Ukrainians are the new employees of a factory in France: NPR
SEMUR-EN-AUXOIS, France — In a factory on the outskirts of the medieval town of Semur-en-Auxois, French isn’t the only language spoken these days. Above the roar of sewing machines, the sounds of Russian and Ukrainian can also be heard.
The factory has been making leather handbags for French luxury brands since the 1970s. Maroquinerie Thomas CEO Thierry Thomas said he hired about 25 Ukrainians this year.
“I hired the first five, then more started coming,” he says. “Cousins, sisters-in-law. They work hard, they adapt quickly. At first, I put them all together. That way, if one understood, he could teach others.
Thomas says it’s not charity. He can’t find enough French workers.
It offers Ukrainians long-term contracts without having to go through a trial period, “so that they can open bank accounts and rent apartments”, he says.
How does he communicate with them?
“Google Translate,” he laughs.
Europe is transformed by the war in Ukraine. Even places far from the conflict are feeling the effects. And the longer the war lasts, the more lasting these effects will be.
France has taken in more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, according to the French government. They have the right to stay and work and receive a small monthly allowance. Ukrainian children learn in French schools all over the country and many French families host Ukrainian families.
Thirty-three-year-old Alexander Dubitsky works on a row of handbag handles. He came from Kharkiv at the end of August. When asked if he will return, he replies: “It’s not about rebuilding after the destruction in Ukraine. It doesn’t bother me at all. I would be happy to help. But we are still in danger. Even if the war stops, Russia will gather its forces and attack us again three or four years later. This has been our reality for centuries.”
Oksana Zoubko touches up the straps of the bags with black paint. She used to be a baker in Kharkiv and says she loves working with her hands again.
“It’s a wonderful place to work,” she says. “A very healthy atmosphere and our French colleagues are welcoming.”
Zoubko says she would like to return to Ukraine, but thinks her nine-year-old child, who attends the village school, probably has a better future in France.
On the other side of the work table, the French Ines Chapovaloff and Maud Duvignacq say they are lucky to share their know-how and to learn from the Ukrainians. They praise the courage and ability of Ukrainians to show up to work with a smile despite worries about the war in their country.
Yevdokiia Bila, 36, who poses as Julia, taps a few stitches with a small hammer. She was one of the first Ukrainians hired here last March and is from Vovchansk, just along the Russian border outside Kharkiv.
Thomas has such confidence in Bila that he left her to supervise a small team of Ukrainians when their French colleagues all left for their August holidays.
“I was shocked, but in a good way,” she says. “All these French workers could go on vacation together. We don’t do that in Ukraine.”
She says other things surprised her in France, even the mail.
“Yes, letters and envelopes,” she said. “In Ukraine, everything is online. And here, I get mail from school, from the bank. I got into the habit of checking my mailbox again!”
Bila recently had to return to Ukraine to bury her mother, who had gone to hospital when her town was under Russian occupation – but there were no doctors. After the city was liberated, her mother was finally diagnosed with a ruptured appendix, but it was too late. She died at age 61.
Bila rented a newly renovated apartment in the center of the cobbled city, just opposite the church. The Christmas lights in the village square illuminate her living room.
Several of Bila’s friends and family are also in Semur-en-Auxois and they often gather for meals at her long kitchen table. Over the fireplace she hung a Ukrainian flag which she brought with her – it was part of a celebration of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution in 2014.
His brother Timur Romanchuk, his wife and daughter arrived in Semur-en-Auxois in June. The family owned a farm and stayed as long as they could to protect it and the beloved breed of goats whose milk they used to make cheese.
They continued to hope that they would not lose their farm. Romanchuk says he thought he could stay under Russian occupation. But when the Kremlin orchestrated referendums to annex Ukrainian territory this summer, it knew that was no longer possible.
“Because I knew we would all have to take Russian passports,” he says. It was then that they decided to abandon the farm. They gave their goats to the neighbours.
When asked if there are circumstances in which they could live normally in Vovchansk, they are not so sure.
“If there was a big garden instead of Russia”, Bila said. “With sunflowers and wheat. We always imagine that the problem is Putin, but Putin is not the reason, Putin is a consequence. There was also Stalin and there is always something. Is there someone in Russia who has the consciousness to wake up and change and be different?”
Ukrainians take French lessons every week at the factory. Close behind is Andriy Pryputniev, 39, a former coal miner. His family left Kharkiv in March and he followed them to France in September.
“My children study in a French school,” he says. “My son plays football and another son plays guitar and music at school.”
This year was not the first time that Pryputniev had to flee to a new place. In 2014, he arrived in Kharkiv from his home in Luhansk, having fought there between Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces.
He had always thought he would spend the rest of his life in Luhansk. “I thought I was going to collect my pension there,” he said.
These days, “Sometimes when I drive the car home from work, I think in my head, ‘Where am I?'” he laughs. ” I am in France ? Seriously ?
Pryputniev takes his French lessons seriously. With two houses destroyed behind him, he says he will not return to Ukraine.