Since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, France has welcomed some 100,000 refugees on its soil. The country can count on the momentum of solidarity from communities, companies and also individuals. Report alongside the Mamans de Paris pour l’Ukraine, a collective on the bridge for nearly four months.
The appointment is now well known. It’s 1 p.m. in the corridors of the Palais des Congrès shopping center in Paris, in the very chic 17e borough. In the middle of high-end brands, a shop in the colors of the Ukrainian flag stands out. The long queue too.
In the crowd, young people, old people and, above all, many mothers and children. All fled Ukraine, a country ravaged by war, and found refuge in Paris or in the suburbs of Paris. Every Wednesday, the collective of Paris Moms for Ukraine gives them an appointment in this old clothing store. A gold mine of a few square meters for these refugees, who are struggling to make ends meet and provide the necessary comfort for their children.
Pulling out a stuffed shopping bag, Nadiia, a tall, straight-haired blonde, has a smile on her face. “I’m coming for my son. Here, I can pick up nappies, shoes or even clothes for him. I can’t find any for free in Chaville [sa ville de résidence] so I really come here for that. I have to because I don’t have a job in France,” explains the 27-year-old mother, who was a psychologist in Ukraine.
Vegetables, tins, powdered milk, toys and even jewelry: you can find everything here. Everyone can take what they want, in the quantities they want. Donations abound and come from everywhere. “Yesterday we presented our collective at the headquarters of Procter & Gamble [la multinationale qui possède notamment la marque Pampers] and they agreed to give us more than 40,000 nappies,” rejoices Barbara Levy-Frebault, head of distribution operations.
Make associations without training, a challenge
Individuals make their donations to “relay mothers” in their neighborhood or, at the end of their shopping, to volunteers present in supermarkets.
For its part, the collective digs into its treasury – 60,000 euros obtained from companies and individuals thanks to the work of a volunteer in charge of raising funds – to buy products at cost price. This is the principle of one of their partnerships, with an Intermarché store in the borough. Behind this collaboration, there is a pillar: the manager of the establishment, who is none other than the father of Karolina Bloch, co-founder of the collective. Since March, this Franco-Polish mother of three children has also been responsible for organizing seven convoys of basic necessities to Ukraine.
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“We are not pros of the association but to find funds and partnerships, we rely on our skills and on our network, those of each volunteer. And we have a real diversity of profiles”, assures Barbara Levy-Frebault, one of the most active volunteers, who is also director of innovation in a tech group.
A few meters from her, Sergei, sweating, pushes a cart of tin cans that he has just unloaded from his van. This tall, beefy dark-haired man has the physique for the job: he works in construction. In front of him, Jean-Étienne, bookseller, gives instructions in Russian to the Ukrainians who are waiting in line, while Véronique, an engineer at Enedis, is busy in reserve to put away new boxes.
“I discovered the collective on Instagram”, explains this young woman with big blue eyes. “Initially, I contacted the volunteers to give them clothes that I no longer wanted. The next day, I saw my boxes of clothes pictured on Instagram. At least, it’s concrete!”, she rejoices.
The power of social networks
Social networks are the starting point of this human adventure. “Initially, I was like everyone else, stunned by what was happening in Ukraine with a terrible feeling of helplessness, and above all the desire to help. I answered a call from Karolina Bloch on a Facebook group of moms from my neighborhood. We didn’t know each other. She was looking for medicine to send to Ukraine. And I had some. When we called each other, we thought we could collect massively and more efficiently by creating a network of mothers responsible for organizing collection points in Île-de-France”, explains Margaux Lemoîne, who co-founded the collective.
The same day, March 4, the two women launched a Facebook group. “In a few days, we had 40 ‘relay mothers’ and the basic team was created”, summarizes this journalist in professional retraining. Today, the collective, which organizes all its actions on WhatsApp groups, has 4,600 members on Facebook, nearly 1,300 subscribers on Instagram, and has counted up to 250 active volunteers. Around 450 Ukrainian adults and as many children attend each distribution. “Social networks have allowed exponential growth. I didn’t think it was possible”, is surprised Barbara Levy-Frebault.
For Margaux Lemoîne, the very name of the collective also contributed to the development of the community. “It is effective, straight to the point, even if it means being segmented. The goal was to federate a united network very quickly. Even if obviously our collective has been open to everyone from the start,” she says.
A winning bet, while the majority of Ukrainian refugees are women and children, the men having remained in the country to participate in the war effort. “Our name is reassuring for these Ukrainian families, with this universal notion of protective mothers”, adds this mother of three children who is responsible for structuring and developing the collective. Ironically, the mental load supported by the mothers has been the strength of the team. “Mums are used to juggling between their job, their children, logistics at home and managing a thousand problems at once. So they are often very pragmatic and efficient,” says Margaux Lemoîne.
Towards a new beginning
As the collective is not an association, everyone invests on their own scale. “Some have had to put their professional and family life on hold. We’ve been on full throttle since the beginning of March. For the mission managers and the close team, it’s very engaging and intense, with no breaks in the evenings and weekends” , admits Margaux Lemoîne, who notes a “shortness of donations” and a drop in the number of active volunteers.
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Another obstacle: the room where the distributions take place has been lent by the town hall and will have to be returned at the end of June. All the more reason to consider the future of the collective. “We are thinking about another way of helping, less time-consuming, with more autonomy for volunteers who wish to continue to invest”, continues Margaux Lemoîne.
The Les Mamans de Paris collective for Ukraine wants to create a sponsorship system, which would allow refugees to be accompanied by volunteers to, for example, find a job. Actions considered to be more in line with the current context: Ukrainians are now returning to their country and arrivals are less significant today than in the spring. “We are no longer in an emergency situation”, notes Margaux Lemoîne. Even if a page is turned, the young woman remains optimistic. “After four months of existence, our slogan is validated: ‘Together, we can really move mountains!'”