PEYRELEVADE — Since April, the former retirement home in this village in central France, with a population of just 800, has been transformed. Now it serves as a center for asylum seekers, have welcomed some 60 Syrians, Sudanese, Guineans, Nigerians, Ukrainians and Chechens.

The village "had to do something" with this three-story building and its 2,000 square meters, explains Pierre Coutaud, the young mayor of Peyrelevade. After considering creating an educational center, the village finally decided instead to volunteer to take in refugees.

It wasn't solely a "humanitarian" decision, the mayor says. It was also a project to encourage "local development," which would be funded by subsidies and see the rent paid by an association that manages the center. Had it been renovated with no new use, local taxes would have increased by 10%, Coutaud says.

The opening of the center also led to the creation of four jobs and one part-time position, all held by local residents. And perhaps most important of all, the arrival of about 15 new children allowed the primary school to keep operating one of its classes, which otherwise would have been closed.

At first, the initiative wasn't to everybody's liking. The mayor, who had put the development at the center of his election campaign, received a few threatening emails and phone calls. Although he organized public meetings to discuss the project, he still sometimes hears "unpleasant remarks." But this pushback is marginal, he says, and most locals seem pleased about what the town is doing.

Peyrelevade's town hall — Source: Google Street View

"These people are in need," says Milou, head of the new center's friends association. "We have to try and help them. Being able to do something for them is rewarding. Everyone should do their share."

Mutual benefits

Philippe Sœur, manager of the local minimarket, says the project has injected new energy into the sleepy village. "They bring us a lot: new life, cultural exchanges, openness," he says. "In a village such as ours, we tend to become quite narrow-minded."

Nicolette Gibbons, a 40-year-old originally from Brittany who has been living in Peyrelevade for seven years, immediately applied to be the center's activity leader. Her son had never seen a black child, which she believed was "shameful."

The arrival of the refugees has made another person happy: Jean-Louis Brette, president of the local soccer club. He used the opportunity to create a second team and is delighted to have several players who are "rather good, motivated and always ready to help." Brette says he loves to hear them call him "Coach" in all their different accents.

Among these new recruits is 33-year-old Viktor, who used to teach Yoruba and English in Nigeria. Having passed through Paris and Limoges, he prefers the small village. "It's easier to meet people and speak French," he says. Until he returns to classes, which are taught by volunteers, he downloads lessons on his phone, and reads the La Montagne and L'Equipe newspapers as often as possible. A neighboring couple helped him repair his bike. Another gave seedlings for the center's vegetable patch, and another helped turn over the soil.

At the La Fontaine café, a young Sudanese wearing a Brazil football jersey explains that he was initially afraid of leaving the so-called "jungle" in Calais, where masses of immigrants are gathered to try to reach the UK. But finally he decided to take up the offer to come to Peyrelevade. "Here, people respect us, talk to us and try to help us," he says.

Source: France 3 Régions screenshot

The terrace of the café is a rallying point for the asylum seekers, even when it's closed. The manager — the mayor's brother — lets the newcomers use his Wi-Fi. And on match days, he turns his television set toward the outside so they can watch.

Mohamed, who used to be a police officer in Guinea, goes there every morning after breakfast to "kill some time" or contact his relatives. He would like to be more active, to have a job. Before Peyrelevade, he was a volunteer for Popular Relief in the town of Guéret, which he misses. "I feel ill doing nothing," he says.

The residents of Peyrelevade do wonder, though, what will happen next. The center's residents won't be able to stay there forever. Already, a first resident's asylum request has been rejected, which means he must leave the center.

On the morning of the first day of school in early September, a father says he's worried because one of his daughter's good friends is Ukrainian. "We don't know when, but she'll have to leave," he says. "It's a shame."