Since February 23, it has served as temporary housing for Ukrainian refugees. Within hundreds of camp beds in narrow rows. Most are empty. In one corner, two children are playing football. “A few months ago, the gym was completely full, and there was even a village with tents outside,” says …
Since February 23, it has served as temporary housing for Ukrainian refugees. Within hundreds of camp beds in narrow rows. Most are empty. In one corner, two children are playing football. “A few months ago, the gym was completely full and there was even a tent village outside,” says Natalia, a volunteer from Kiev who was a marketing specialist in a previous life. Since then, as the ghost of an occupation of Kiev and the rest of Ukraine has receded, the flow of refugees has eased … but not dried out.
In the parking lot of the gym, a tired blue bus has just driven across the border. Its passengers are about twenty people: women, children, two small dogs, a large cat. They quickly board a convoy of inconsistent minibuses, with French plates, with advertisements from Pontacq craftsmen, the Intermarché logo, the French Ski Federation. This is the start of a 2,500-kilometer journey that will cross Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany and then all of France diagonally, to bring these Ukrainian refugees to host families in Pontacq and in the surrounding villages.
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“Immediately after the start of the war, when my wife and I heard that Ukrainians were coming to France, we registered on the platform to receive refugees,” recalls Christophe Voisin, the organizer of the broadcast. And so … We did not see something happened.So we decided to go and find them ourselves.It quickly turns out that there is no centralized effort to be involved: the evacuation of refugees at the Ukrainian border is a patchwork of small private initiatives.
“We found contacts there on the Internet,” Christophe Voisin continues. People from the Rotary Club of Kiev were the first to answer us. They told us that repatriation was still needed, especially for people from the south and east. This is how the operation was set up. All that was left was to find sponsors from companies and local administrations, to raise funds and to mobilize the population to receive the refugees.
“We discovered a wave of solidarity,” says Benoît Arnaud, who organized the reception of the refugees and helped with accommodation for the expedition on its way. “People came to see us, not only to offer to host, but also to give their time, to offer equipment … People have offered to set up French lessons in Pontacq.”
Almost two months passed between the decision and the expedition’s arrival in Poland. Boarding at Hrubieszow was a bit confusing, with passengers unsure of their destination. That morning, on the Ukrainian side, offered a volunteer seat in the direction of France, more they did not know. At the moment, the name of the region does not mean much to them. They have dozens of questions. Is it far from Paris and the sea? Far from the one or the other city where members of their family already live? Will there be work for those in Béarn, hospitals, schools for their children?
Arriving at the destination on May 25 for a final night in Lourdes, before being distributed among host families, provides some answers. The care is organized, the administrative route marked. Everyone is expected to receive their papers in Pau Prefecture on June 2nd.
Trials crossed, barely mentioned. We only guess at the excerpts, in an absent gaze, a fading smile or the mention of cities of origin that have become sadly famous during the massacres: Borodianka, Kramatorsk, Kherson. In the voice of this lady, the only French-speaking member of the group who cracks and swells from the sob in the middle of her thank-you speech.
Is it far from Paris, far from the sea, far from the city where members of their family already live?