According to UNHCR, 2,808,792 refugees have fled Ukraine since February, 24, 2022, with 1,720,477 arriving in Poland. The French government anticipates the possible arrival “50,000, perhaps 100,000” refugees from Ukraine in France in the coming weeks.
I have been glued to the TV watching as the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians make their way to safety at the Polish border. When French television showed a report of a German man standing at the border, holding a sign, and saying in English, “I can offer seven people a new life”, I openly wept.
The 60-something-year-old man told the reporter, “I could not sit on my sofa and do nothing. I will be back next week and the week after and the week after that to pick up another seven people.”
I have thought about this story every day. It dampens my despair and reminds me to side with hope, to believe in humanity. Millions of individuals across the planet are unexpectedly taking action and I would rather share their positive stories than read the crippling headlines before I go to bed.
This is what led me to Emilia Romagnoli and her post about accommodating two Ukrainian families in her weekend home in the Alpes-Maritimes department. Emilia, who is Polish, and her husband Rumble live in an apartment in Monaco with their three children but made the decision while they are currently visiting Dubai Expo 2020. From Dubai, Emilia began scrolling through Facebook and was soon in touch with local Ukrainians in Nice who are acting as a hub for arriving refugees.
“To be honest, I did not ask any questions about the people. Per formality, I received photos of their passports but I did not call them. They are traumatised and I did not feel it was my place to ask. In my eyes, they are simply mothers with children. The lady that is at our house drove for 5 days with 2 kids from Ukraine, I doubt she wanted to queue up in Nice to register first. Of course, I understand it is not the way to do it. I see that Western countries keep it structured but I just went Polish about it.”
Emilia was inspired to act when she saw Facebook posts by her Polish friends and family. From Day 1 to Day 2 of the war, her Facebook wall became “one massive announcement board” with everyone sharing “anything and everything” they have: houses, goods and cars but also services like volunteering, nursing, babysitting, offering translations and creating shared Google resource documents.
Emilia’s uncle, aunt and two cousins held a major collection of donations at their local factory near her hometown in Poland and took a van to drive it all themselves 900 km to the border. Her high school friend, Julia, who lives in an apartment in Warsaw, accommodated a woman with two daughters and two grandchildren and uses her network to organise everything they need. Emilia’s university friends, Gosia and Justyna, are also hosting families in their smallish apartments where they live.
“When I saw this wall, I thought, jeez,” admits Emilia. “The people in Poland are the real heroes. They are truly making sacrifices and pushing themselves to live outside their comfort zones. They share their own flats, they share kitchens, they share bathrooms. It was obvious we needed to share whatever we could. Like so many people in the South of France with secondary residences, guest houses and extra rooms, it was a no-brainer to share our weekend house. It felt wrong that it was sitting empty while women with children have nowhere to go. From what we gather so far, 90% of these cases are women with children and the elderly and the most important thing right now is to get these families to safe houses.”
Emilia decided to share her story “to encourage friends” to open up to the idea of accommodating Ukrainian women and children that desperately need help.” She says she understands that people might feel “awkward” and prefer to let authorities deal with the situation.
Inspired to do something, Emilia has guaranteed two families a minimum of 30 days accommodation. At the moment, one family of three – a mom, her 4-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter – are safely in Emilia and Rumble’s home. “We are lucky enough to have a housekeeper who prepared beds, did the first shopping and made a big warm meal. Then a friend from Nice went by to deliver more shopping and toys. The family has access to laundry, cooking, baby sitting, whatever they need. I told them to use anything they need, our kids clothes, toys, my jeans, jumpers, socks and shoes…”
Emilia adds, “I had news that the second mother that was meant to be there with her 8-year-old son are going to the Mairie in Nice to fill out the documents but the room is blocked for them them. That is all I know.”
As soon as Emilia returns to Monaco this week, she will assess the emotional state of women and kids staying at the family house. “Maybe I am living in la-la land but I thought that on the weekend when we are all together in the house, we will organise activities for the kids. We have a big space where we paint a lot with our children and I just ordered from Amazon extra paints and canvas. Our neighbour is a piano teacher and teaches our kids piano and if the kids and moms are up for it, we will do music and games. We have a Ukrainian chess player that teaches our kids and I just texted her if there is something we can do together.”
She is clear: “There was no decision-making process in all of this. We have three kids of our own so we wondered how could we have extra kids in our home, kids who have escaped war that we don’t know – but these thoughts felt so wrong. We are privileged and this tiny bit of discomfort actually changes somebody’s life.”
HOW TO HELP
The French government launched a website last week to connect Ukrainian refugees with French families who wish to offer them accommodation. The site also allows associations to recruit volunteers to help them carry out their missions.
In Monaco, contact the Croix-Rouge Monegasque: