Paul Wordsworth writes…..
It seems like last year, but is in fact only six months ago, March 5th, that I stood on the steps of the York Mansion House and addressed a crowd of around 1000 people. I encouraged them to make prospective Ukrainian refugees welcome in York. At that meeting, I met a young Ukrainian woman who in that week had travelled out of her own country, to the safety of the UK and York. It was the first days of the invasion by Russia. As far as I am aware, she was the very first refugee I encountered from a country whose name and cities have since become so familiar to us through the regular media reports.
The number of Ukrainian refugees in the city is now approaching 250 people, mainly women and children. This has taken place since March, and more are still waiting to come. It is possible that the numbers arriving in the city from one single country are exceeded only by those who came from Ireland to York in the late 1840’s as a result of the extreme famine which decimated the population. Many of their descendants are still living and working in York today.
Out of that rally outside the Mansion House, York City of Sanctuary realised that a significant level of co-ordination would be required to enable the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme announced by the Government to run effectively and with some degree of order. An agreement was reached with the City of York Council to work in partnership in the process of identifying and matching suitable hosts and refugees, maintaining a register of local sponsors, and giving ongoing support to refugees, once they obtained their visas and arrived in York. Such an agreement would draw us into close co-operation with various CYC departments, and other agencies with experience of working with refugees in the city.
By the 1st April, a formal agreement was in place for a six month period between the City Council and the Board of York City of Sanctuary. A review of the work would take place after four months with further recommendations to be put to the partnership.
Under the terms of the agreement, the CYC made a grant to York City of Sanctuary, in order to fund the six month work period. A York- Ukraine Support Team (YUST) was set up to deliver the services involved. The team comprises Rebecca Russell, (Leader), Svitlana Kucher (Admin assistant- a Ukrainian refugee who also acts as interpreter), Peter Robinson (YCoS administrator) and volunteers. Rebecca is full time and Svitlana is a part-time worker for YUST.
Regular reports and updates are given to the CYC Refugee Co-ordinating Group, and the YCoS Board of Trustees. Information is given to the local and regional Press and other social media outlets, in order to keep local people updated and aware of the York response.
Amongst the developments has been the setting up of a hub where Ukrainians come together each fortnight and find a range of agencies with advice and assistance available. The City Church in Gillygate is the popular Centre for this activity. Numbers have normally exceeded over 100, and include sponsors, and people looking for advice on how to support the work of welcoming refugees. YUST has met a wide range of demands and enquiries at those gatherings. The service is also widely used on a daily basis by telephone and social media enquiries from potential sponsors hosts, refugees, (sometimes as far away as Poland or Ukraine,) and those wishing to offer support other than accommodation.
Explore (Central Library) also provides a Saturday Hub, with volunteers available to a meet wide range of clientele. A further addition is the opening of a Hub in Acomb to serve those who live in that area of the city.
The YUST agreement is now half way through its allotted timescale, and a review shows what we have learned so far, and where the future may be leading.
The establishment of YUST, and co-partnering with the CYC and other agencies in the city has given York a sense of order and systematic process as people started arriving in some numbers from Ukraine. Helpful advice and support has been appreciated, and suitable hosts and accommodation have been screened and checked carefully. There have been some wonderfully generous and kind hosts, who have gone well beyond just opening up their homes to strangers. I am sure that friendships for life have been formed in many cases. In a small number of situations, where sponsorships have not worked out, new hosts have been found speedily from the YUST database, to avoid accommodation difficulties experienced in other towns and cities.
The Welcoming process has been successful, and that is thanks to a speedy response from the CYC and York City of Sanctuary in setting up a Support Team before the majority of Ukrainians arrived. The co-operation, goodwill, and trust, already established between the CYC and other agencies, through the Refugee Co-ordinating Group has also played a key role in assisting the welcome. Time did not have to be spent looking round for assistance and setting up relationships. These were already embedded as part of the features of our nationally recognised City of Sanctuary.
Looking ahead- a continued demand
The war in Ukraine is now 6 months old, and has by no means run its course. Forecasts In March that it would be a short conflict lasting just a few weeks have turned out to be untrue. The number of hosts offering accommodation in York is flattening, but the number of enquiries from families in Ukraine for sponsors is not currently decreasing. The welcoming process of assisting and supporting incoming refugees will be needed for some unknown months to come. Hosts who have recently welcomed guests from Ukraine will need support to the end of December 2022, covering their six month accommodation offer.
The right to stay for up to 3 years
Those who have come to York, as refugees from Ukraine have been given visas to stay in the UK for up to 3 years. The ‘Homes for Ukraine’ programme provides hosts for a 6 month period, although the £350 monthly funding is available for 12 months. Ukrainians are granted the right to work and to rent housing (rights denied to all others entering the UK from war zones in the world.) That opens up the possibility of resettlement and staying longer term in the UK. The choice is to be made, to return to Ukraine or stay in the UK.
The war continues
You have seen the pictures and the live reports from cities under bombardment. Journalists risk life and limbs to bring you the information. The continuing destruction of property, in terms of housing, infrastructure, industry, ports, schools, and hospitals, particularly in the South, East, and coastal region of the country is on a scale not seen in Europe since the 2nd World War. When peace comes, as it must eventually, the rebuilding process will take many years, and at great cost. Some refugees have returned to western Ukraine, mainly from Poland and Serbia, but for the majority who are displaced it is far from safe to return.
Signs of decisions
Already, YUST is seeing an increasing number of Ukrainians seeking English language lessons, and searching for courses which will enable their own academic or professional qualifications to be ratified or upgraded in the UK. That is an indicator of their decision to make the best of their settlement in the city, for as long as the war requires them to be away from their homeland. It is a positive and realistic step.
Others are looking for and finding employment, often not to the level they would be working back home, but it is work and is a stepping stone. The rental market is being explored in the city, though it presents formidable problems in terms of prices and availability. These are all signs that some people intend to stay in the UK for a period of time. The need for resettlement work will definitely increase for YUST and the agencies in the city over the next months. This will present many demands, particularly in the area of assisting qualifications and English language skills, further educational support for children as they go through the school system, adult employment, and support into housing.
YUST is already working on setting up a database of landlords and other property owners who are willing to explore short term rental agreements with Ukrainian families. There is some hard work ahead to negotiate the rise in demands, and much advice and support will be required for those who seek to move on from being hosted short term in a house, to having their own home in York.
If you are a landlord, a property owner, or know someone who may be able to join that database, then do please contact us. The first point of call is [email protected]
In the past, assisting refugees into work in York has proved to be a slow business. In the months ahead, co-partnering with businesses and employment agencies, as well as Job Centre Plus will be a task which YUST and others will need to explore. Enabling people to find work which matches their skills, provides a living income, and assists mental well- being is an essential part of resettlement which must be developed with some creative vigour. If you are an employer, or are aware of vacancies which may present opportunities for those seeking work, do please let us know. The YUST team would be pleased to hear from you. Contact [email protected] to register any information or potential leads on employment.
As you see, we are already planning ahead to assist the next stage for those who have come as refugees under the Homes for Ukraine Scheme and the Ukraine Families Re-united. That step is resettlement, which many Ukrainians are beginning to explore, and for which they need assistance.
In order to support the task, based on our review of current and future patterns, York City of Sanctuary has requested a further grant to extend our agreement with the York- Ukraine Support Team to continue their dedicated and successful work for a further six months. Our request has been granted, and that extends the current agreement to 31st March 2023.
Paul Wordsworth – Co-ordinator- York City of Sanctuary
PS. I have written a full account of the present and future actions for YUST this month. It is an important piece of work, and the team are doing a great job together. There are other things we are engaged in and I will write more fully of them in the next Newsletter. Nothing like keeping you in anticipation!
We are so grateful for the many donations received this year. Please accept our thanks for such encouragement in all aspects of our work. If you wish to contribute, you can do so by BACS online. Our details are as follows;
Our bank; The Co-operative Bank The sort code; 08-92-99
Account name; York City of Sanctuary Account Number; 65847664
If you send a message to [email protected] to let me know you have sent a donation, I will acknowledge it. If you’d like a Gift Aid form, to enable us to reclaim tax on your gift, contact me at the same email address.
If you want to send a cheque, made out to ‘York City of Sanctuary’ contact me by email and I will send you the address to which you can write.
Contact details; [email protected]