Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces in February 2022, we have welcomed nearly 500 Ukrainian refugees in the Mayenne. Currently, there are approximately 190 who remain in the department.
In the spring of 2022, as the refugee crisis became apparent, a group of British ex-pats in the North-West of the department banded together to organise aid deliveries to Ukraine and to bring back Ukrainian women and children to safety here in France. As a result, the association: Mayenne 53 Ukraine Assistance was born.
17 Ukrainian families in NW Mayenne
As president of this association, I have had the privilege to meet and help approximately 50 women and children (and one grandfather!) to escape from the terrible situation in Ukraine. 12 have since either returned to Ukraine or have moved elsewhere in France. The remainder have, with the support of the association and assistance from the French government, been able to establish independent lives here in the Mayenne.
What’s happening now
The association is now beginning the process of closing as the urgent need for assistance has abated and the governments of Europe and the UK have put in place a national response to the crisis. The members of the association and the many volunteers who stepped forward to help remain in contact with the Ukrainian families in the Mayenne and strong friendships have been forged.
How we helped
From the huge fundraising efforts of our volunteers and the support of the local community, thousands of euros were raised to help provide essential support to the families. From the first urgent supplies of clothing, food and toiletries to school supplies, furniture, appliances and household items to set them up in their own accommodation, all the money raised has been used to reduce the impact of the extraordinary situation these families have found themselves in.
Several local families made the commitment to host Ukrainians in their own homes, opening their doors to strangers in need. I know I can speak for every host family when I say that it was an amazing experience. The Ukrainians have become like family to them. With the support of our local Mayors, each family in turn was found independent accommodation. Those who could work quickly found employment in order to become self-sufficient. Many families still get a small Asylum allowance from the French government as well as child benefit and housing benefit. But as far as possible the families have become totally independent.
Some of the funds raised by the association were spent on vehicles to help the families get to their various administrative appointments (of which there have been many!) as well as allowing them to search for work further afield. Now, many of the families have been able to buy their own vehicles thanks to their employment.
Going home/Staying in France
Several Ukrainian refugees in the Mayenne are planning their imminent return to Ukraine. Others have decided to stay in France for the time being so as not to disrupt their children’s education. The situation in Ukraine is still dangerous. For example the town of Boyarka (20km from Kyiv with a population of 35,000) is still regularly being damaged by shrapnel from Russian drones destroyed by the Ukrainian air defences..
Currently the maternity hospital and the primary school has many damaged windows due to shrapnel from the intercepted drones. Boyarka was the recipient of the 12 pallets of aid that we collected in Fougerolles du Plessis in the summer of 2022. Tatiana Kochkova, the deputy Mayor of Boyarka, recently visited the Mayenne and explained to me how the Russian army had come just 500 metres from the region’s border.
The Russian army advance was stalled due to the Ukrainian’s blowing up the bridges along the Dnipro river. Virtually overnight, Tatiana went from discussing school budgets and promoting local commerce to handing out weapons to local volunteers. On the other side of the Dnipro river, there were stories of the Russian army marching in to towns and killing the Mayor and deputy Mayor. The danger was (and still is) very real to Tatiana and her family, and the people of Boyarka.
The future of Ukraine
One thing is for sure, Ukraine will never be the same again. By trying to stop Ukraine from becoming more westernised, Putin and his armies have pushed the Ukrainian people closer to their European neighbours. Ukrainian children all over Europe are learning new languages and customs and making new friends. And for many people in the Mayenne, me included, life has also changed. I am proud beyond measure to have met many of the Ukrainian refugees in the Mayenne. I have made friendships that I know will last a lifetime. I am waiting for the day when I can travel to Ukraine and see this amazing country. And meet the brave husbands and fathers who stayed behind to defend their land. Слава Україні, героям слава (Glory to Ukraine, Glory to heroes).