Former 'Jungle' refugees get shot at new life in French village

Nearly two dozen migrants from the demolished "Jungle" camp in Calais are now living in a château in Chardonnay, France. While the village has been cool to the new arrivals, attitudes seem to be slowly changing.

Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor
Mohammed Adam (l.), a refugee from Darfur, Sudan, helps repair a lawnmower in the village of Chardonnay, France. The arrival of 21 refugees from Calais after a migrant camp there was demolished has divided the village.

This sleepy Burgundian village, the original home of the famous grape variety, has seen its creation spread abroad to the four corners of the earth.

But now “abroad” has turned up on its doorstep, in the shape of Sudanese and Afghan refugees, and their arrival has sown dissension.

In a microcosm of the debate that has wracked Europe over how generous the continent should be in welcoming migrants, Chardonnay, pop. 199, is divided. As the "Jungle" migrant camp in the port of Calais was demolished this week and its 7,000 inhabitants dispersed around France, 21 young Sudanese men were brought here for temporary shelter.

“It’s a waste of public money and they shouldn’t be here,” snorts Christophe Nouhen, a winemaker who lives opposite the disused château that has been designated a “Welcome and Orientation Center” for migrants.

Jean Paul Rullière, a former mayor of the village, takes a kinder view. “They’ve been through enough,” he says. “At least here they have a moment to catch their breath.”

Abdul al-Fadr, sitting in the sunshine that bathes the château’s graveled courtyard, is unaware of the fuss he and his fellow refugees are causing. He speaks only a few words of French. But he says he is delighted to be here.

Mr. Fadr fled the civil war in Darfur, Sudan, on April 2 this year, and eventually made his way to Calais. Life there, in a small tent, was “so hard,” he says. “It was cold and wet. When they said last week buses would come to take us away, I decided to take the first one.

“I got up at six o’clock on Monday and got on the bus. I didn’t know where I was going, but I came here,” he recalls. His first impressions? “It’s quiet.”

A testy match

That isn’t surprising. Most residents of Chardonnay, a picturesque collection of rustic stone-built houses, are in their 60s or older. The village has no shops; its only businesses are a cafe-restaurant and the local wine cooperative’s outlet.

That doesn’t make it an ideal location for a refugee reception center, Deputy Mayor Peggy Gaultier says, but the château – recently remodeled and fully equipped as a children's vacation camp but not being used by its owners, the French Boy Scouts – was highly suitable.

Regional officials first checked it out a year ago. News of their visit prompted an angry public meeting, at which about 70 villagers aired suggestions that the refugees would bring disease and violence with them. At a village council meeting, councilors voted 8-2 , with one abstention, against letting the migrants come.

“It was very ugly,” recalls Ms. Gaultier, who was one of the two sympathetic votes. But the village council had no authority to stop the scouts renting their property to the NGO dealing with asylum seekers, and the first 31 refugees arrived in July.

Since then around 100 people, almost all of them young men from Sudan, Eritrea, and Afghanistan, have passed through the château. Some have simply disappeared – likely heading back to Calais and another chance to slip illegally into Britain; others have moved on to different centers where they can follow up their French asylum applications.

Even the reception center’s fiercest opponents acknowledge that the refugees have caused little trouble beyond playing noisy games of soccer late on summer nights. Marie Letienne, who lives across the road from the château with her husband, a retired winemaker, says they have suffered the most. Once, two refugees came into her garden and she had to chase them off. On another occasion, refugees stole a shopping bag full of grapes from the Letiennes' vineyard.

“This used to be a quiet little village and now we don’t feel safe, even if nothing happens,” says Ms. Letienne.

The village mayor, Paul Perre, who organized the public meeting last November to oppose the center, hints darkly of potential dangers.

During the upcoming vine-pruning season, he says, “women often work alone in the vineyards. Even if these migrants are entirely honorable, they are men and it has been months…. The women might not feel safe.”

Not everyone believes such insinuations. “There’s no need to exaggerate,” says Philibert Talmard as he tosses dead vine roots into a trailer hitched to his tractor. “We had a lot of trouble integrating the Spaniards who came here in 1936” fleeing Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, Mr. Talmard points out. “But we were happy enough to have them work for us.”

'Mentalities are changing'

Two teachers living in Chardonnay, Christophe Lambert and his wife, Fabienne Durcy, have been volunteering to teach French to the refugees for the past three months.

“For us it’s an enriching experience,” says Mr. Lambert. “We never thought we would find people from the ends of the earth in our little village and be able to help them.”

Two weeks ago the couple launched a small NGO to organize classes in French, art, theater, photography, and cookery for the refugees, now that the weather makes soccer less appealing. They have rallied about 25 volunteers, six of them from Chardonnay itself.

“Mentalities are changing,” says Yussef Oubella, a guard at the château. “Sometimes when villagers see migrants walking back from Tournus [the nearest town, five miles away], they will give them a ride.”

Only a handful of people turned out on Monday to protest the arrival of the latest batch of refugees, he points out. In July, when the first ones came, dozens of villagers and two tractors tried to block their path.

But Mr. Nouen, who says he would close the refugee center down if he could, believes that the village is calmer than it was only because “there is nothing we can do about it.” Ms. Gaultier, who won the most votes of any candidate for village councilor at the last elections, says her support for the center has certainly dented her popularity rating.

Still, Lambert says, if he can’t necessarily win over his neighbors, he can have an influence on the migrants.

Almost all of them, he points out, originally wanted to go to Britain; but 40 or so of the refugees he has worked with have abandoned that goal and applied for political asylum in France. He is proud of that.

“Perhaps we helped show them what France is, so that in the end they felt that they weren’t so badly off here,” Lambert says.

Back at the château, Fadr has reached that conclusion on his own. “For me, England is good, France is good,” he says. “I just want to live.”

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