A French village mobilizes to help Ukraine – this time – POLITICO

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Paul Taylor, A Co-editor at POLITICO, writes the column “Europe At Large”.

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

On a windy winter evening, a week after Russian tanks entered Ukraine, more than 100 residents attended a little-announced meeting at the town hall of this small village in southern France. They were there to volunteer and help the Ukrainians.

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

“I couldn’t face watching the killing and destruction on TV without doing anything to help,” said Isabelle, a retired social worker. She articulated the feelings of shame, powerlessness and frustration that drove many volunteers to action.

Within a week, residents had collected and packed enough supplies to fill four vans, which set off from Saint Remy and the suburb of Allauch, near Marseille, on the 2,100-kilometer journey across Europe to the Poland-Ukraine border . Deputy Mayor Yves Favergeon was among the volunteer drivers, and four days later they returned to France after dropping off their cargo at 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 the images of war and destruction beamed 24/7 into their homes, rallied in a spontaneous wave of solidarity and began organizing.

In Saint Remy, retired businessman Philippe Rambaud and his wife Veronique Julienne-Rambaud, a business coach, founded collectif Ukraine Solidarité — an ad hoc group that doesn’t require cumbersome legal registration — to organize volunteers.

Within days, 80 people – many of them pensioners – were connected via a WhatsApp group and rostered to man the makeshift camp from 9am to 6pm to collect, sort and pack aid donations. Volunteers provided newcomers with free French lessons, help 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 company provided free photocopies and printouts. A group of volunteers collected carts of groceries 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 full of relief supplies drove to the Polish-Ukrainian border to bring back eight more refugees.

Far from being a one-off outburst of generosity, the local effort in Saint Remy has transformed into a sustained effort, fostering a team spirit and civic pride often lacking in daily life in France, where sullen pessimism and waiting for the Takeover of the state rule are default settings.

The only blemish on this picture of altruism is why a similar grassroots effort was not taking place in 2015-16, when over 1 million mostly Syrian refugees poured into Europe. Or last year, when hundreds of thousands fled the return of the hard-line Islamist Taliban to power in Afghanistan, when the US-led NATO peacekeeping force was withdrawn amid heartbreaking images of Afghans clinging desperately to airplane wings. Faced with scenes of hardship as harrowing as any in Ukraine, the French mostly closed their doors and their hearts.

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

Manuel Valls, who was France’s prime minister during the Syrian refugee crisis, distanced himself from then-Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcome policy, branding it “unsustainable” and refusing to take in more people than the European Commission’s quota of 30,000.

But this time it’s different. Sensing the shift in public sentiment, President Emmanuel Macron has already said France is ready to take in 100,000 refugees – still a fraction of the 3.67 million who have fled the war so far.

Isabelle, the retired social worker, said that when 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 the Ukrainians are Europeans.”

In Saint Remy, the community is now providing chairs, tables and a coffee machine for the camp and a meeting room for refugee gatherings, while town clerk Sonia Borel is coordinating the placement of newcomers in suitable homes and their children’s schooling. For the time being, she has more housing offers than refugees.

Long-standing social welfare organizations such as Saint Remy a tout coeur (Saint Remy with a big heart), organized separate collections of toys and clothes. In total, more than 100 people in a city with 9,100 inhabitants are now involved in various ways.

“You don’t have to thank me,” said Lara, the Russian teacher, in response to the praise she received on the volunteer WhatsApp group. “I volunteered my services at City Hall and I’m just keeping my word, not seeking fame or recognition,” she said. “We’re all a bit excited about this strange situation, but we’re all working towards the same goal – to help Ukraine and its refugees.” A French village mobilizes to help Ukraine - this time - POLITICO

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