When Russia invaded Ukraine, like most people, I was horrified. As a family, we decided almost immediately that we wanted to help. Having recently upsized from London to sunny Norwich, for the first time we had the space to do something very practical.

It’s not that I’ve not cared about previous conflicts or value white lives over brown ones. (And the two-tier refugee system makes me deeply ashamed of our government).

It’s not just that war in Europe isn’t something I thought possible.

The difference for me is that I’m now a parent.  There was something particularly harrowing about seeing kids dressed like my kids wheeling their Elsa emblazoned suitcases down streets that looked just like ones I’ve visited on pre-Covid city breaks that made this feel all too relatable and far too close to home.

We looked for a family to support, and in the end, we found a young woman who desperately needed help. So, we agreed to let her come and live with us.

This is what I’ve learned.

 

Homes for Ukraine isn’t the worst idea

It’s a safeguarding nightmare and horrifically inefficient, but there are some important upsides to this way of supporting refugees.

Arriving in the UK with no grasp of the language, no idea how to navigate the myriad of bureaucracy you are immediately confronted with, not to mention the trauma from which you are fleeing is not for the faint hearted.

One of the reasons that Ukrainians are coming here, developing communities quickly, assimilating, accessing resources is that they have champions. Often middle class, affluent, white-collar champions who can help them with what in my house we have glibly started calling ‘refugee admin’ and the bewildering process of setting up a new life – possibly permanently – in a completely new country. 

I wish everyone from Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Sudan and the numerous other conflict zones enjoyed the same relative privilege. I’m not sure we would have had such vitriolic public discourse about ‘asylum-seekers’ and immigration over the last 20 years if they had.

I have realised that the honest truth is that white, Christian refugees have a very different experience to brown, Muslim ones, and that is something we should all be horrified by.

 

LGBT people get a particularly bad deal, despite being amongst the most vulnerable

This didn’t particularly surprise me, but I have found the impact shocking and upsetting nonetheless. 

I’ve been playing a small part in helping a young trans man access the medication that he needs to continue his transition. Like many in Ukraine, Ivan (not his real name) came to rely on drugs procured through overseas suppliers in order to live his personal truth. Trans people are invisible in Ukraine and it is basically impossible to transition without paying overseas suppliers privately in arrangements of questionable ethics and legality. It is of course risky and expensive. Nonetheless, Ivan describes this access to treatment as ‘life saving.’

But of course, he can’t access these drugs in the UK, and before he can be moved onto an appropriate course of treatment, he is required to wait for a referral to a gender dysphoria specialist. This can take many months, even years, and the impact on trans refugees is well documented. I’ve been able to help by putting him in touch with We Exist, a tiny but mighty trans refugee advocacy charity who help with advice and funding. Ivan will be ok, but there are many others who will face impossible choices that no one should ever face.

 

Job support should be about helping people realise their potential

This will be a surprise to no one who has experienced job seeking under UC (or its precursors) or who has worked for employment charities, but the current system does not value skills or support aspiration. 

Every single Ukrainian that I have met over the last couple of months has been desperate to find work so as not to burden their sponsor, or claim benefits unnecessarily and to be able to support relatives who have been unable to leave Ukraine. 

The young woman who lives with us is a qualified nursery teacher (with a degree), yet she has been directed towards seasonal hotel work and cleaning, despite there being a childcare and teaching shortage in East Anglia, and an anticipated influx of children from Ukraine coming. Sure, her English needs some work, but she has a lot to offer, in a place that needs her skills, and where she could support children who have been through so much.

Channelling people into insecure work just increases their reliance on in-work benefits. It might be a candidate’s market right now, but as a principle we could do much better by people who are out of work by prioritising long-term sustainability and growth over short term targets.

 

The double standards we apply when people need help is astonishing

Remember the bedroom tax? Well, when is a spare room, not a spare room? When a refugee might need it seems to be the answer.  

One local man I know was recently refused ‘permission’ by his local council to host because the ensuite bedroom he had offered fell short of the minimum space standards used to determine overcrowding by around 120cm because the eaves in the room meant some of the floorspace was classed as unusable.

I spoke to a charity worker at our local family refugee surgery who was able to reel off half a dozen cases in the same local authority where the same type of room was very much regarded as a bedroom for purposes of the under-occupancy penalty.

 

Economics is a valid reason to seek asylum

I’ve always believed this, but it has been made all the more real by meeting people every day who have had their lives decimated by war.

If you visit any Facebook group dedicated to helping refugees find a host (and believe me, there are many), in amongst the kindness and the generosity and gratitude, you will find a small rump of angry people complaining. They question whether this city or that has been bombed enough to justify seeking refugee status, whether safety or economics motivates someone to want to flee the only home they have ever known.

I can tell you now, that if a city 200 miles from me was being relentlessly bombed, I would feel pretty strongly about wanting to take my family to safety. But I would also feel the same if my livelihood disappeared overnight and I faced a battle to even feed, let alone clothe my children. And that is exactly what has happened to hundreds of thousands of ordinary Ukrainians since 24 February, when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine for the second time in a decade. Businesses closed, jobs disappeared, food shortages became commonplace. War doesn’t just bring bombs, it brings poverty, disease and trauma. I don’t understand why we don’t see these as valid reasons for seeking shelter too.

I don’t have all of the answers, but I’ve definitely learned something, and I know we need to do better. 

And I’m going to keep talking about it with anyone who will listen.

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