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At a French factory, the newest employees come from Ukraine

The factory produces leather handbags for French luxury brands.
Eleanor Beardsley/NPR
The factory produces leather handbags for French luxury brands.

SEMUR-EN-AUXOIS, France — In a factory on the edge of the medieval town of Semur-en-Auxois, French isn't the only language being spoken these days. Over the whir of sewing machines, the sounds of Russian and Ukrainian can be heard as well.

The factory has been turning out leather handbags for French luxury brands since the 1970s. Maroquinerie Thomas' CEO Thierry Thomas says he's hired about 25 Ukrainians this year.

"I hired the first five and then more started coming," he says. "Cousins, sisters-in-law. They work hard, they adapt fast. At first I put them all together. That way if one understood, he could teach the others."

Thomas says it's not charity. He can't find enough French workers.

He offers the Ukrainians long-term contracts without having to go through a trial period, "so they can open bank accounts and rent apartments," he says.

How does he communicate with them?

"Google Translate," he says, laughing.

Europe is being transformed by the war in Ukraine. Even places far from the conflict are feeling the effects. And the longer the war continues, the more lasting those effects will be.

France has taken in more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, according to the French government. They have the right to stay and work and receive a small monthly stipend. Ukrainian children are learning in French schools all over the country and many French families are hosting Ukrainian families.

Thirty-three-year-old Alexander Dubitsky is working on a row of handbag handles. He came from Kharkiv at the end of August. When asked if he will return, he says, "It's not a question of rebuilding after the destruction in Ukraine. That doesn't bother me at all. I would gladly help. But we are always in danger. Even if the war stops, Russia will collect its forces and attack us again three or four years later. This has been our reality for centuries."

Oksana Zoubko is touching up bag straps with black paint. She was a baker in Kharkiv and says she loves working with her hands again.

"It's a wonderful place to work," she says. "A very wholesome atmosphere and our French colleagues are welcoming."

Zoubko says she'd like to go back to Ukraine, but thinks her nine-year old, who attends the village school, probably has a brighter future in France.

Across the work table, French colleagues Ines Chapovaloff and Maud Duvignacq say they feel lucky to share their savoir-faire and learn from the Ukrainians. They praise the Ukrainians' courage and ability to show up for work with a smile despite worries about the war back home.

Yevdokiia Bila, 36, who goes by Julia, tamps down some stitching with a small hammer. She was one of the first Ukrainians hired here last March and is from Vovchansk, right along the Russian border outside Kharkiv.

Thomas has such faith in Bila that he let her supervise a small crew of Ukrainians when their French coworkers all left for their August vacations.

"I was shocked, but in a good way," she says. "All these French workers could go on vacation together. We don't do that in Ukraine."

She says other things have surprised her in France, even the mail.

"Yes, letters and envelopes," she says. "In Ukraine, everything is online. And here I get mail from the school, from the bank. I've gotten back into the habit of checking my mailbox again!"

Bila recently had to return to Ukraine to bury her mother, who had gone to the hospital when her town was under Russian occupation — but there were no doctors. After the town was liberated, her mother was finally diagnosed with a ruptured appendix, but it was too late. She died at age 61.

Bila has rented a newly renovated apartment in the center of the cobblestone town, right across from the church. The Christmas lights from the village square light up her living room.

Several of Bila's friends and family members are also in Semur-en-Auxois and they often gather for meals at her long kitchen table. On the fireplace, she's hung a Ukrainian flag she brought with her — it was part of a celebration of Ukraine's Maidan revolution back in 2014.

Her brother Timur Romanchuk and his wife and daughter arrived in Semur-en-Auxois in June. The family had a farm and stayed as long as they could to protect it and the expensive breed of goats whose milk they used to make cheese.

They kept hoping they wouldn't lose their farm. Romanchuk says he thought he could stay under the Russian occupation. But when the Kremlin orchestrated referendums to annex Ukrainian territory this summer, he knew it was no longer possible.

"Because I knew we'd all be forced to take Russian passports," he says. That's when they decided to abandon the farm. They gave their goats to neighbors.

When asked if there are any circumstances under which they could live normally in Vovchansk, they're not so sure.

"If there was a big garden in the place of Russia," Bila says. "With sunflowers and wheat. We always imagine the problem is Putin, but Putin is not the reason, Putin is a consequence. There was also Stalin and there's always something. Is there anybody with a conscience in Russia to wake up and change and be different?"

The Ukrainians take French lessons every week at the factory. Thirty-nine-year-old Andriy Pryputniev, a former coal miner, follows along closely. His family got out of Kharkiv in March, and he followed them to France in September.

"My children study in a French school," he says. "My son plays football and another son plays guitar and music in the school."

This year wasn't the first time Pryputniev has had to flee to a new place. In 2014, he arrived in Kharkiv from his home in Luhansk, after fighting there between Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces.

He had always thought he would spend the rest of his days in Luhansk. "I thought I'd collect my pension there," he says.

Nowadays, "Sometimes when I drive the car back home after work, I think in my head, 'Where am I?'" he says with a laugh. "I'm in France? Seriously?"

Pryputniev takes his French lessons seriously. With two destroyed houses behind him, he says he's not going back to Ukraine.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.