Debrouille and system D, the new daily life of Ukrainian host families in France

In France, the war in Ukraine has led to a surge of solidarity, pushing many French people to open their doors to displaced people. Faced with a conflict that is getting bogged down, this reception, initially planned as a matter of urgency, takes on the appearance of long-term cohabitation, with its share of administrative and financial burdens.

“We cook together, we clean together. We live like a family,” says Tatiana Dumaine, who hosts a Ukrainian woman, her two daughters aged 2 and 7, and their grandmother. But after more than a month of living together, the reality of joint tenancy caught up with her and her husband. “We are a little tight in our apartment”, admits this resident of 17and district of Paris. The hostess and her husband have installed an inflatable mattress on their mezzanine. This is where the mother and her youngest sleep. The grandmother and the eldest sleep, they, in the only guest room.

Despite the lack of space, the couple assumes their choice of spontaneous reception, without calling on state services or an association specializing in homestay accommodation. A choice that does not follow the official French procedure: with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, since February 24, France has set up a system coordinated by each prefect. It is within this framework that the vast majority of Ukrainians fleeing the war are received. They first spend a few days in emergency accommodation, in a gymnasium or in a hotel, then for several weeks, they are housed in collective accommodation, in holiday centers for example.

Thirdly, individual housing is offered to displaced Ukrainians who do not want to return to their country. These accommodations are “made available free of charge or at a low price by local authorities, social landlords or citizens”, according to the Cimade association. “Citizen accommodation, in a supervised form, will eventually be mobilized as a supplement”, specifies the Ministry of the Interior.

>> To read on France24.com: Report: displaced Ukrainians in Paris, between solidarity and administrative imbroglios

“There has been a huge mobilization of citizens towards Ukrainians which reflects a dynamic of welcoming in our country. But welcoming at home is not something trivial, especially in the medium term”, raises Vincent Berne, director of the J’accueille system, which supports the accommodation of displaced persons in private homes, launched by the Singa association. “The problem is those who find themselves in a long-term solution and who had not necessarily taken the full measure of their commitment”, abounds Margaux Lemoîne, co-founder of “Mamans de Paris pour l’Ukraine”, a collective which brings together and coordinates more than 4,500 parents committed to helping displaced people in Île-de-France.

Limited budget and administrative complexities

Tatiana Dumaine had, for example, to change her habits. “We have to go to bed earlier for the children. We no longer smoke in the apartment”, describes this Franco-Russian who works in the cosmetics industry and now improvises herself as a social worker. “I helped the family to take administrative steps… Public transport, Social Security, schooling for the children… For them, it’s complicated. They are lost because they don’t speak French.”

Isabelle, who welcomes a mother and her daughter to her house near Maubeuge (northern France), is fighting for the 15-year-old Ukrainian teenager to go to school as soon as possible. “A fortnight ago she was asked to take a maths test. Next week she has to take a French test. I told the Information and Orientation Center (CIO) where she is taking the tests: ‘At this speed, she is not ready to go to school this year’. And I was told: ‘Too bad, she will go in September'”, says this management technician 49 years. “It hurts my heart for her, because she wants to go to school.”

Schooling but also access to a job become, after several weeks in France, the key to emancipating oneself from the host family. But it is also an obstacle course for Ukrainian hosts and “their guests”. “For these families to find individual housing, they have to work, but to find a job, you have to send the children to school or have the little ones looked after”, says Margaux Lemoîne, of “Mamans de Paris pour l’Ukraine” , which underlines the lack of places in crèches in Île-de-France.

>> To read also on France24.com: Welcoming Ukrainian refugees in Poland, or how to heal the wounds of history

The language barrier is another major obstacle to access to employment for displaced people, the majority of whom speak only Russian and Ukrainian. “I went to a temp agency with the mother and grandmother. They absolutely want to work. The agency said they were interested because there are needs for odd jobs, such as cleaning and cleaning. childcare. But we have to wait a few weeks to improve their level of French. They will have to pass a language test. I hope that will do,” says Tatiana Dumaine.

Working would also allow displaced people to contribute to the needs of the host household. Even if the displaced Ukrainians benefit from an allowance. It amounts to only 6.8 euros per person per day. Ukrainian families receive a supplement of 7.4 euros per day. “It helps a lot,” rejoices Tatiana Dumaine, who concedes, however, “to consume more electricity” and to have had to “readjust the budget for food”. “We prepare simpler, more convivial dishes. The Ukrainian women buy the basic products and with my husband, we buy the more sophisticated products”, she explains. A simple organization in theory, but which is complicated in practice: it is sometimes necessary to wait several weeks before receiving the allowance.

“The state still helps a lot compared to other European countries, but as a host we are entitled to no help,” Isabelle laments. “In thirty days, the woman I am taking in will receive the allowance, but I still have costs. We agreed that she would give me a part, but she is not obliged because it is her I don’t welcome them for the money, but I think the state could be a little more grateful to those who welcome Ukrainians into their homes without going through the state circuit,” she continues.

“We can’t let them down”

To get help, Isabelle falls back on food aid associations. “If I didn’t have Restos du Coeur and Secours Populaire, the food would have been out of my pocket. I can’t feed them all the time and they are aware of that,” she admits.

She doesn’t seem to be the only one to have found this solution. In Montélimar (south-eastern France), for example, the Secours populaire has noted an increase in demand from families. “Ukrainians come accompanied by the families who are hosting them. We help them out, but I don’t know how long we’ll last,” worries local president Ouahiba Amara.

>> To read also on France24.com: “An absurd situation”: the galley of African students in France after fleeing Ukraine

To prevent the reception from turning into a headache, Vincent Bern, the director of the J’accueille system, advises “to get closer to associations to be accompanied in the steps before opening its doors”.

“Thus, we set a framework for cohabitation and this avoids feeling alone after a few weeks of reception”, he explains. Singa asks, for example, to set an end date for accommodation and to sign a cohabitation charter including the commitments of the host, the people hosted and the association. The accompaniment provides for information appointments before the reception and regular follow-ups. Singa also works with other associations to organize support adapted to each Ukrainian. “These partnerships are essential, because the role of the host is to have a good time and not to do administrative procedures”, pleads Vincent Berne.

If this daily investment is sometimes a burden for welcoming families, Isabelle, she first emphasizes the richness of this human experience. “I’m lucky to have a super grateful family at home. They are beautiful people, they are very courageous. I’m starting to get attached to them,” she says. Tatiana Dumaine also relativizes. “This experience has changed a lot of things in my daily life. But it’s nothing compared to these people who have lost everything. They have been through such difficult things. We can’t let them down.”

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