Carol Matta, Vice-President of Betjeman Belles WI, and her partner Jonathan, have taken into their home a woman and son from Ukraine. We asked Carol to share her story with us, which she was glad to do. Following is Part I; Part II will be published next week.
Part 1 – Getting Here
I doubt if there is anyone reading this who wasn’t in some way impacted by the scenes that flooded our television screens when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, or perhaps by the news items we’ve picked up via social media or the radio since then. We’ve all heard voices and seen images of women and children desperate to avoid bombs and advancing ground forces, trying to flee their homeland to safety. And we’ve all had that sense of feeling helpless in terms of what we could do to help. Should we send money, donate clothing or toiletries, buy pin badges or what…?
With the launch of the UK Homes for Ukraine scheme and seeing yet further devastation of a European country, my partner Jonathan and I went a step further and made the decision to sponsor and host one or two Ukrainian citizens in our spare room. Registering on the UK Homes for Ukraine Scheme was relatively straightforward – and then we waited. Expecting that we would be contacted asking us to take someone, we continued to wait, and then we waited some more. It became apparent that this scheme wasn’t ready to match anyone, and UK residents willing to host or sponsor a Ukrainian citizen were turning to social media to find their own match. Somewhat reluctantly, we went down this route, as well as registering with some specific internet platforms set up for this purpose. We had in mind to host one or two people, either two women or one woman and a primary school child, probably a girl as we only had one room available for them. After responding to about 10 families individually, I got more savvy and private messaged those with fewer than 10 replies from potential hosts, with text that I copied and pasted stating our circumstances and what we could offer. We had two follow-up video calls, but those individuals found accommodation elsewhere – nearer to people they knew or closer to known jobs. We had another think and increased our child upper age to 13 and included boys, as it seemed families with boys were more difficult to match.
In the interim, we discovered a local Facebook page (Wadebridge Supports Ukrainians) and found other local families who were in the process of sponsoring a family or wanting to help in other ways. This has proved to be invaluable especially when we started to meet together and exchange information and experiences.
On 2 April, I had a response from a woman in Ukraine who had got as far as Poland, on behalf of her and her 12-year-old son. The following day we held a video conference – which was difficult with her limited English – and then later agreed to move forward with visa applications to start the process. It took around four hours to complete the visas for her and her son, as they needed separate visa application forms. And then we waited, and waited some more. I advised the Local Authority of our actions, and their very new support team advised me of our next steps: a home check and Enhanced DBS (police checks) for Jonathan and me.
The Ukrainian family visited Warsaw Visa Application Centre and we all waited some more. After two weeks of submitting the visa applications I wrote to my MP. This was followed up a week later by another letter, as the family were living in cramped conditions in Poland and the boy was refusing to attend school. I was advised that all was in progress. In the meantime, we cleared everything out of the spare room; we gave lots of bags to charity shops and relocated other items to the garage. We needed various things too, like extra bedding, some toiletries, clothing, furniture and plastic boxes for storage. Most of this we acquired from kind hearted people wanting to help or from charity shops. The 12-year-old would need a place at school, so we made a phone call to the local secondary school and completed a school admission form. We were lucky to be awarded a place at the school of our first choice.
Finally, my guests received notification that they had permission to travel. This meant another six-hour round trip by bus to Warsaw to collect the necessary documents. Sadly, only one person’s document was available, so I wrote another letter to my MP. A week later, the family made a further visit to Warsaw and all the documents required to travel to the UK were in their hands. They booked flights from Poznan to Bristol, and on 14 May, we picked them up from the airport and drove them to their new, temporary home in Wadebridge.