France has spent hundreds of millions to help refugees with housing, schooling and jobs. But for those who aren’t fluent in French, life remains difficult.
The Eiffel Tower is illuminated with the colors of Ukraine to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of the country, Paris, France, 23 February 2023. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
This article, by high school student Clover Choi, was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Clover is a student at School Year Abroad, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.
This story won second prize in News Decoder’s 13th Storytelling Contest.
Nataliia Khomenko left Ukraine for France the day before Russia invaded.
Khomenko worked in communications in Kyiv. From her work on elections and geopolitics she knew war was coming and packed all of her belongings in 10 days, said goodbye to her friends and family and fled.
Her friends in Kyiv did not understand why she had to leave so suddenly; they couldn’t imagine the crisis that was about to happen.
Shortly after, her husband was called to help defend his city and his country. Even though he was not previously in the Ukrainian military, he was drafted immediately after the 24 February 2022 attack.
According to the Cour des Comptes, or French Auditing Agency, millions of Ukrainian refugees have since fled to surrounding countries in Europe.
Khomenko ended up in Rennes, Brittany. She is one of more than 115,000 Ukrainians who sought refuge in France in 2022.
France opened its doors to those fleeing war.
Overall, France spent some 634 million euros last year hosting Ukrainians displaced by the war.
Ukrainian citizens holding a biometric passport do not need a short-stay visa to travel to the Schengen area. According to the national French agency Business France, Ukrainian nationals can legally stay in France for up to 90 days.
And because of a measure adopted by the European Union, they can get a temporary residence permit that allows them to stay and work in France for longer periods of time along with help for housing, health care, schooling for their children and a financial allowance available to asylum seekers.
French citizens learn humility from helping Ukrainians.
The temporary protected status for Ukrainians allows Ukrainian refugees to receive an allowance and work in France.
Since the beginning of the war, the region of Brittany alone has welcomed more than 4,500 Ukrainian refugees and 866 Ukrainian children are enrolled in schools in Brittany from kindergarten to high school. The region currently has almost 600 emergency accommodations and 371 housing units are occupied by displaced Ukrainians there.
In the city of Rennes, France, an association called J’accueille was created to find accommodations for refugees through people with free room spaces.
The association strives to match refugees with people who are willing to share values and interculturality. Hosts must be available to not only share a room in their home, but also activities, family life and integration.
Jean Michel Toutain is a French citizen who lives in the small commune of Thorigné-Fouillard in Rennes, France with his wife. The elderly couple have six children who all live on their own now, so there was plenty of space in their house to help those in need.
Toutain and his wife have hosted two Ukrainian refugees since 3 April 2022: a Ukrainian mother who is 41 years old and her daughter who is 14 years old. Toutain said that the refugees are very nice and respectful. While the rest of their extended family is in Ukraine, the two refugees migrated to France since they knew other Ukrainians who migrated there as well.
“I decided to host Ukrainian refugees because we have a large enough house and there are lots of people who need a home,” Toutain said. Toutain and his wife share meals with the Ukrainians and participate in other activities as well.
“I have learned humility because it’s not easy everyday,” Toutain said. “Refugees are going through a rough time everyday, and it’s not easy to see this through the public eye all the time. Hosting refugees has given us an experience that has benefited our lives for the better.”
Toutain believes that it is important to help Ukraine during this difficult time and that there is more that can be done.
Restarting life as a refugee
Khomenko is still searching to restart her life. She had emigrated to France because she knew some French and had visited France before the war.
She considered migrating to Quebec in Canada, where English and French are spoken, so that she could improve her French and also learn English.
Khomenko had also received visa approval to move to New York, but it was too expensive to do so. She now lives in Cesson-Sévigné, a small commune in Rennes.
She described her experience in France as complicated. Since she is not a native French speaker or citizen, the only jobs that seemed open to her were in cleaning, working at a supermarket or gardening. She receives €220 per month from the French government.
Khomenko studies French but since she already passed the level of French courses offered to refugees that are paid for by the French government, she cannot receive financial support for more advanced French lessons.
Even though she has a high proficiency in French compared to most Ukrainian immigrants, it is still difficult for her to communicate at times. In her free time, she attends French conversation workshops and teaches 13 French students the Ukrainian language each Thursday with the Association Bretagne-Ukraine at the University of Rennes.
While she hopes to return to her friends and family in her home country, she continues to adapt to her new life by making the most of her time by cooking and connecting with new Ukrainian friends in France.
Khomenko continues to search for a job. She is working on her resume, practices for interviews and researches online for job opportunities.
She hopes to return home to Kyiv and be an interpreter for the Ukrainian military. “I just want to help my country,” she said. “I want to return to Ukraine but we just don’t know when it will end.”
Three questions to consider:
- What does France offer Ukrainian refugees who apply for temporary residency?
- Why, despite the aid that France offers, would life still be difficult for Ukrainian refugees there?
- Do you think Ukrainian nationals should be treated differently than people who flee other countries?
Clover Choi is from the U.S. state of California and is spending her third year of high school studying at School Year Abroad France. Her home high school is Culver Academies. Her favorite subjects are English and French, and this year she is fascinated by her French Political Science class. Her favorite hobbies are dancing, taking photos, blogging and filming YouTube videos. In the future, she would like to become an entrepreneur.