Hannah Ling, Social Justice Adviser, shares reflections on the work with Citizens UK supporting Ukrainian refugees through the Homes for Ukraine scheme on a visit to two large refugee centres in Poland.
As part of the diocesan Homes for Ukraine response, our partners Citizens UK and USPUK invited me to travel to Warsaw to see the work going on there, and understand how that linked to the host and guest matching happening in the Thames Valley.
We had the privilege of visiting two refugee centres, one in central Warsaw run by NGOs and a second in an isolated location about 40 minutes drive from the city centre run by the Polish state. Both centres have been set up in warehouses, that would usually host big exhibitions. We were shown around by USPUK colleagues who work in the centres, who were Ukrainian refugees themselves, having fled the war earlier in the year. They are doing the important job of advising refugees about the Homes for Ukraine scheme and offering support and lawyers where needed.
We were shown around the central Warsaw centre. At the entrance, a reception welcomed and registered new arrivals, and provided them with clothes, hygiene products and bedding. We were shown the washing machines, shower blocks, and a canteen providing meals every day.
We heard about the range of services being offered; from mental health support, visiting vets, school provision, rooms for study and working remotely. It was great to hear how some organisations came in to offer entertainment, like a recent dance performance.
Inside the main area of the centre, is a huge room with camp bed, next to camp bed, next to camp bed. People’s few belongings were stored under the bed in bags or cardboard boxes. It struck me that sleeping in a room with hundreds of other people would undoubtedly lead to frequent interruptions and disturbed sleep. I also imagined what it would be like to have such a lack of privacy and having to carry your valuables on you at all times because there was nowhere secure to leave them.
The NGOs running the centre are trying to raise money to build plywood separations to create a bit more privacy in the sleeping area. There are a few already constructed where a few young families have set up their beds. It seemed a small alteration, but likely to help with feeling a bit more like you had your own space.
We weren’t granted permission to go inside the state-run centre beyond the reception area, but we were told the setup was similar. However, because the state controls who can enter the centre and because of more limited space, there seems to be less wrap-around provision here compared to the city centre site. With nothing nearby except a lone McDonalds, and disconnected from the city’s broader services and community, the isolation of the refugees here struck me.
Currently, around 3-4,000 people are staying across the two centres, but over 600,000 people have passed through their doors.
Some people (particularly the elderly) have been here since the war broke out, others stay for a week or two and then move to somewhere a little more permanent or travel onwards across Europe through initiatives like UK Homes for Ukraine scheme. Some people return to the centre, having tried to move to another country, but found they were unable to navigate the systems and bureaucracy. Others still, have returned to Ukraine, knowing it’s not safe, but preferring to be in their own homes rather than an exhibition centre with no known end date. There are others still who come and go between Ukraine and the centre, going back to see their husbands or partners who aren’t legally allowed to leave Ukraine, or to care for an elderly parent.
There have been disagreements between some Ukrainian refugees and Ukrainian Roma refugees, unfortunately, which now means that Roma people are being hosted in different accommodation rather than in these centres.
We were able to talk to a few people who were living in the centres, and this was a beautiful time of shared humanity. Some of these conversations were in English, others were through Google translate on our phones. It was a privilege to hear their stories and chat to them about their hobbies, dreams, and hopes. All of those who we spoke to were hoping to find a host so they could travel to the UK.
There’s clearly a lot of incredible support from Poland, seen in the centres but also in the presence of Ukrainian flags displayed throughout the city. However, like in the UK, there is a limited number of affordable houses, and refugees are trying to learn the Polish language in order that they might find jobs. My concern is that as the awareness and news about the war in Ukraine dwindle, the support will tail off too. What is clear from the visit however is that the need for support for Ukrainian refugees is not over yet, and we need to continue to keep their situation in our consciousness.
The Polish refugee centres are preparing themselves for a second wave of arrivals as it gets colder in Ukraine and Russia targets utilities as a tool of war, meaning water, heating and electricity supplies are unpredictable and limited. It seems sadly inevitable that more refugees will flee the cold, as well as the missile strikes, over the winter.
Even whilst we were there, a family arrived bleary-eyed off a bus, and headed into the centre to register their arrival. When we went into the Warsaw central train station, there were a few new arrivals, fresh off a train, seeking advice and information from the Ukrainian refugee welcome desk.
Ukrainian refugees asked me to not forget what is happening or them – they still need our solidarity and support.
One of the men I spoke to, Sergei, asked me whether I could help his family come to the UK. It was a difficult question to answer because I know the dicoese still have a huge number of refugee referrals waiting to be matched with a host and very few hosts remaining to be matched. All I could tell them in that moment was how they could get on the waiting list and reassure them that we, and others, were working hard to match people with hosts as quickly as we could.
Reflecting on the trip, I felt a mix of hope and sadness. I was pleased to see the set-up and support being offered. However, I was deeply aware of the temporary nature of the accommodation, and the instability for those living there – people couldn’t plan their lives or know for sure when they would leave. People I spoke to mentioned the boredom of being in the refugee centres, unable to get on with their lives or invest in a community. They had been forced to leave their old lives behind, and it felt like their continuing lives were on pause whilst they were in the centre.
Some people in the UK have questioned why we are welcoming Ukrainian refugees from Europe when they are ‘safe’. This trip really highlighted to me the reality of what people are facing. They are safe from the missiles falling in Ukraine and have a roof over their head, but it is not a home with privacy and stability. The centres are a temporary solution but certainly not a place many (if any!) of us would want to stay for weeks upon end. I’ve returned to Oxford with hope for new hosts coming forward.
Could you be a host for a Ukrainian family?
There are still so many Ukrainians in need of a place of refuge for 6 months or more. If you’ve got the space in your house and are willing to offer a little bit of time, I’d encourage you to take this opportunity to host a Ukrainian individual or family. As a Christian, this act of welcome and hospitality feels like a clear way we can live out our faith and share God’s love with those others.
No doubt, being a host is a commitment, but it’s also an opportunity. As someone who’s rented rooms in shared houses for all my adult life, I know it’s not always easy sharing your home with others. But the intimacy of sharing spaces can also catalyse deep friendships or understanding about people different from you. It’s a real opportunity to closely walk alongside someone who needs a warm welcome, support navigating the confusing UK systems, and a friendly face to settle into a new community.
And, as a host, you won’t be alone. We’re here to support you, with support from our partners Citizens UK and USPUK. Our Homes for Ukraine Support worker, Tanya Sazonova, is there to help you through the matching and visa process and answer any questions you or your guests have along the way. Our Deanery Leads will connect with you and point you and your guests to local support.
We’re running online English language sessions to help Ukrainians and other new arrivals to learn the new language they need to settle in well. We also have a database of volunteers who can’t host but would love to support those who are.
Homes for Ukraine
Working with Citizens UK, we have matched almost 80 refugee groups with hosts in the Thames Valley area, which equates to 232 individuals, who are being offered a place of refuge. It’s taken a lot of investment of time and energy to set up our Homes for Ukraine response, but we know what we’re doing has made a huge impact on the lives of people fleeing the horror of war.
Citizens UK offer training and support to hosts and provide support to the Strategic Partners to ensure we can support our guests and hosts well too.