Two British women living in Normandy have spoken to The Connexion about their decision to host Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Nearly three million people have left Ukraine since Russia invaded the country on February 24.
Marlène Schiappa, France’s Minister Delegate in charge of Citizenship, has said that so far over 17,000 Ukrainians have found accommodation in France. The government has said it is ready to welcome 100,000 in total.
Both women that we spoke to have not gone through the French government’s official platform to sign up to host someone from Ukraine, which is called Je m'engage pour l'Ukraine. They have instead used local networks.
You can read more about the different ways you can support Ukraine from France in our article here: How can I help Ukraine from France: Host, donate, support
Sue Davis, 66 (pictured above with her husband): ‘It is a rewarding experience’
Sue Davis, an English teacher and online tutor who moved to France in 2005, spent last weekend cleaning out her second home in Tessy-sur-Vire (Manche) to make it ready for Ukrainian families.
She originally bought the large house – two kilometres from her main home – with her husband with the idea of renting it out, but says at the moment it can better serve people fleeing Ukraine.
She heard through a friend about a British man living in Manche, Mark Charles, who is coordinating aid trucks to be sent to Ukraine, and is also trying to mobilise the British community in France to host Ukrainians.
Mrs Davis said Mr Charles approached her to ask about accommodation possibilities as he had heard that she has prior experience in hosting refugees. She has not had confirmation of who will be staying in her house or when, but she says she will be ready when they arrive.
“Hosting refugees is not something that I planned to be doing in life,” Mrs Davis said.
“We started around six years ago. When the camp in Calais, known as the Jungle, was closed down there was a call out for people to help.
“At the time people were housed in a centre not far from us, but since then we have had people stay with us – usually for a couple of nights in passing.
“We have had people of all different nationalities pass through.
“I got a message from Mark recently as he heard I have this experience. He was looking for volunteers who could host displaced people from Ukraine
“We have this big house near our main home. We bought it to rent it out and we are in the middle of renovating it. Now we are just going to clean it and get it ready.
“There is enough space for four families. It’s dry, it’s big, it’ll be a roof over someone’s head.”
Mrs Davis said that she has found hosting refugees and asylum seekers interesting.
“It is a rewarding experience, when you know you can help someone.
“But It is sometimes difficult. Google Translate is extremely useful.
“I belong to an organisation in Saint-Lô and their job is to help asylum seekers. Sometimes when there is no accommodation there I’ll get an urgent call asking if I can house some people for a couple of days while they find something else.
She says that anyone thinking of hosting people should “be prepared to learn”.
“The interesting side of it is learning from others about their culture. But you also learn about the frustrations of French bureaucracy when you try to get something done and it doesn’t happen quickly.
“We’ve had people who apply [for asylum] and are refused and then there are worries about what they’ll do.
“You have to be prepared to put yourself out a bit. It’s not like having a bed and breakfast and having a guest stay. You need to put in more than that.
“I think hosting people from Ukraine will be a bit different to many of the other people we have hosted because this is an immediate and urgent situation that they are fleeing, and they don’t really want to be in France, they want to be in Ukraine.
“So I imagine that the majority are just coming for respite and somewhere safe to stay.”
Sam Beavis, 47: ‘They are gentle, lovely people’
Sam Beavis is an online IT manager who lives in Manche (Normandy) in a 17th-century farmhouse with her husband and her two parents.
She welcomed a Ukrainian woman and her 14-year-old daughter to their home on Monday (March 14). She said that she did not think twice before offering her house and felt she had to do something.
“I read on Facebook about an initiative set up by some people in Normandy called Operation Ark. They were bringing Ukrainians back from the Polish border to France and looking for people to host them.
“I put myself down as a potential host and four days later we had two ladies in the house.
“We’re now going through the paperwork required by France, but it seems to be quite straightforward so far.
“We’re lucky enough to be in a position to help. I haven’t had that possibility before as I used to live in a one-bedroom flat in London.
“I have set up a little support network group for people hosting Ukrainians in Normandy to organise social events and to help each other.
“The two ladies we are hosting have nothing. [The mother’s] dad, brother and uncle are still in Ukraine.
“She speaks to her dad on the phone. He is in a bunker somewhere in Kyiv. He’s 83 and refuses to leave.
“Their apartment has gone.
“Realistically they are with us for at least a year. They have a six-month rolling permit to stay. But you can’t set a timer on things like this. They are gentle, lovely people.
“I’ve had a lot of people question me about why I chose to host them, saying ‘where are your refugees from Afghanistan?’. But this is mainland Europe. If [Russian President Vladimir Putin] decides to carry on he could march down here, so it could affect us.
“I live in Normandy and there are an awful lot of world war memorials here, so that is still very fresh for us. I have just been touched by it all.
“I can’t see any reason for what Putin is doing. He is bombing people in maternity wards. You just watch on the TV war crimes taking place every day.
“Around here, everyone wants to help out. Some local ladies have set up a group to make welcome bags for the Ukrainians who are arriving.
“The mairies are inundated with donations. Normandy remembers.
“I'm overwhelmed by how brilliant people have been.
“Although it is very early days, I don’t think hosting these ladies is going to be any problem.
“The other night, the lady made borscht for us all. They have fallen in really well.
“They have a whole side of the house to themselves but we share the kitchen.
“On Wednesday, the weather was fairly nice, and the daughter told us that her mother’s biggest dream was to see the sea.
“We live about 15 minutes away so we took her to the local beach and she stood there with her arms outstretched.
“Two French ladies were sitting there looking at us strangely so I went and explained to them that she had just arrived from Ukraine.
“They gave me €10 and told me to buy them both an ice cream and to welcome them to France.”