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Ukrainian family finds sanctuary in South Shields thanks to Hexham mum and local charity

By Mike Kelly

Three generations of the same family from Ukraine and their pet dog have escaped their war-torn country and found sanctuary in the North East.

Yuliya, her teenage daughter Ksenia, her mother Olga and dog Nika are the first refugee family to be matched with hosts in the region by husband and wife John Lawler and Kari Anderson – the people behind the charity MAD Foundation’s Operation Safe Drop.

Sarah Martin, who is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor and lives in Hexham, Northumberland with husband Chris and their two young children, has given Yuliya the keys to a property in South Shields.

Read more: North Shields gran's project to knit bears for Ukraine refugee kids goes global

The MAD Foundation, working with local Ukrainian charities arranged to get them from Kyiv to Lviv in Western Ukraine and on to Przemysl in Poland. Yuliya and Ksenia could apply for their UK Visa’s online as they had more modern biometric passports.

However, Olga only had an older passport and so had to travel into Poland to apply for the visa in person, as it requires her biometrics to be registered. This has meant a long wait in Poland for the visa to be processed.

Chris and Sarah Martin with their children (Handout)

As well as helping with travel out of Ukraine, the MAD Foundation assisted the family, matching them to a host family in the North East and has ensured they were housed safely whilst the visa application was processed.

Sarah, who splits her time between working as a Town Planner for Northumberland County Council and as a Trustee for Hexham based Charity Tanga Club, is the granddaughter of holocaust survivor, the late Edith Askew.

Edith came to South Shields from Vienna in the aftermath of World War 2. Her father - Sarah’s great grandfather - was born in Ukraine.

Sarah said: “I was shocked to watch the horrors unfolding in Ukraine and as it became clear that refugees would seek sanctuary in the UK there was no question about doing everything I could to help,

“People of the North East are famous for their hospitality and charity, speaking with friends and colleagues there is an overwhelming desire to help Ukrainians, but many are uncertain of how best to help.

“MAD Foundation’s Operation Safe Drop has been a tremendous support to me and families in assisting them safely leave Ukraine, helping with matters when they reach Poland and their onward travel to the UK.

“It was a great sense of relief and joy when Yuliya and her family finally arrived in the UK.”

Speaking through an interpreter Yuliya said: “John and Kari have treated us very well. They have done a lot for us. We are so thankful to Sarah and her family who have sponsored us through the visa process and are providing us with a lovely house in South Shields.

"They wrote to us often asking how we are. We are overwhelmed to have met them and at the kindness they have shown us.”

Coun Jim Foreman, Lead Member for Housing and Transport on South Tyneside Council, said: “We’d like to offer Yuliya, Ksenia and Olga a very warm welcome.

“We have a fantastic community here in South Tyneside and I am confident that Yuliya and her family will be embraced with kindness, generosity and hospitality and made to feel at home.

“As with all people seeking shelter in the borough, we as a council stand ready to offer support and resources to ensure a smooth transition and help the family feel safe and settled as quickly as possible.”

John Lawler said “It’s great to get our first family safely across to the North East. They will be safe now housed in South Shields until it is safe to return to the Ukraine. We have been concentrating our efforts on those that need the most help.

"Whilst the UK offer to Ukrainian families is good – access to the NHS, the freedom to work and a right to stay three years – the visa system is still too slow.

“They escaped with nothing, and we have had to assist them by renting a room in a small hotel/ hostel whilst awaiting the visa. This cost is pushed onto charities like ours – I’d like to thank everyone who has donated to the MAD Foundation’s Operation Safe Drop.

“It is very difficult out here and it really is a race against time getting families matched and to safety. We have had some incredible offers of help, but we are urging everyone to do what they can to help us get these desperate people, who have travelled many miles in horrendous conditions to escape the war, to families who are only too willing to take them.

“We are also looking for more families to come forward and offer Ukrainian refugees’ sanctuary and we will do our utmost to support the process.”

Normally the MAD Foundation runs overseas development projects and helps volunteers link to those projects around the world, but the war has prompted an emergency response and they are appealing for more funds to help.”

A JustGiving page https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/OperationSafeDrop has so far raised just over £4,000 but much more is needed to help fund the operation and transport the families from Poland to the UK.

John, a graduate of Newcastle University, said: “It is incredibly frustrating but ultimately rewarding matching the families. I can’t thank people enough for what they have done but there is much more we need to do such is the scale of this humanitarian crisis."

Potential hosts in the UK must first register their interest through the government at https://www.gov.uk/register-interest-homes-ukraine

They should then apply for a match online by filling out an application developed at the UK desk at the Humanitarian Aid Centre on the Polish border: https://forms.gle/JjnZvCCV4xmCqpLc7

Once a potential match is found, John will contact the potential host with questions and information about who they are able to support.

If a match is agreed upon it will be checked with the UK Government desk out there and ‘formalised’.

John and the teams out there will then assist the family in applying for a visa through the Visa Assistance Centre in Rzeszow and the family’s accommodation and safety through as they wait for approval.

Once approved, the team will assist arrange transportation for the families to travel to the UK.

“Our aim is to provide a safe, efficient and free final leg of the journey for those who were forced to make it to keep their children safe,” said John.

“Poland has been an incredible host for these families but the pressure there is enormous, and we want to do our bit to ease some of that pressure by supporting families to the UK.”

More information can be found about the charity and the mission on their website here

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Dive Deeper:
Northumberland family to take in desperate Ukrainian refugees fleeing war
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