My arms are open to welcome Ukrainian refugees …but can I do enough?

A warm welcome isn't sufficient to cope with the trauma of those who have fled a warzone, says Jonathan Shalit


TOPSHOT - A pedestrian walks amid debris in a street following a shelling in Ukraine's second-biggest city of Kharkiv on March 7, 2022. - On the 12th day of Russia's invasion of Ukraine March 7, 2022, Russian forces pressed a siege of the key southern port of Mariupol and sought to increase pressure on the capital Kyiv. Kyiv remains under Ukrainian control as does Kharkiv in the east, with the overall Russian ground advance little changed over the last 24 hours in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance. (Photo by Sergey BOBOK / AFP) (Photo by SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images)

April 07, 2022 09:42

The past two weeks have been the most challenging of my life.

A month ago, I received an email from a friend. “I need your help. A girl I know from Ukraine wants to get over here. Her and her girlfriend need a sponsor. If you can do one thing in this war, please help me to find her a job. If you can afford it maybe, you could consider sponsoring her yourself. I would hope that we as a community would be able to come together and help.” He also pointed out that the UK would be a better place for a LGBTQ couple than the country they’d fled to.

As the great-grandson of Eastern European refugees — my great grandmother was born in Ukraine — I needed little urging. On 18 March, Natalya, 25 and Yulia, 24, from Kyiv applied for their visas. Three days later they received their “permission to travel” letter. On 25 March they landed at Stansted. Knowing they would be tired we booked them into an airport hotel. So far, a seamless process.

On meeting Natalya and Yulia, I welcomed them with open arms and a huge hug. But I was not prepared for the lack of warmth and even coldness back. Not because they are anything but truly decent and remarkable people, but simply because they are living a nightmare. Returning the simple, sincere embrace of a strange benefactor, having fled your own country and home, cannot be easy for those who never could have imagined they would need such help.

Natalya and Yulia do not know if they will ever see their homes again. Life as they know it is over. What they knew and loved has been obliterated. Friends and family have fled to places of safety. Educated, home-loving people with careers have, within weeks, become refugees, stripped of everything. In the UK they may, physically, be safe from the danger of being killed or physically wounded, but their mental state is still under siege. Their vulnerability and fragility are ever-present.

For many refugees there is guilt at abandoning their country and loved ones. Many back home think those who have fled are traitors, as some are being bombed and killed while asleep.

The realisation and understanding of this monumental loss and disruption to the women leaves me utterly lost — I don’t know what to say or do. Dependence on my support and financial generosity is not their life choice. Just two months ago their lives were normal with a regular secure income. Now this. Yulia spoke to the audience of 7,500 at the ITV Concert for Ukraine last week. She was asked if she was scared to do so. She replied: “Being scared is not knowing if a bomb will kill you in the night.”

More than 100,000 British people will welcome traumatised people into their homes, people who are grieving the loss of everything. Even with all the good intentions, once the small talk is over, many will not know what to say or where to go from here. There are going to be immense challenges, problems, and emotional flashpoints.

None of this is helped by a lacklustre government follow-through. To get visas to work and start life in the UK, biometrics need to be processed. Forms are only now starting to be issued, meaning further delay for refugees to start any sort of normal life here. Many will be left in a no-man’s land for many weeks.

From the hosts’ point of view, there is the real danger that the rampant cost of living crisis may limit patience and curtail hospitality. I am concerned about how the relationships between refugees and the families who have embraced them may survive without trauma on both sides. This mighty and totally worthy effort will require expert counselling from professionals trained in providing the right emotional support and care. Many of us, me included, find ourselves in unchartered territories.

On Sunday, after lunch, Yulia texted me. “Thank you Jonathan, for wonderful support. Knowing that we are not alone on this island is a valuable relief. Lots of things that we cannot influence make us frustrated and angry, but — thanks to you — not desperate, with a hope ahead.”

I could not be more delighted to have helped provide a safe haven for Natalya and Yulia. They are so totally deserving of the help, support, and refuge they could not have imagined they would ever need. My commitment to them will never waver and I expect no thanks or gratitude for that.

But they need far more, and in truth I am without a clue of what to do for the best.

Professor Jonathan Shalit OBE is chairman of InterTalent Rights Group

April 07, 2022 09:42

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