Letters on Ukraine: 25/07/2022 – The Gates of Gare de l’Est

Steve Lopes shares a first dispatch from Paris, where he observes non-profit and state assistance for Ukrainians arriving at the Gare de l'Est.

Arriving in a stifling hot Paris – my first visit in a few years – I was taken by the generosity of volunteers I had heard about at the historic train station, the Gare de l’Est. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the Red Cross has received thousands of Ukrainian refugees at the bustling station after their marathon journey to a new life.

There is a swell of support for the displaced Ukrainians and a warm spirit of generosity. This is in marked contrast to my last journey here in 2017, when I documented the many Syrian migrants sleeping rough on the streets. Back then, there wasn’t as much support for the influx of refugees escaping the war in their homeland. Now, polls show that 85 percent of French people are in favour of helping Ukrainian refugees.

It’s really hot here at the moment and I quietly work directly into my sketchbook. The refugees are welcomed by young volunteers. Some of them could easily pass for normal lost tourists at first glance, with a wide-eyed gaze as they step off the trains. There is something slightly different in their eyes. Unlike the rest of the people in Paris bouncing around with the joys of summer, these people are forced to confront a new reality with lives uprooted by a senseless war. The contrasts between the romantic city of Paris and what it represents is something that washes over the new arrivals, as their only concerns are with now having to start a new life, or with dreams of going back to their homeland.

Since the war began more than five million Ukrainians have fled the country, with 100,000 finding refuge in France. Many of them arrive at the Gare de l’Est on trains travelling via Germany. Waiting to receive them is the Red Cross along with a number of Russian volunteers who are eager to offer the displaced Ukrainians their support.

Several Russian volunteers are on hand to assist the Red Cross, who lack translators to help with newly arrived Ukrainian refugees. 

One of the refugees, Natalia Perepelytsia, a Ukrainian from Kyiv, was quoted as saying that she doesn’t mind the contact with Russian interpreters: “We don’t make a difference between Russians and others, we judge people on their qualities and not on their nationality.”

A portal called Je m’engage pour l’Ukraine (I am committed to Ukraine) was recently  launched with state support, aiming to coordinate help from French citizens. A reception centre called Accueil Ukraine has also opened its doors, specifically for Ukrainian refugees. 

It’s heartening to see the support for the plight of Ukrainians across the city, from stickers and posters to banners in the blue and yellow of the Ukraine’s flag fluttering public buildings.

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