Brits rally to support Ukrainian refugees as sponsorship scheme launches

For Nina Kaye, her city’s participation in the national wave of support for Ukraine can be measured in numbers. For the past two weeks, she has received around 100 emails a day from people offering help to refugees arriving in Epsom, a wealthy London suburb.

Kaye, a coordinator for the Epsom Refugee Network, sat at the Zig Zag cafe on the city’s main street and said one of the main obstacles had been knowing how to contact Ukrainians among the millions fleeing the Russian invasion.

Her experience underscores the challenge of generating immense public enthusiasm for the Homes for Ukraine program, which has attracted around 150,000 individuals and organizations to register to accommodate Ukrainians ahead of Friday’s launch.

Under the rules of the program, anyone wishing to sponsor a refugee must provide the names of those they are sponsoring. Kaye, who is now retired after a career in classical music management, was concerned that smaller groups might not be able to match hosts with those in need.

“It seems like the UK government is handing it off to small, local charities like us,” she said. “There are so many small, voluntary aid organizations that support refugees. But we are just small organizations.”

Tim Finch, an adviser working with Citizens UK, an alliance of community activists, said there is both a high demand for accommodation and a supply of accommodation.

“The problem is connecting those two things together,” he said. “Right now, aside from protection, probably the biggest issue is getting this system to work [the refugees].”

At the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Mayfair, central London, desks, telephone lines and computers are being placed in the church hall to create a clearinghouse that will process the information of those in need of protection and those willing to take it .

Kenneth Nowakowski, bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Great Britain, hoped that the proceedings would soon improve. “I think everyone is working to find more efficient ways to get information out to the people who want to help,” he said.

In Epsom, Café Zig Zag, founded by Makhoul Georges, a refugee from Syria, has become an informal base for members of the refugee network. All have many years of experience in taking in people fleeing wars in countries such as Syria, Iran and Somalia.

Flip Bakker, a builder and electrician originally from the Netherlands, said he wanted to offer support because it was “intolerable” to see people fighting and he recognized that everyone could one day need such support.

Bakker, who noted the Epsom network’s willingness to arrange admission for Ukrainian families, said the process has proven “uncomplicated,” although he’s not sure how the group’s offerings will be passed on to those in need would.

“One just wonders how people are made aware that this is an open door,” he said.

Donna Williams, another volunteer who has sheltered 17 refugees in her home since the network’s inception in 2015, expressed frustration that the burden of finding Ukrainians is holding back the process of getting them to safety.

Donna Williams, a volunteer who has housed refugees in the past
Donna Williams has sheltered 17 refugees in her home since 2015. She says the burden of finding Ukrainians is holding back the process of getting them to safety © Anna Gordon/FT

Williams said she started taking in refugees after she was widowed and that it was a support to be part of groups like Refugees at Home — a larger charity that champions community sponsorship programs.

“I’ve had people in the same situation as me,” she said of the lonely, isolated refugees she took in. “Luckily, they had the same open mind.”

Reset UK, the government funded organization that coordinates community sponsorship programs for refugees started a page on Friday, allowing Ukrainians to express their interest in entering the UK.

Finch cited the launch of the site as evidence of the “massive amount of energy” going into making the process of bringing refugees and hosts together more smoothly. “While this problem definitely exists now, it’s definitely a problem that can be solved.”

Michael Gove, leveling-up secretary who oversees the scheme, has indicated he intends to move away from government current model to one that does not require sponsors who go to great lengths to search for individual Ukrainians.

“We will gradually expand the program with charities, churches and community groups to ensure many more potential sponsors can be matched with Ukrainians who need help,” Gove told the House of Commons this week.

On Friday, the government said Ukrainian refugees without family members could now apply for visas under the sponsorship program through the government website to streamline the process.

Nowakowski thanked the government for its efforts and said he didn’t think there was a lack of willingness to help. But he pointed out that the UK is the only country in Europe that requires Ukrainians seeking refuge to apply for a visa before traveling.

Kenneth Nowakowski, Bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Great Britain
Kenneth Nowakowski points out that the UK is unique in Europe in requiring Ukrainians to apply for a visa before traveling © Anna Gordon/FT

The UK currently requires visas for Ukrainians coming to the UK under both the Homes for Ukraine program and the family reunification route opened earlier this month.

“My personal wish is that we could probably waive the visa requirement for about two months and sort that out when people arrive here,” said Nowakowski.

Meanwhile, in Epsom, members of the refugee network talked about ways they had been able to help refugees in the past, such as opening bank accounts, registering with doctors and, in many cases, learning English.

They were very interested in connecting with people and putting their experience to good use, Kaye acknowledged.

“The tragedy is that there are so many willing people here – and we can really, really help – but we need help to match our willing hosts with refugees.” Brits rally to support Ukrainian refugees as sponsorship scheme launches

Adam Bradshaw

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