‘We’ll make it work’: Ukrainian families benefit from UK community-led program | Ukraine

TThey looked pale and exhausted as they waited at Luton Airport’s baggage claim area for their suitcases, which contained the few belongings they could pack in their car when they fled their home in Ukraine.

But smiles of relief shone as the family – mum, dad and three children – entered the arrivals hall to be greeted by a welcome banner, gift bags and the warm hugs of their host, retired teacher Cora Hall, who opened Staffordshire Home as part of a new sponsorship program for refugees.

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

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

The family meet their Staffordshire host Cora Hall for the first time at Luton Airport. Photo: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Citizens UK, the community organizing charity that pioneered the UK’s Syrian sponsorship scheme, has recruited 20 civil society organizations with deep roots in their communities as strategic partners. Each partner – mainly faith communities and educational institutions – has committed to finding 50 hosts and Citizens UK provides training to ensure the Games are robust and sustainable.

The scheme’s status has been recognized by the UK, but the aim is to provide a safer, leaner and better supported system than the government’s much-criticized response to the refugee crisis.

The night before leaving for the UK, Vladyslav and Iryna finished packing at a refugee home in Kraków and spoke about their sadness at having to flee their home in the central-eastern Ukraine city of Pavlohrad and their hopes for life in the UK.

“We couldn’t believe it when the war started,” said Vladyslav, who was a senior manager in a construction company. “We knew our region would be one of the first to be hit.” At first, they stopped and went into bitterly cold air raid shelters as sirens wailed and rockets fell.

Small Amal puppet on the plane
Little Amal, a 10-year-old Syrian girl’s giant puppet, waves to the family as they board their plane to the UK. Photo: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

“They said only strategic locations would be targeted,” Iryna said. “But there have been rocket attacks in our neighborhood, hitting civilian areas. It was very, very scary. We felt like we had to go.”

Vladyslav was allowed to accompany his family because he and his wife have three children, so they packed some belongings in their car – along with their Pomeranian – and headed west, arriving in Poland three days later, in early March.

“We went to a refugee center,” said Vladyslav. “They offered us accommodation for a month and said the war was over and we could go home.” It quickly became clear that there would be no quick end to the conflict. “We realized that there are so many Ukrainians in Poland that there would be no opportunity to work and we would not get anywhere. We decided to apply for another country.”

The family lives in two small rooms. It was cramped but they were luckier than refugees living in Kraków in tents or in a disused mall where about 300 live in a limbo lit by strip lights.

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

Rows of makeshift beds in disused mall
Ukrainian refugees are sleeping in a disused shopping mall in Kraków that has been converted into a hostel. Photo: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

In the days leading up to their departure, they kept in touch with their host via email, inquiring about topics ranging from the weather to the cost of groceries to Vladyslav’s job prospects. He is desperate to work. “Britain feels like dreamland,” Iryna said, “something you read about in books. We never thought we would go there.”

They said a hard goodbye to their dog, who is cared for by relatives in Kraków, and to the friends the children had made at the hostel. At Kraków Airport, the family was waved to their escape by Little Amal, the giant puppet of a Syrian girl created to raise awareness of the plight of the refugees, funded by the Shapiro Foundation.

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

She has researched schools, banks and the whereabouts of other Ukrainian families and stocked up on family favorite foods. She knows the neighbors will come with cake and offers of help. “We can do this,” she said. “Together we can make it.”

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