Welcoming Ukrainians: a work in progress
Ukrainian guests are beginning to arrive in Charlbury. There are as many different stories of their journeys here as there are families; and as many different needs for support. CRAG will continue to post information about support and advice that is on offer and requested.
Meanwhile, here are the reflections of one CRAG member, based on common experiences in the past few weeks...
Friends and supporters in Charlbury and the wider area have been mustering support for Ukrainian refugees, and giving moral support to each other as we navigate the bureaucratic shoals that often seem designed to thwart our efforts. It’s a common experience to grapple with a poorly designed visa request form, phone in hand on an unreliable line to the refugees we want to sponsor, to fill in the numerous details required by an unbending Home Office. (Now, thankfully, a Ukrainian language version of the form has been issued.)
Another sadly common experience is then the weeks of waiting, seemingly interminable, for the visa documentation to come through. Sometimes the visa is granted but then the essential letter fails to arrive. Sometimes one member of the family, often a young child, does not receive a visa when the others do: more waiting and anxiety.
Local MPs and the great organisations Opora, (set up by a Ukrainian expat only in March), Asylum Welcome and quite a few others have been offering help and support. Local councils are supposed to provide emergency funding and provide school places free of charge, but the different parts of government are simply not joined up; while the numbers of people fleeing danger and tragedy in Ukraine only increase.
Having triumphantly secured a nursery place near her London flat where she is accommodating a family of five, one CRAG member learned that the school was telling the migrant family they would have to pay £100 a week, paying also for school uniform (!) and meals for their four-year-old: all of which are explicitly being offered free of charge as part of the government scheme. But the family wasn’t yet registered for benefits…
Each step must come in order but nobody seems to know what the order is. And meanwhile there is a four-year-old and his anxious parents not knowing when or if they can get on with life.
The sponsoring hosts, of course, give up many hours and days to getting the system to work. Other sponsors find themselves paying the hotel bills for refugees who have run out of money, have been told their visa is granted, but have not received the essential paperwork that will enable them to travel.
Working with local authorities is a challenge, for the hard-pressed local officials, no doubt, as much as for the rest of us. There must be a home inspection, sometimes more than one. Is the gas checked for safety, the electricity, the smoke alarms? And so on… Safeguarding checks must be in place.
All these perfectly reasonable requirements come in real time as the problems with visas and travel are addressed, and all at speed. For our Ukrainian guests, we can only hope that being here safely is what matters most, and the warmth of our welcome will compensate for the blocks placed in their way by officials struggling to manage a completely new and untested system.
That, in the end, is what it’s all about: the warm welcome and the safety. People in Charlbury and all over the country are getting together to offer not just room, but bedding, equipment, children’s toys, books, food, transport, English lessons, group meals, free haircuts, guided tours, and more. Our guests will be anxious to return home when they can do so safely. They will go with good memories of Britain that, we can hope, will last long after this war is over. And we too will have been changed forever.
Let’s hope the experience of bureaucratic and financial obstacles overcome together will be the least of our memories. But the trials of our Ukrainian guests make us reflect on those refugees for whom there is no welcome scheme, only the prospect of a prison sentence or removal to Rwanda if they ever make it across the Channel, as the Nationality and Borders Bill finally passes into law after a mammoth struggle.
Meanwhile, these individuals and families, our uprooted and grieving guests, will teach us a lot about stoicism, varying cultural norms, a new language, the nuances of national identity, and the common norms of humanity that we share with them. We will help them to build up the resilience that they so badly need now and when they return to their devastated country. We will discover new depths and kindness in ourselves. We and they will offer each other friendships that in some cases will last a lifetime.
Some helpful links
Homes for Ukraine scheme: frequently asked questions
West Oxfordshire District Council Ukraine support