The outpouring of solidarity for Ukrainian refugees has not been limited to the larger cities. The rural world, through the commitment of non-profit associations and private citizens, has been acting to welcome these refugees. Jordan Pinel, geography researcher at the Migrinter Laboratory at the University of Poitiers interviewed these families who are often new to hosting refugees.

Why should we take special interest in accepting Ukrainian refugees in rural areas? Are the concerns or types of commitment different there?

When it comes to welcoming migrants, a lot is going on in the larger cities. But in recent years, initiatives have been developing in rural areas to help refugees. The Ukrainian crisis has accelerated this trend..

The main difficulty in welcoming refugees in rural areas is the refugees’ lack of autonomy. Without accessible public transport, it is up to the host family to make local travel arrangements. The Ukrainians who fled their country did so as a family, often with elderly people. Schooling of children, doing administrative tasks, visiting the doctor – when new patients are accepted – or even just going shopping, are all situations that require host families to get involved. In one of my interviews, a couple told me that one of the elderly Ukrainians they had taken in had undergone knee surgery, which required dozens of round trips to see doctors and physical therapists. Most host families speak about their heavy mental strain that can be made worse when they end up hosting refugees longer than anticipated.

You have described the surge of solidarity that has swept through some communities, but, at the same time, you indicate that this may tapering off. How is it now? Is community engagement sustainable?

The Ukrainian crisis sparked a vast outpouring of solidarity, backed up by public authorities and extensively covered by the media. Various initiatives created a real snowball effect. In a village of 600 inhabitants, three families took in Ukrainian refugees. There was only one host family at the start.  And then, once it received everyone’s support, the town hall issued a call for goodwill.  A WhatsApp group was created. The town hall took action. Other host family candidates applied, supported in turn by their neighbours.

The commitment of host families has surely been made easier due the geographical proximity of the refugees and their cultural ties. Most of the families I interviewed were new to hosting refugees. Aside from a few exceptions, the shared living arrangements with the refugees did not last longer than six months. Many families were relieved when the hosting experience was over, once the Ukrainian families had found long-term accommodation or had left to return to their country. During the interviews, they appeared noticeably relieved. The surge of solidarity was a reaction to an emergency. But hosting and, ultimately, caring for a family for several months without any meaningful support is significantly more demanding than accepting an asylum seeker within the framework of a non-profit association or a migrant relief organisation.

Couldn’t the new host families rely on relief agencies that already provide aid to people in need?

The difference between the types of services offered to Ukrainian refugees and to other refugees has cut out non-profit associations and collectivities. Ukrainians enjoy many advantages: freedom to work and move around, automatic issuance of legal papers, easier access to housing, education for children, etc. So, the usual issues that associations resolve for asylum seekers are thus already settled, but associations have not found answers to the other issues that are specific to Ukrainian refugees. In the area where I carried out my study, Audacia was the association that was chosen by the government in response to a call for bids to assist and support Ukrainian refugees. We can therefore say that the reception of Ukrainian refugees was essentially accomplished through a parallel system with little or no reliance on existing organisational networks.

What inference do you make from the solidarity movement that emerged in the rural world? What was the upshot?

The reception of Ukrainian refugees was initially built on a strong desire for their social integration: access to the labour market, educational opportunities, language learning, etc. But, in the end, many left the country, and few actually learned French. Perhaps it was because they intended to stay only temporarily, or perhaps it was because the arrangements were ill-adapted to non-French-speakers. But there were also great stories, including two full-time jobs in agriculture and another in architecture.

Despite the challenges the host families had to deal with, the experience was positive for the community. According to research, the acceptance of foreigners in rural areas has a real stimulating effect, especially because it is likely to attract agricultural labour and helps keep schools open. Here, we can add that the solidarity movement has revealed and even nourished the vitality of the rural world and its capacity for collective action.

Top photo: @Nicole Robicheau / IFRC