How Putin changed my life

Ukraine Sunflowers at Newbury Festival Light by Gillian Durrant

Many thanks to Gillian Durrant of the Newbury Ukraine Support Group for sharing her memories of 2022.

In January 2022 I was busy decorating our house. The previous summer my mother, who lived in our house, had died, and I decided to paint her living room, bathroom and bedroom by Easter, to rent out as an Airbnb. I remember standing on the ladder in the bathroom, brush in hand, shouting in exasperation at the callers on Radio 4’s Any Answers for defending Putin and accusing the west of antagonising him, whilst he was amassing his troops on Ukraine’s border. Little did I know that a few months later a family of Russian-speaking Ukrainians would be living in my house and using this very bathroom.

I saw the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and shared the horror of most of the watching world, at the totally unwarranted suffering being inflicted on the Ukrainians by a man whose only motivation was his ego.

News of the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme was announced and my husband read my mind: “let’s take in a family:” after all, we had the space. As Chair of the Newbury Twin Town Association, I was contacted by the Secretary, Judy Cooper, who correctly reasoned that our members, well used to hosting Europeans, may be interested in taking in Ukrainians. I emailed our members and nearly twenty registered an interest. I then wondered if any community groups locally were organising a hosting group, so wrote to the Newbury Weekly News. No groups came forward, but I had some responses from others wanting to host, and from Elena Wahl, who couldn’t host but wanted to help organise a support group. Judy, Elena and I rapidly organised a meeting at Newbury Town Hall, courtesy of Newbury Town Council, with guest speakers including a local Ukrainian, a psychotherapist and a local man who had already started the process of sponsoring a Ukrainian. We put together a leaflet with the help of the Sanctuary Foundation’s website, and other links, to help would-be hosts navigate this new and seemingly daunting process.

About 45 people attended the prospective hosts meeting, and I collected details of those looking for people to host. Within a week we held a similar meeting, calling for volunteers to help the Ukrainians on arrival. Newbury Racecourse donated The Members Club for an evening and around 60 people came. I also started to communicate with Rachel, who was planning a similar support group in Hungerford. Before long I had around 60 potential hosts on my list and Elena had set up a WhatsApp Group where we could ask each other questions about the process. Over the months this has been a great support for hosts and now has over 80 members.

A Facebook group was also set up (which currently has nearly 950 members), with volunteers administering the posts. This has also been a good resource for sharing events, matching sponsors, advertising job vacancies and sourcing donations including for equipment and furniture. By this stage we had a committed group of volunteers. Some were from the Twin Town Association but many others hadn’t known each other a few weeks earlier. To move quickly we didn’t have many face-to-face meetings but communicated by email, WhatsApp and Messenger. David Cooper co-ordinated the volunteer drivers for guests who needed transport for local journeys.

As the first guests started arriving, we held a get-together at the Honesty Café in Parkway, and for several Saturdays Ukrainian families met up in Victoria Park. By now, my husband and I had “matched” with a family and started the process for them to come to the UK. We spoke to the family a few times via a video link, but mostly communicated by email. They had fled their home in Chernihiv (about 55 miles from the Russian border and even closer to Belarus) and were staying with an acquaintance in the relative safety of Central Ukraine.

Six weeks after their application was submitted we were, however, still waiting. Like many other hosts, I contacted our MP’s office to ascertain the cause of the delay. Much of the talk on the hosts’ WhatsApp group regarded the anguish of hosts unable to get their guests quickly to safety, as the bureaucracy was taking so long. Eventually “our” family of three arrived on 9 June.

As more guests arrived, we received requests to find hosts for their friends and relatives. Our aim was to build a strong community for the Ukrainian guests in Newbury, so it made sense to find homes for people who already had links to the area. I was matching Ukrainians with the hosts on my spreadsheet – it’s a good feeling to make a match, especially to ensure parents can be close to their children and grandchildren. Sadly, I subsequently ran out of viable hosts, as there were always more Ukrainians who wanted to come here.

Another volunteer, Sophie Patrikios, offered to create a website for us. This was timely, as we then had various leaflets about hosting, local activities for children, how to get a resident’s permit, second hand furniture and the like and it was good to be able to direct hosts to a single link for all this useful information.

A priority was to locate a venue for weekly get-togethers, where our guests could meet up with other Ukrainians. We were very fortunate that a number of churches and a community centre offered free space. We decided to accept the offer from the Newbury Baptist Church: as a result, every Wednesday afternoon since May volunteers have served tea, coffee, cake and biscuits, children have played and parents have chatted there. At the peak in the summer, we had 50 or 60 Ukrainians at every session. I obtained a couple of modest grants from the Greenham Trust Ukrainian appeal fund to pay for the refreshments and a star volunteer, Fee Eden, managed each session for months, until recently handing over to a few Ukrainians, who now self-manage the event. Another star volunteer is Jackie Paynter, who invariably turns up to run a crafting session with the children.

After a few weeks, we started to have guest speakers, and visits from other organisations, such as the Department of Work and Pensions to explain the benefit system, The Community Furniture Project to hand out free Vodafone SIM cards and advise guests and hosts about the other services they offered. Several employers attended and CV and interview specialists gave advice on getting jobs. Members of the WBC Ukraine Hub became regular visitors, helping individual Ukrainians with enquiries. It was also a useful place for handing out donations of clothes, toys and other things that had been made available.

In the early months, we liaised with West Berkshire Council identifying issues, such as the need for English lessons, and bus passes. Initially there was a delay in guests receiving their promised £200 from the government, and the hosts £350 “thank you” payment. I suspect that WBC may have seen me as a complete pain, but I kept the pressure on, and I was able to let the hosts know the current situation.

In the summer, again with funding from the Greenham Trust, I arranged a few coach trips, to Bournemouth and Oxford, and another to the London museums in half term. To my delight, my guest asked me how to book these coaches, and has since arranged a successful trip to Bath for the Christmas market.

Recently there has been a shift in focus to finding rented accommodation from the guests who want their own space (and from the hosts who want their homes back!) This is usually a mutual situation, after six months or more of living cheek by jowl.

Rental accommodation in Newbury is very expensive and there is considerable competition when a property comes on the market. Ukrainians are at a disadvantage as they usually rely on housing benefit to top up their salaries and have no guarantors or credit history. Another of our volunteers, Gillian Hornzee, has been tenacious in her efforts to help Ukrainians find accommodation and we are seeing more and more find places to live.

The Corn Exchange’s 101 Outdoor Arts team invited the Ukrainian guests to make sunflower lanterns (see photo above) and take part in the Festival of Light in Newbury Town Centre on 11 December. This was a new experience as they do not have lantern processions in Ukraine. It was lovely to see guests and hosts working together to make the lanterns.

In recent weeks the number of guests attending the Wednesday sessions has declined. This may be due to the dark afternoons and bad weather; alternatively, many have now settled in, found their own friends and are working and no longer need the support it provides. The sessions are now once a fortnight, the last of the year being a Christmas party for the children, and around 80 guests of all ages attended. The party was the idea of Fee Bentley-Taylor, the Ukraine Liaison Support Officer, recently appointed by the Volunteer Centre, West Berkshire. The children loved playing pass the parcel and musical chairs, ably assisted by Bruce, another of our star volunteers. Father Christmas appeared and gave out some presents courtesy of the West Berkshire Toy Appeal. Members of Harmony Choir sang Christmas songs – the audience clapped along to Jingle Bells. The guests are now organising their own Christmas party on 7 January, the Orthodox Christmas Day.

Looking back, March to June this year passed in a blur. I was so busy with every aspect of the sponsorship scheme locally, and helping to run the Newbury Area Ukraine Support Group, but I am so glad I got involved. I’ve met so many lovely people and feel we have helped to do something positive, at what has been an unimaginably awful time for so many. When my guest and her children came into the kitchen on 9 December and thanked me for keeping her family safe for the last six months, and gave me a hug, I knew it was all worthwhile.

Gillian Durrant


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