Some of its inhabitants say it feels like Chambon-le-Chateau is located at the end of the world: buffeted by the ferocious winds high in the Massif Central, frigid in winter and a long drive from the nearest town with no public transport.
But the village in the central Lozere region, France’s most thinly-populated, has proven an unlikely success story in providing a welcoming home to asylum seekers whose presence has lifted the community.
Threatened by a rural exodus, Chambon-le-Chateau has encouraged asylum seekers to settle there for the last decade and a half — they now make up 20 percent of its 300-strong population.
It’s a story that bucks the trend in much of France, where there is not enough accommodation to host asylum seekers and anti-immigrant sentiment can ride high, with the ultra-right National Rally (RN) a major political force.
On a recent misty morning, a stream of parents — Syrian, Sudanese or Ivorian, some of the mums draped in shimmering African fabrics — walked down to the village school, leading their youngsters by the hand, while French parents dropped theirs off by car.
The two groups had little contact, but once inside the playground their children eagerly mingled and played ahead of lessons.
In a region where many classes had to shut due to people moving to the cities, the school in Chambon-le-Chateau boasts four classes, including one tailored to non-native French speakers who number 16, out of a total of 46 pupils.
“For my son who is eight years old, it is truly a chance to meet children from other countries,” said local resident Valerie, who asked for her full name not to be published.
Teacher Marie-Amelie Papon said that the children mixed well.
She has 19 pupils, including 11 foreigners from Ivory Coast, Guinea, Sudan and Syria in her primary school class.
“The organisation is sometimes heavy but it is normally stimulating for me,” she said.
– A rare decision –
Village mayor Michel Nouvel, 62, said that the reception centre managed by NGO France Terre d’Asile (France Territory for Asylum), which supports asylum seekers, was first opened “when the village was economically devastated by the closure of a dairy factory.”
The area had already hosted a professional training centre for 80 youths who had dropped out of society, he said.
“We had the know how about how to host people in difficulty and we wanted to continue,” he added.
Such attitudes are not guaranteed in France where residents and local officials are sometimes strongly opposed to the opening of centres for asylum seekers.
France, along with Germany, receives the most applications from asylum seekers in the European Union, with 110,500 initial demands in 2018, according to Eurostat.
There is consequently a lack of accommodation places for them and many live in informal tent camps, notably in the region around Paris, which can lead to social tensions.
“Thanks to the presence of the reception centre, which hosts some 50 people, the school survived, the post office was kept going and we kept jobs as well as a pharmacy and a doctor,” the mayor said.
He added that the asylum seekers’ presence brought in around 20,000 euros ($22,300) a year to the municipality through the rental of public accommodation to the NGO to house the migrant families.
Private owners also benefit by renting out lodgings too.
– ‘Really isolated’ –
Braving the tough winter temperatures, a group of Africans and Syrians sit on benches in the main square in front of the town hall where they can use the free wifi for much needed communication with loved ones back home.
But in this small village, with its 14th-century fort castle, parish church and fountain, 30 kilometres (19 miles) from the nearest town, time can seem to pass slowly.
“It’s the end of the world here, it is hard to live,” Junior, a Guinean, told AFP. Around him another 20 asylum seekers nod their heads in assent.
Their names have been changed for security reasons.
Mayor Nouvel said the sight of the asylum seekers hanging around apparently doing very little sometimes prompted grumbling from a handful of villagers.
But he stressed that asylum seekers were not allowed to work while their asylum requests were being assessed.
“The village looks nice, people are kind and we are safe here, at last,” said Nadim, a father who arrived seven months ago to escape Syria’s civil war.
“But living in such a remote and isolated place is very difficult for us,” he added.
“We have no right to work, there is no public transport, no supermarket, we are totally dependent, with very few hours of French lessons, and no possibility to benefit from a psychological care corresponding to what we’ve had to go through.”
– ‘Just want to work’ –
Mylene Moreau, the head of the reception centre, agreed.
“Transport and mobility is a real problem. We are really isolated,” she said, adding it was also a problem finding volunteers to give French courses.
The village only has a pharmacy, a bar and a butcher’s shop as well as a tiny bakery and general store where prices are much higher than the national average.
And the lack of public transport in this remote region of rural France hits the asylum seekers much harder than the local residents who often have cars.
To go shopping or have medical appointments, the asylum seekers rely on transport from the reception centre who takes them to the town of Langogne, 30 minutes away, or Mende or Puy-en-Velay, around one hour away.
The newcomers, who have fled wars and persecution, try to keep occupied with activities and voluntary help.
“I am happy, I had enough with being shut away,” said Awa, a 30-year-old Ivorian, who helps as a volunteer in the school canteen.
Shamim, from Bangladesh, asked for a guitar and played at a recent local celebration and also plays football with the locals.
But in the end, he says he just wants to work.
“I can’t wait to have the right to work, for myself but to be useful to France too.”
Since the programme began in 2003, just one family from Madagascar has opted to stay in the village after obtaining refugee status mainly due to its isolation.
Of those at the Chambon-le-Chateau centre, only 24 percent of asylum requests had a positive response in 2018.
At the school, every departure is a wrench.
“Emotionally speaking it is hard, very hard when the day comes