of the war. The oldest, a 94-year-old fellow recently evacuated from the Ukrainian region of Donbass, surprised his hosts by singing the French national anthem in perfect French.
Donations of everything from computers to bicycles to baby supplies poured in. Farmers deliver fresh produce and milk, a baker provides bread, and the mayor of Tilques has plowed the field next to the castle for Ukrainians to grow vegetables.
The children were welcomed into the schools; businesses and farms offered jobs.
“We have witnessed incredible solidarity and generosity,” said Meaney, 49, a former senior partner at global consultancy McKinsey who lives at the castle with her British archaeologist husband Ian and their six children.
The chateau sits on the edge of a UNESCO protected biosphere criss-crossed by waterways in an agricultural region famous in France for its carrots and cauliflower.
Some of the refugees live in whitewashed farm buildings in the castle grounds where Meaney has also established a community centre.
The farm is a hive of activity. Trucks arrive with food, volunteers sort donations in a barn, children play on swings among the trees, mothers take French lessons in a makeshift classroom.
Solidarite Ukraine works with companies, non-profit organizations and the government employment agency to find jobs for refugees. Like the others European Union countriesFrance granted Ukrainians the right to live and work for up to three years.
A Ukrainian doctor has already started at a local hospital, while a microbiologist has been promised a job in a pharmacy when his French improves. Many refugees are well educated, but language is a major obstacle.
Some work on farms and a chicory packing plant. French food giant Bonduelle has offered 250 seasonal jobs and the nearby crystal factory in Arques is also hiring refugees.
Others got jobs with UNA, a national organization providing home care for the elderly, sick and disabled.
UNA representative Christiane Martel said there was a high demand for caregivers in the region, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, although transport between villages was an issue.
With almost none of the refugees speaking French, Google Translate has become indispensable on the farm. A coordinator with her phone always at hand asks one of the Ukrainians if anyone would like a part-time job at the nearby 4-star hotel.
She quickly speaks French into her phone and displays the Ukrainian translation. The refugee nods.
Several times a week, French teacher Nataliia Pozhylova comes to the farm to give lessons.
“Without the language, it’s very complicated for them,” said Pozhylova, a Ukrainian woman married to a Frenchman. “They are really determined to learn.”
Refugees want to work. Some want to send money to family still in Ukraine or save for their future go home.
Several said they would have preferred to stay in Poland, but thought France offered a better chance of finding a job.
“All my life I’ve been independent,” said accountant Yulia Ostrovska, 37, who lives on the farm with her two daughters and their spaniel dog.
The family fled Kharkiv after spending a week in an air-raid shelter as Russian planes pounded the city.
“When you lived in your own apartment and worked and had your own money, you want to work again and be independent,” Ostrovska said.
One of the golden rules of Solidarity Ukraine is to ensure that refugees are accommodated in geographical groups so that no one is isolated.
Many are deeply traumatized. Some were part of a 12-car convoy that were attacked as they left Ukraine. Only five made it out.
Moscow calls its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation” to rid the country of fascists, a claim kyiv and its Western allies see as a baseless pretext for unprovoked war.
“They saw their family and friends in front of them, beside them and behind them being blown up,” Meaney said.
“Children are traumatized every time they see a plane because they think it’s a Russian plane that’s come to kill them.”
She has created a global network of 60 Ukrainian and Russian-speaking psychologists who provide refugees with video call therapy.
The farm also offers meeting space where they can socialize, and every weekend there are activities ranging from bowling and kayaking to pizza nights and movie nights.
The past three months have been a roller coaster, Meaney said. There were fantastic moments when children smiled for the first time, but also frustrating battles with pockets of “glacially slow” French bureaucracy.
With the help of Imperial College Business School in London, Solidarite Ukraine has now compiled a 130-page manual to help other French communities wishing to welcome refugees. Imperial is considering a similar guide for Britain.
The manual advises on preparations before refugees arrive, how to integrate them into the community and provides Ukrainian translations of official forms.
Sitting in the community center, Ostrovska, a mother of two, scrolls through pictures of her “beloved Kharkiv” on her phone.
Like many refugees, she is very grateful to her French hosts. Her daughters are settling in well, but Ostrovska misses home.
“It’s amazing here,” she said. “But I just want my old life back.”
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(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world struggling to live freely or fairly. Visit http:// news.trust.org)
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