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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Steven Morris

‘We’ll make it work’: the Ukrainian families benefiting from UK community-led scheme

Iryna and her children on bed
Iryna and her children in their hostel in Kraków before flying to a new life in the UK. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

They looked pale and exhausted as they waited for their cases – containing the few possessions they were able to pack into their car when they fled their home in Ukraine – at Luton irport’s baggage reclaim.

But the smiles of relief beamed out when the family – mum, dad and three children – stepped into arrivals hall to be greeted by a welcome banner, goody bags and the warm hugs of their host, retired teacher Cora Hall, who has opened up her Staffordshire home as part of a new refugee sponsorship programme.

“I’m so full of emotions,” said the mother, Iryna, 34. “But most of all, I’m extremely happy to be here. Cora seems very kind and the children are pleased to be in Britain.” Her husband, Vladyslav, 37, kept the children, eight-year-old Hlib, Tymofii, 11, and Valeriia, 14, close and repeated one of the few English phrases he knew to anyone and everyone: “Thank you.”

The new end-to-end scheme – Communities for Ukraine – is based on a collaboration between two charities, Citizens UK and Ukrainian Sponsorship Pathway UK. USPUK, set up by lawyers and entrepreneurs, employs Ukrainian staff in Poland to support refugees exploring resettlement in the UK.

Vladyslav hugs Cora
The family meet their host, Cora Hall, from Staffordshire for the first time at Luton airport. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Citizens UK, the community organising charity that helped pioneer the UK’s sponsorship scheme for Syrians, has recruited 20 civil society organisations with deep roots in their communities as strategic partners. Each partner – mainly faith groups and educational establishments – has committed to finding 50 hosts, and Citizens UK gives training to ensure that the matches are solid and sustainable.

The status of the scheme has been recognised by the UK, but the ambition is to provide a safer, more streamlined, better-supported system than the government’s much criticised response tothe refugee crisis.

On the evening before their departure for the UK, Vladyslav and Iryna finished their packing at a refugee hostel in Kraków and spoke of their sadness at having to flee their home in the city of Pavlohrad, central eastern Ukraine, and their hopes for their life in the UK.

“We couldn’t believe it when the war started,” said Vladyslav, who was a senior manager in a construction firm. “We knew our area would be one of the first to be affected.” At first they stayed put, heading into bitterly cold bomb shelters when the sirens sounded and the missiles hit.

Little Amal puppet by plane
Little Amal, the giant puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian girl, waves the family off as they board their plane to the UK. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

“They said that only strategic sites would be targeted,” said Iryna. “But there were rocket attacks in our neighbourhood that hit civilian areas. It was very, very scary. We felt we had to leave.”

Vladyslav was allowed to accompany his family because he and his wife have three children, so they packed a few belongings into their car – along with their pomeranian – and drove west, arriving in Poland three days later, at the start of March.

“We went to a refugee centre,” said Vladyslav. “They offered us accommodation for a month and said the war would be over and we’d be able to go back home.” It quickly became clear that there would be no quick end to the conflict. “We realised there are so many Ukrainian people in Poland that there was not going to be any opportunity to work and we were not going to be able to progress. We decided to apply to go to another country.”

The family has been living in two small rooms. It has been cramped but they have been luckier than refugees living in tents in Kraków or in a disused shopping mall, where about 300 are living in a strip-light-illuminated limbo.

Iryna said they were now desperate for the children to go to school. “They didn’t have proper schooling for two years because of Covid – and then war came.” The family has never left Ukraine before and had not flown until this weekend.

Rows of makeshift beds in disused shopping centre
Ukrainian refugees sleep in a disused shopping centre that has been converted into a hostel in Krakow. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

In the days before they departed, they were in touch with their host via email, asking about subjects ranging from the weather and the cost of food to Vladyslav’s job prospects. He is desperately keen to work. “The UK feels like a dream country,” said Iryna, “something you read about in books. We never imagined we’d go there.”

They said a difficult goodbye to their dog, which is being cared for by relatives in Kraków, and to the friends the children had made at the hostel. At Kraków airport, the family were waved off by Little Amal, the giant puppet of a Syrian girl created to draw attention to the plight of refugees, on to their flight, which was funded by the Shapiro Foundation.

Cora Hall, who was taking part in the Communities for Ukraine scheme through the Birmingham Catholic social care agency, Father Hudson’s Care, had borrowed a school minibus to take them from Luton to Staffordshire. “I’m excited and nervous,” she said after meeting the family. “I’d told myself not to hug them, to give them some space when they arrived, but I couldn’t help myself when I saw them. It seemed the natural thing to do.”

She has been researching schools, banks and the location of other Ukrainian families and has stocked up on the family’s favourite foods. She knows the neighbours will descend with cakes and offers of help. “We can do this,” she said. “Together, we’ll make it work.”

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