My trip to Saint-Etienne with Anastasia and Tatiana, parts of Ukraine

More than 4 million Ukrainians have fled their country since the start of the war. These displaced persons, mainly women and children, are moving across Europe. Madeleine Nosworthy went to the Ukrainian border in Poland, where she met two families who were planning to settle in Saint-Étienne in the Loire, and she promised to take them with her. She tells us the story.

The Przemysl refugee center, where 50,000 people have arrived every day since the beginning of the war. © Madeleine Nosworthy for Rue89Lyon

Arriving at the Przemysl refugee center in Poland, I am surprised to see only men. The media and NGOs have covered this subject extensively: 90% of the refugees from this war are women and children, as Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 have no right to leave their country.

The humanitarian response to the gender aspect of this crisis has taken place, and from conversations with them I understand that the men (often bus drivers or volunteers from all over Europe) are staying outside the center.

Women and children are inside, where they have access to rest, food and care. Guards guard the entrances: impossible to get through the door for those who don’t have the white bracelet of the doctors and the volunteers.

When I meet Iryna, a doctor of Ukrainian descent who practices in the United States but came to Poland at the beginning of the war, I ask her: what do the families do when they arrive here?

“That’s often the problem: when these people decide to leave their homes and families, it’s to escape danger. They have not planned what the future holds, they do not know how to determine their final destination. †

Some people need a few weeks of rest to restore their physical and psychological health, such as the mother of this little boy whose toes are rotting from the dampness and cold of the basement they’ve spent the past month.

A cat from Mariupol brought by her Ukrainian owner Polina to the asylum center in Poland ©Madeleine Nosworthy for Rue89Lyon

After some research it has become clear to her: the final destination will be the city of Erfurt, Germany. Although she does not speak German, she has read on social media that there is a very active community of Ukrainians in this city, mobilizing to organize evacuations, fundraise and ship essential goods.

Sitting in her apple green car, after driving 1330 km from Mariupol to Przemysl, she tells me about her plans. She wants her daughter to go to school, and she is ready to take any job as long as she has some time left to support her acquaintances in organizing evacuations from her hometown.

In Ukraine, as is often the case in conflict zones, war increases gender inequality: in situations of vulnerability, women lose their freedom of choice and become dependent on the goodwill of others. They are also given responsibility for the survival of their families, in a context where resources are dwindling and the volatility of conflict complicates decision-making.

‘I have the impression that Putin is waging war against women and children’

When I go to the Medyka border post, where hundreds of Ukrainians pass daily, the curfew suspension in Ukraine has just been declared and the authorities are preparing to receive another wave of refugees.

For now it is quiet. A small tent village offers newcomers everything: free SIM cards, blankets, food, stuffed animals and toys for children. Newcomers wait in line to board official buses.

While I registered as a driver that day to accompany me between the border and the asylum seekers’ center, they look at me with suspicion: they have been warned about the people smuggling that has been rampant since the start of the conflict and refuse to use vehicles that are not official.

“I have the impression that Putin is waging war against women and children. It bombs houses, schools,” says Anastasia, one of the young mothers I bring to Saint-Étienne from Poland.

After leaving Dnipro, in eastern Ukraine, two days earlier, she decided to flee when she was given the chance to go to a safe place.

From the outskirts of Dnipro in Ukraine to Saint-Etienne in France

The agricultural products company her husband works for has a supplier in Saint-Étienne, who sent him the contact person of a family ready to welcome Ukrainians.

“It was the signal we were waiting for. Otherwise, how to leave? When you don’t know where to go, when you don’t know anyone? I have never left Ukraine in my life. †

This 28-year-old young woman is a graphic designer in an organic farm.

“When the war started, I moved to my parents on the outskirts of Dnipro. Although it is closer to the airport which was bombed in mid March [et qui a été complètement détruit par des missiles russes le 10 avril], there is a cave. When the sirens started blaring every night at three or four in the morning, with an eight-month-old baby and a five-year-old boy, it was much easier to get to safety. †

His two sons accompany him, as does his mother, Natacha. His father, Ivan, is in the front. He did not hesitate to take up arms, and to support him, his wife refuses to speak Russian, even though it is the language they exchanged daily. To resist, to support the war effort, she gave up one of her native languages ​​and insisted that her daughter do the same.

Katia decided to stay in Ukraine

When I decided to evacuate a family of Ukrainians to Eastern Poland with my friend Mehdi, who is the supplier of Saint-Etienne for the Dniprian company, it was originally to pick up Katia and her six-year-old daughter Sofia, who has leukemia .

We had his medical file translated, contacted a doctor who had found a place for him in the hospital. The “temporary protection” of the European Union would have given him unconditional access to French health insurance.

But at the last minute, Katia preferred to stay home. If you live in a country at war, when do you decide to leave your home, your family? We don’t know anything about the reasons behind Katia’s decision. She’s his.

Tatiana and her daughter Eva, 7 years old

For Tatiana, the brutal invasion of Russia on February 24 was enough: together with her husband, they decide that she must leave with their daughter Aliona and their seven-year-old daughter Eva.

When we meet them in Prague, from where we will take them to Saint-Étienne, they will be on the road for a little over two weeks: a few days in western Ukraine, a week in Poland, a week in Prague.

They don’t know if they should find a place to settle and hope they can return soon. They ask me a lot of questions:

“Is it easy to find work in France? Where to learn French? What is the minimum wage? I do interior design, can I continue to work in this field? Will the teachers at the kindergarten speak English? †

The meeting with Charlotte and Paul, in Saint-Etienne

For Anastasia, Tatiana and their families, the decision to leave Ukraine for good was made easier by having a place to go.

When they arrive at Charlotte and Paul (the first names have changed) in Saint-Étienne, they find an inhabited house, a manicured garden, beds made. For this Saint-Etienne bourgeois couple, comfortably installed at the head of a small business that is doing well, the decision to open their home to nine people fleeing the war was clear: the Catholic faith in which they lived their decision.

Charlotte, mère de six enfants qui travaille à temps plein, anticipe tout : les besoins des enfants selon leurs âges, the souhait des adults d’avoir des vêtements adaptés à la saison, les inscriptions à l’école, les conserves dans le placard de kitchen.

Paul and Charlotte have always lived in Saint-Étienne, their children all went to school where the Ukrainian children go. Their network is vast, including their parish, their business, their old friends and the new families of their children who have come of age.

The Ukrainian women tell me that they could not have dreamed of a more united and surrounded welcome. Their relief is palpable. “Impossible to let go of the tension, since February 24 I sleep badly,” one of them let me know.

“But at least we’re safe here. †

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