It is easy to feel helpless in situations like these; watching atrocities on the news and listening to people’s devastating stories sparks empathy in the majority of people. However, it is often difficult to know what you can do to help. Nevertheless, a group of Durham students have been extremely proactive in finding ways to help refugees and raise awareness as to how others can assist them in their endeavours.
Last year a group of Russian language students went to the Ukraine during their ‘Year Abroad’ since it was not possible to travel to Russia due to coronavirus restrictions. Following this experience, they wanted to help the friends they had made in Kyiv to find safe homes in the UK, and this led to the formation of a group of Russian students united in helping Ukrainian refugees. Isobel Clark who has been finding London based host families and assisting with translation stated that “I’m so proud of all my friends who have given up so much time when we are working on massive deadlines and in the final few weeks of uni. It probably has brought us closer”.
Many of these students wanted to get involved as they felt that they had acquired a skill set which would be useful in helping Ukrainian refugees. Isobel explained that thanks to her experience volunteering for the charity ‘SolidariTee’ which provides legal aid for refugees, she has “good knowledge of the refugee crisis in general, the effect it has on people and basic ways to support therefore I knew I had to help in the ways that I could”. She has also used her Russian language skills to help to translate messages between Ukrainian refugees and their host families. Similarly, the group of students have utilised their language knowledge to create an information sheet in Russian and English explaining the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme for Ukrainians wanting to come to the UK.
Having assisted Ukrainian refugees with the visa application process, many of these students had strong and informed opinions to share regarding the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme. Although it is undeniable that the scheme has been created with the best of intentions, and all of my interviewees expressed gratitude that it allows Ukrainians to seek refuge here, making it a reality is a challenging and slow process. Anna, who has organised much of the group’s work, surmises that “whilst I am grateful that my friends are able to seek refuge in the UK, the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme overwhelmingly demonstrates that the government does not understand the urgency of the war in Ukraine, and what Ukrainians are facing. The scheme is lengthy and complicated, and very little support is provided to either side by the government, meaning the onus oftentimes falls on the UK sponsors / host families to aid Ukrainians with the visa application process and more admin once they arrive”. Isobel shared the frustration that the “process relies completely on support from the sponsor” and requires them to dedicate a lot of time to the paperwork.
Another student who has been involved in the group outlined the experience of her friends from Kyiv who are attempting to come to the UK since the conflict began. She explained that “they applied for a tourist visa at the end of February and have been waiting in Berlin for six weeks to get a response. They have been made to apply for different types of visas and to submit unnecessary documents and are relying on the goodwill of friends to be able to have somewhere to stay in Berlin. They have family who have been living in the UK for several years yet have still been waiting for 6 weeks (and counting) to get a visa”.
As well as the amazing efforts of these individual students, Durham University are offering support to Ukrainian refugees and students who are affected by the conflict. In the university’s official statement, they outlined the actions they are taking, these include:
- Ensuring that students affected by the conflict have access to the support that they need
- Helping those whose education may have been disrupted
- Providing linguistic support.
- Registering interest in the University being a sponsor for the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme
- Suspending all bilateral research collaborations with organisations in Russia and Belarus
Tetiana Loiko, a Ukrainian law student at Durham University confirmed that Durham have been offering support by stating that “The University has offered emotional and financial support to me personally and the University has been very understanding of my situation”. Tetiana explained that she feels a sense of duty to help the people from her country in any way she can and stated that “Whatever opportunity I get – I take it”. She has been translating, helping to find sponsors, organising protests and events, and holding a media platform to raise awareness. Tetiana said that she is constantly contacted by people with new plans and ideas to fundraise. She highlighted the most recent project the volunteering group has created entitled ‘Sunflowers for Ukraine’. In this project they are asking students to donate artwork of sunflowers to be sold in order to raise money for the Ukraine. She highlighted that “any student that can crochet, knit or draw can donate a sunflower that they made or drew”.
It is important to ensure that the situation in Ukraine is not forgotten or overshadowed by the latest news headlines. Although the aforementioned group of Russian students have now matched all of their Ukrainian counterparts with sponsors, their work is far from over and they are still translating, and sourcing London based support groups for when the refugees arrive. It is of the upmost importance that we continue to do all we can to support Ukrainian refugees and there are various ways you can help:
- Contribute to fundraising events
- Stay informed and spread the word
- Donating essential items
- Look out for volunteering opportunities (e.g. – Polish centre in Newcastle, ‘Sanctuary’)
More information about this can be found on the ‘Durham for Ukraine’ page on Instagram and Facebook. Isobel admirably surmised “please keep being kind and compassionate towards these people who have been forcibly displaced due to atrocities in their countries. And please afford the same compassion to anyone who is forcibly displaced whether they are European or not. All love.”
Featured image: Ukrainian refugees heading home via Wikimedia Commons with License