When Russian troops invaded Ukraine on 24 February, the watching world knew that millions of people would be displaced.
During the first month of the war alone, around a quarter of the population fled their homes, moving either within Ukraine or across the border to neighbouring countries, and the exodus has continued. To date, more than 7 million Ukrainians have sought refuge elsewhere in Europe.
Faced with this humanitarian crisis relatively close to home, the reaction of ordinary British civilians was simple: how can we help? People immediately began donating money and goods to official charities – and some ad-hoc individual schemes – delivering aid to displaced Ukrainians. Then in March the UK government launched the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme, under which residents (known as ‘hosts’) can sign up to offer accommodation to Ukrainian people for a minimum of six months.
Anyone who knows Bridport could have foreseen that the town’s residents would respond to this call to action with impressive speed and enthusiasm. The first refugee from Ukraine – Mila Bielicova – arrived here in April to stay with Glenn and Valentine Crawford, following a local contact through Mila’s niece. Since then the number of Ukrainian refugees – or ‘guests’, as they are known – in the town has grown to around 60.
Extending a warm welcome
This is a large number for a place of this size, and it’s partly down to the repurposing of a ‘Welcome to Bridport’ video that the Bridport Refugee Support Campaign (BRSC) had previously produced for their work to resettle a family from Sudan. “We had lots of footage of the town so we decided to make a Ukrainian version,” says Margie Barbour, the charity’s fundraising lead. “We shot some new clips of locals saying ‘Welcome to Bridport’ in Ukrainian, and made a new 11-minute video. It got shared far and wide between the first guests here and their friends and family back in Ukraine, who realised that this corner of the West Country would be a wonderful, welcoming place for them to seek refuge.”
Support for this new community quickly became a coordinated effort, driven by Bridport Town Council and organisations such as Bridport Quakers, Brit Valley Rotary and Citizens Advice as well as BRSC, plus many, many individual volunteers.
Sue Beckers from the Quakers set up a WhatsApp group called ‘Bridport Ukrainian Friends’, which has proved central to the success of this coordinated support. It’s a way for refugees, hosts and helpers to ask questions, offer help, publicise events and more. There’s also a chat group just for guests on the Telegram application, conducted in Ukrainian and Russian.
The Quakers also offered space at the Meeting House in South Street for a weekly meeting for hosts and guests to come along and ask questions, get advice or just enjoy a chat and a cup of tea. The gathering is run by Jim and Jenny Tigg, who have been hosting a Ukrainian mother and daughter since May. Jim has also put his research and experience to use in producing two really useful documents: one is a practical guide to hosting Ukrainian guests, while the other brings together information for guests and their hosts in the area.
Jenny organises the issuing of weekly bus passes, which have proved absolutely vital, particularly as many of the guests have found work that isn’t within walking distance. They are worth £24 but the scheme is currently being funded by First Bus so they are free to the user. She also looks after the Bridport Leisure Centre swimming passes, which let hosts swim for just £1 and guests for free.
“At the start we knew there was a steep learning curve ahead,” says Jim. “We had to pioneer some of the processes and gather information to share with the hosts, potential hosts and guests. Now it runs much more smoothly, thanks partly to a number of volunteers who have agreed to take on certain aspects of the organisation. We’ve also had great support from groups such as Rotary and of course Bridport Town Council has been a driving force. Caroline Pearce – the town council’s community initiatives officer – always comes along to our Tuesday sessions to answer questions about the help that’s available.”
Bella Blanchard from Skills and Learning – the provider of adult education for Dorset Council – has been organising English lessons at beginner and intermediate levels. This is a huge job that involves a number of volunteers. The lessons, held at the Quaker Meeting House in South Street, are proving very popular and are often full, although the Quakers have kindly made facilities available at additional times.
Government financial support is being paid through Dorset Council, with a one-off payment of £200 for arriving guests and an optional monthly payment of £350 for hosts for up to a year. There is also a local community hardship fund, administered by the Revd Pete Stone, which can make emergency payments to refugees in acute financial need.
A Ukrainian with local knowledge
Valentina Osborne is Ukrainian but has been living in Bridport for some years with her British husband. She has responded to her homeland’s refugee crisis by becoming a vital part of the local support network. She has been appointed by the town council to provide direct support to guests and hosts including translation, accompanying guests to appointments at Citizens Advice and elsewhere, and generally giving help and advice.
“This is my life now,” says Valentina. “There are many people who need help. They ring me all the time with questions, and I go along to meetings to translate, help mothers find school uniform for their children, get help for others with their computer or phone – many different things. Also, many Ukrainians are worried and just want someone to talk to. I’ve realised, though, that some of the refugees coming over speak better English than I do, so now I’m going to lessons with them. I just want to help – this has changed my life.”
Valentina has also helped BRSC to put together Bridport’s Ukrainian Choir (pictured below), in which she sings. They have performed a few times in Bucky Doo Square – including at a celebration of Ukrainian Independence Day on 24 August – singing traditional music from their country, and are looking forward to being involved in a performance at the Electric Palace later this year.
Also on Independence Day, the group was invited to sing again at Brit Valley Rotary’s Ukraine Community Picnic at West Bay and enjoy the evening event with their families.
Challenges lie ahead
‘Homes for Ukraine’ has been a success in Bridport, but those involved are aware that the long-term issues have still to present themselves. “Trickier challenges will appear when the guests come to the end of their hosted period and move out,” says Jim Tigg. “They are nearly all on Universal Credit and many private landlords are reluctant to take tenants on this benefit. Also, there are already 600 local people in the Bridport area waiting for local authority housing. It looks like the refugees will be facing the same daily challenges as many British nationals face.
“To help our guests prepare for this, we held a ‘Next Steps’ workshop during one of our Tuesday gatherings at the end of September. We’re all conscious of the inevitable transitions and what they’ll mean for our Ukrainian community.”
Bridport Town Council’s website (www.bridport-tc.gov.uk/homes-for-ukraine/)gives a wide range of information, advice and useful contacts for the town’s Ukrainian guests. There are also links to downloadable guides including those compiled by Jim Tigg.
* ‘Welcome to Bridport’