A French village is mobilizing to help Ukraine — this time – POLITICO


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Paul Taylor, a editor-in-chief of POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column.

SAINT-REMY-DE-PROVENCE, France — Oh what a difference a nationality makes, especially when it comes to refugees and the country in which they seek refuge.

On a windy winter evening, a week after the arrival of Russian tanks in Ukraine, more than 100 residents turned out for a small meeting announced at the town hall of this small village in the south of France. They were there to volunteer and help Ukrainians.

Several people have offered to take in refugees. Two business owners provided storage space for public donations of food, clothing, medicine, bedding and basic necessities. A Russian teacher offered her services as an interpreter. And the mayor promised the city council would provide staff and facilities to support the relief effort.

“I couldn’t bear to watch the killings and destruction on TV and not do anything, anything, to help,” said Isabelle, a retired social worker. She articulated the feelings of shame, helplessness and frustration that drove many volunteers to action.

Within a week, residents had collected and packed enough aid to fill four vans, which set off from Saint Remy and the suburban town of Allauch, near Marseille, on the 2,100 kilometers across Europe to on the border between Poland and Ukraine. Deputy Mayor Yves Favergeon was among the volunteer drivers, and four days later they returned to France after delivering their loads to a collection point and with 15 Ukrainian refugees – all mothers and children.

Similar gatherings also took place across the country, as ordinary citizens, horrified by images of war and destruction beamed into their homes 24/7, came together in a spontaneous outpouring of solidarity. and began to organize.

In Saint Rémy, retired businessman Philippe Rambaud and his wife, Véronique Julienne-Rambaud, a business coach, created the “Ukraine Solidarity collective” – ​​an ad hoc group that does not require legal registration. cumbersome – to organize volunteers.

Within days, 80 people – including many retirees – were connected via a WhatsApp group and a list was organized to staff the makeshift warehouse from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. to receive, sort and pack aid donations. Volunteers offered free French lessons to newcomers, help with filling out administrative forms and practical equipment such as strollers and bicycles.

A local supermarket donated moving boxes, pharmacies donated medicine and first aid kits, a secretarial services company provided free photocopies and printing. A group of volunteers collected carts of food and toiletries donated by shoppers at the supermarket checkout. Another group organized a lottery to raise funds for the refugees. Two weeks later, a second convoy packed with aid left for the Polish-Ukrainian border and brought back eight more refugees.

Far from being a one-off burst of generosity, the local effort in Saint Rémy has turned into a sustained effort, fostering a team spirit and civic pride often absent from daily life in France, where grumpy pessimism and expectation of state support are default attitudes.

The only blot on this picture of altruism is the question of why no similar local effort took place in 2015-2016, when more than a million refugees, mostly Syrians, poured into Europe. Or last year, when hundreds of thousands fled the radical Islamist Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan as the US-led NATO peacekeeping force was withdrawn amid heartbreaking images of Afghans desperate to escape, clinging to the wings of planes. Faced with scenes of distress as poignant as ever in Ukraine, the French have for the most part closed their doors and their hearts.

“People weren’t so generous back then,” Julienne-Rambaud admitted. “It’s easier with mothers and children than with [the] mainly male refugees from Muslim countries.

Manuel Valls, who was French Prime Minister at the time of the Syrian refugee crisis, has distanced himself from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming policy, calling it “untenable” and refusing to admit more people than the quota of 30,000 allocated by the European Commission.

But this time it’s different. Sensing the change in public mood, President Emmanuel Macron has already declared that France is ready to welcome 100,000 refugees – still only a fraction of the 3.67 million who have fled the war so far.

Isabelle, the retired social worker, says that when the Syrian refugees left for Europe, “people here were scared. It shouldn’t be like that, but it’s true. People were afraid of terrorism, of Islamism. But Ukrainians are Europeans.

In Saint Rémy, the municipality is now providing chairs, tables and a coffee machine for the warehouse and a meeting room for refugees to meet, while municipal secretary Sonia Borel is coordinating the placement of new arrivals in hostels. adapted and the enrollment of their children in local schools. For now, it has more accommodation offers than refugees.

Long-standing welfare associations, such as Saint Rémy wholeheartedly (Saint Remy with a big heart), organized separate collections of toys and clothes. In total, more than 100 people in a city of 9,100 are now involved in the effort in various ways.

“No need to thank me,” Lara, the Russian teacher, said in response to the praise she received on the WhatsApp volunteer group. “I’ve offered my services to mayor and I’m just keeping my word, I’m not looking for fame or recognition,” she said. “We are all a bit excited by this strange situation, but everyone is working towards the same goal: to help Ukraine and its refugees.”

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