By Claudia Heywood
In late March, weeks after the broadcast of Steven Frank’s emotive plea to Boris Johnson to allow fleeing Ukrainians into the country, the first refugees began to arrive in Britain under the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
Empathetic response is everywhere - Ukrainian flags are flying and support continues to grow in our small town. Social media pages show appeals for transportable provisions and list news of varied fundraising events. But this seems to be a crisis that has made people want to do more than simply put their hands in their pockets.
It is reassuring that genuine compassion and humanity beyond political or economic consideration can bring about practical action. The Faversham and Villages Refugee Solidarity Group have been active since October 2015 and, recently, their sponsorship group raised the £9,000 required to bring a destitute Syrian family to Faversham. They arrived in spring, after extensive research and planning. The group continues with sensitive but significant support as the family begin their new life.
We have been haunted by images of migrant desperation on our beaches and balked at the numbers involved. In 2020 The White Cliffs was the perfect place to display Syrian filmmaker Hassan Akkad’s succinct and effective appeal for compassion for asylum seekers. A larger public responded with appropriate emotion to campaigns to raise awareness. Little Amal, the giant child puppet walking gently across borders, captivated audiences who wanted to welcome her. We use the term refugee with careful consideration and a kinder understanding now.
Refugees from Ukraine on the border with Slovakia (checkpoint "Uzhgorod-Vyshne Nemeckoe") in the Zakarpatya regions. Photo by Fotoreserg. The Say No to War image collection
FVRSG naturally support the Ukrainian crisis but the wider response from the town as a whole
has been astounding. The Faversham for Ukraine Facebook page provides information relating to this crisis specifically and managing it alone looks like a hefty responsibility. Host
families are welcoming new guests as I write. No one seems sure of the exact number of Ukrainian refugees who are temporarily housed in Faversham, but it is surprising. And while we think we appreciate the generosity of offering this very real security, we are unaware of the staggering amount of dedication essential in each case.
How do you offer a Ukrainian family a home? You can register your interest with the Homes for Ukraine scheme in the first place, but it is easy to feel lost from this point. Next, it appears most effective to approach potential guests yourself: finding them through charities, NGOs and on unofficial Facebook pages. But it’s all confusingly vague, unnecessarily laborious and many must have become discouraged.
Those who do manage to find guests and establish a trust, must then apply for sponsorship visas. This often falls to the host, but language barriers still provide obstacles. The website has annoying limitations and the process seems to require constant monitoring. A cynic might say it was all designed to be as difficult as possible. Several people I spoke to felt the need to approach Helen Whately to move things on.
Kyiv ,Ukraine: 24th February, 2022. People hiding in one of the cities metro stations. Photo by Fotoreserg. The Say No to War image collection
There are many stories of failed sponsorship attempts- links forged and applications made- which seem simply to completely disappear. Potential hosts are not always informed. We hear reports of Ukrainian families, beginning their hopeful journey to Britain, redirected to more receptive nations following a paperwork catastrophe.
It is at least frustrating and more often traumatic. Hosts that succeed in securing sponsorship visas must then ensure safe and adequate domestic provision. Rooms offered are subject to inspection of course, but often so stringent as to seem pedantic; DBS checks can be inexplicably slow to process; furniture, equipment and clothes must all be gathered to provide the beginnings of a home for a family arriving with nothing. And those committed enough to this obviously want to provide something more too: appropriate toys and personal possessions, access to support networks, companions, perhaps even job opportunities.
A couple I spoke to, who clearly provide an affectionate, supportive and respectful set up for their family, reflected that sponsoring had proved an almost full time job and were grateful to be retired. Money promised to hosts to help cover costs does not appear easily, individual interim payments for guests are delayed and applications for Universal Credit need constant chasing. The Faversham community has offered a heartening contrast to Government failings. Hosts commended the wonderful support of individuals and companies, who have rallied to provide goods, materials and service, free and often at very short notice.
A national picture seems to indicate better support from local Government and, over the past weeks, this is becoming more purposeful. KCC and SBC both provide advisors to support guests and their host families. But, again, it is the community that seems to provide more tangible support. The Abbey Physic Garden accommodates weekly meetings of Ukrainian families, translator available; Faversham Pools have donated free vouchers, pubs have provided free entertainment; free access to bicycles and computers is now available; gym classes for children are possible in the future and barbeques and picnics are planned
for the summer months. Anyone involved in providing the myriad of support for Ukrainian families here in Faversham is working very hard indeed.
The significant efforts involved in providing safe shelter are really just the beginning
Hosts I spoke to feel deeply concerned for the emotional wellbeing of their guests. Escaping
into an unknown, they have put all faith in the mercy of strangers. They have lasting sadness: if they haven't lost husbands and fathers to the fighting, they feel the guilt of having left them behind. Limited government support strategies do nothing to consider this. Hosts can’t always accommodate an extended family, members of whom can often be placed in distant towns. This adds another layer of misery, one which could surely be avoided. Why not facilitate group sponsorship for a number of refugees who could arrive together and settle in the same area? Children could attend the same school, appropriate teachers providing support; adequate medical and dental services could be more easily available. It would allow, at least, some reassuring reminder of a community they were forced to leave behind.
Several hosts I talked to mentioned relatively recent moves to Faversham. I imagine how welcome they must have been made to feel, enough to extend their own to Ukrainian
refugees. Some very recent newcomers, weeks after moving to Faversham and knowing no one, are welcoming their own Ukrainian guests! Perhaps understanding the chaos of domestic impermanence makes people more inclined to offer sanctuary? An obstinately immobile, deliberately blind and self- serving government could learn a thing or two.