The alleys of Lavardac, a small village in southwest France, are largely silent during the national lockdown, but a rhythmic noise can be heard from the window upstairs of an unpretentious house.
This is the sound of the sewing machines used to make cloth masks against coronaviruses for the local population by five Syrian Kurdish refugees.
The Shikho family – the Mustapha brothers, Mohamad, Fawzi, Hekmat and their brother-in-law Riad – decided to produce the masks as a sign of “solidarity” with their fellow citizens and as a sign of gratitude for having allowed them to settle in Lavardac in 2016.
In a narrow room with white walls that serves as a workshop, the family cuts, sews and folds the colored fabrics.
And dozens of finished handmade masks are ready on an ironing board for delivery to the nearby pharmacy.
“We wanted to be of service to the inhabitants who cannot go out. We know what it’s like to stay locked up, “said Mustapha, the eldest. “In our case, it was war. “
The 31-year-old, who like his brother Mohamad by training, originally planned to open a workshop in Lavardac, a green community of only 2,300 people.
But the national closure in France, in force since March 17, changed everything and they decided to work from home.
– Gesture of friendship –
“We had a bunch of fabric. We started by making masks for the family, ”says Mohamad, 24.
“We said to ourselves:” Why not do it for our friends, the locals? The town hall helped us. We therefore wanted to make a gesture in return. “
To date, the Shikho brothers – with the occasional help of their sisters and mother Radija – have produced approximately 2,000 three-ply, washable masks. And their work has not gone unnoticed.
“Thanks to their masks, people can now venture out again,” says local pharmacist Frédéric Barthe.
“The population has some kind of protection. It’s a lesser evil, waiting for the arrival of real FFP2 (masks) or surgery. “
His pharmacy and that of the neighboring city, as well as a handful of local associations, are trying to reimburse the Shikhos one euro for each mask sold to cover costs and equipment.
“People tell us that we should sell them for four or five euros, but we don’t want to do it out of solidarity,” says Fawzi.
– Syrian Odyssey –
Fawzi, a 19-year-old high school student, wrote a booklet “I Seek Peace”, illustrating the family’s odyssey.
It starts in Homs where they lived when the Syrian conflict started almost a decade ago.
From there, they moved to Lebanon for a few months, before reaching Afrine, a corner of Syria where they originally came from, but which is now occupied by anti-Kurdish Turkey.
Their journey then took them to Istanbul, Athens and finally France.
“We learned our first word of French at the airport, it was ‘Bonjour’,” laughs Hekmat, 17, who now speaks French almost like a native, but without the regional accent.
Like thousands of other refugees, the family sailed overnight to a Greek island on an overloaded inflatable boat from the Turkish coast.
There were approximately 50 people on board, all related to the Shikhos, including 19 children.
“Before the crossing, we said to ourselves” either we die together, or we come together “”, whispers Fawzi. “Of course, we were afraid. “
Lavardec mayor Philippe Barrere said the decision to settle a family of Syrian refugees in the village was not entirely without problems.
“There was some resistance among the population,” he says.
But “through school, local associations and work”, the Shikhos “have demonstrated their strong desire for integration and this initiative with masks is a very good example of their good will and their heart in the right place” .
“Their past is no stranger to this,” said the mayor. “They are used to fighting, to standing up. “
And it seems that the people of Lavardac are starting to accept them.
“Sometimes we meet people wearing our masks,” said one of the brothers. “The other day, a lady who wore one said” thank you. ” “