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Anne Hailes: Hosting and helping a family fleeing from the war in Ukraine

The Open University has launched a support package to help Ukrainian students

"PLEASE understand I don't want to stay, I want to go home, I'm not coming here to earn money but to escape."

So said a woman who only three months ago was living happily in her comfortable house, the garden beginning to come alive with spring round the corner, her children going to school each day, her husband working in the city, she planning the evening meal.

Then on February 24 Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, bringing terror to the point where the couple had to decide that she and their two teenagers must pack a few belongings and somehow get to the border with Poland.

Just imagine; what suitcase to bring? One on wheels for ease of travel? A rucksack for each child and then the heartbreak of what to pack?

Even as you read, for many the only light at the end of a dark, dark tunnel is physical safety in another country. From there, the tunnel often leads to a new home with a host family - somewhere to exist with complete strangers who care, including here in Northern Ireland.

BUT WHAT OF THOSE HOST FAMILIES? HOW ARE THEY COPING?

Brendan McKeenan is a board member and volunteer with St Vincent de Paul and he and his colleagues, as with other charities, are very involved in the challenges of hosting.

"We visit host families and, over a cup of tea, assess with the Ukrainian family what their thoughts and fears are. It's important to understand that they are grieving, frightened and confused," he says.

"They are mostly women and children so not only are they leaving their homes behind but their families; the children have lost contact with their dads and the grandparents; the women their husbands and sons, who risk their lives fighting in a vicious war. All this and coping with a new language, a new diet, totally new surroundings.

"We open our shop doors to families who need clothing and this is free to them," explains Brendan.

"Where possible, when there's a language problem a translator will come with them and we can provide exactly what they want also advising them about official organisations that can assist with forms and paperwork something that's important for the host family as well."

Another aspect has come to light. Coming from a land of bombs and bullets, some children worry about our police service when they see the uniform and the gun. Apparently the PSNI are aware of this and are working to get the message across not to be afraid.

There's a lot for host families and the rest of us to be aware of when offering genuine care. For instance, if you are not in a position to take in refugees perhaps you could offer a day out or a meal in your home to give a break for the local family to to sit together and relax for a couple of hours.

HOSTING EXPERIENCES

A woman in Co Armagh who has invited a mother and two children to stay explained that for her family, husband and two young daughters, it has meant upheaval although she points out they are in no way resentful about this.

"I think we're all confused. Requirements change from week to week, official paperwork to be filled in and then changes made and you start all over again," she says.

"Our home was checked and so were we just to make sure all was suitable but it was very straightforward and nothing awkward."

With 40,000 Ukrainian refugees in the UK there are concerns that some are being exploited, especial vulnerable women so such checks are vitally important.

This woman, who has to remain anonymous, assured me the two families are very happy together but she had to lay down house rules including the fact that our current economic climate means being careful when using electricity, switching off lights and heaters.

"One major change in our lives is the lack of privacy with three additional people in the house," she says.

"I'm tired, exhausted in fact, as, at the moment, it falls to me to do a lot of the organisation and there's a lot to do - setting up bank accounts, arranging schools and uniforms, going with them to the job centre to research Universal Credit and National Insurance.

"And there's a language barrier to overcome and that can lead to tension. Thank God for 'Google Translate' on the phone..."

This local family is now almost four weeks into their new life and for this they will be paid £350 each month; they are not expected to provide meals or pay for living expenses but until the legalities are sorted out they are funding additional needs out of their own pocket.

She explained that the Ukrainian family can stay with their hosts for six months to a year, after which hopefully they will have a job and a place of their own to live.

A DIGNIFIED PEOPLE

"We have found these people do not want to ask for help but are very appreciative of anything we can do to assist them settle," said Brendan.

"We want them to know we are here for them and that we can offer many services including arranging vouchers for shopping and for electricity and gas.

"The Ukrainians we have come across need our help not only practically but also emotionally.

"They have been through traumatic times and are still in a state of shock, yet there is a great dignity about them. We will do everything we can to make them comfortable in every way while they are in Northern Ireland and we will support the host family as well."

There is a lot to learn and understand if you are a host family or a family fleeing from the war in Ukraine.

This website is comprehensive and gives the information required, especially where to go to get questions answered: nidirect.gov.uk/campaigns/ukraine-crisis.

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