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Ukrainian refugees in France find work at factories that produce luxury handbags

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The war in Ukraine is transforming Europe in more ways than one. The longer the war lasts, the more permanent its effects could be for many, as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley found out when she visited a town in the Burgundy region of France.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARGE BELL TOLLING)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: If you listen carefully, you might hear the newcomers in the medieval town of Semur-en-Auxois, especially at a factory on the edge of town where chatter in Russian and Ukrainian can now be heard over the whir of sewing machines. The factory makes leather handbags for several French luxury brands.

THIERRY THOMAS: (Through interpreter) I hired the first five, and then more started coming. They work hard. They adapt fast.

BEARDSLEY: CEO Thierry Thomas says he's hired about 25 Ukrainians this year.

THOMAS: (Through interpreter) At first I put them all together. That way, if one understood, he could teach the others.

BEARDSLEY: Thomas says it's not charity. He can't find enough French workers. He offers the Ukrainians long-term contracts without the usual trial period so they can open bank accounts and rent apartments. How does he communicate with them?

THOMAS: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Google Translate, he says. It works.

ALEXANDER DUBITSKY: Alexander Dubitsky.

BEARDSLEY: Alexander Dubitsky is working on handbag handles. He came from Kharkiv at the end of August. Will he stay in France?

DUBITSKY: (Through interpreter) Russia's plan has always been to attack Ukraine. This is our reality for centuries. I would be glad to go back and help rebuild my country. But even if they stop, they'll be preparing to attack us again.

OKSANA ZOUBKO: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Oksana Zoubko worked in a bakery in Kharkiv. She loves this hands-on job and the chance to touch such beautiful objects.

ZOUBKO: (Through interpreter) It's a wonderful place to work. I love it. A very wholesome atmosphere, and our French colleagues are welcoming.

BEARDSLEY: She says she'd like to go back to Ukraine, but thinks her 9-year-old probably has a brighter future in France.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Across the work table, French colleagues Ines Chapeauvaloff and Maude Duviniac say they feel lucky to learn from the Ukrainians and share their savoir-faire.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "With everything they're dealing with back home, they still show up with a smile," said the young women. "They have a lot of courage." Thirty-six-year-old Yevdokiia Bila tamps down stitching with a small hammer. She was one of the first Ukrainians hired last March. Factory owner Thomas has such faith that he let her supervise a crew of Ukrainians when the factory was closed for August vacation. She was amazed the French workers could all get off together. Other things have surprised her in France.

YEVDOKIIA BILA: (Through interpreter) We get letters and envelopes. I get mail from the school, the bank. In Ukraine, I quit checking my mailbox a long time ago. It's all online.

BEARDSLEY: Bila just returned to Ukraine to bury her mother. She had gone to the hospital when her town was occupied by the Russians, but there were no doctors. Her town was finally liberated, but her mother's diagnosis came too late. She died at the age of 61 from a ruptured appendix.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Every week the Ukrainians have French lessons at the factory.

ANDRIY PRYPUTNIEV: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Thirty-nine-year-old Andriy Pryputniev got out of Kharkiv in September and joined his family here.

PRYPUTNIEV: My children study in French school. My son play football. Another son played guitar and music in school.

BEARDSLEY: He is originally from Luhansk, where he was a coal miner and thought he would spend the rest of his days.

PRYPUTNIEV: Sometimes when I drive the car back home after work, I think in my head, where I am? I am in France. Serious (laughter)?

BEARDSLEY: Pryputniev follows the French lesson closely. With two destroyed homes now behind him, he's not planning to go back to Ukraine. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Semur-en-Auxois, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.