Millions of people have watched the war in Ukraine unfold on their TV screens with mounting horror. Last weekend, sickening witness accounts from newly liberated Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, tell of genocide showing body-strewn streets, civilians shot dead with their hands bound behind their backs. We read of children being used as human shields, women raped by the illegal invaders and all manner of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers. Many people here at home have responded to this hellish situation with compassion, by doing what they can to help Ukrainians fleeing for their lives.
Symon Bye is a local teacher who lives in Tetbury, in the Cotswolds, a place as far away as you can imagine from the horrors of the Russian invasion. One normal Wednesday morning, back in early March, he was teaching a chemistry class, when he suddenly felt overcome and knew he had to go to the border between Poland and Ukraine to do whatever he could to help.
“I could not just simply watch the news reports any more. I had to help in whatever way I could.”
He was supported by his head teacher to take an immediate short leave of grace. By Saturday, with his car loaded with camping equipment for homeless refugees, he had driven 1500 miles to the Polish town of Przemyśl near the border with Ukraine, picking up a friend from Warsaw airport on the way.
A chance meeting with two Lithuanians en route who were taking essential medical supplies to the area, then finding other humanitarian workers from all over Europe, staying at the same Airbnb some 40 minutes away, gave Symon the leads he needed to get to work. He met Phillip, an officially authorised worker who runs a depot at the Medyka border crossing at the back of the town’s school, supplying medical supplies for Ukraine.
So Symon has been collecting urgently needed goods from Polish pharmacies in the City of Rzeszo every day and taking them back to the border from where they are taken into Ukraine.
Scenes of chaos
Symon told me about the chaos he found locally. A large Tesco on the outskirts of Przemyśl has turned into a ‘shanty town’ with something like a souk outside: vast piles of donated clothes, bedding etc. are piled up, in a flourishing black market. Such well-meaning donations are not needed, he was told. Instead, some end up being sold on by criminal gangs.
Very many lost and traumatised Ukrainians are also there, many bused in from other points along the border. The faces of the women are veiled in anguish and exhaustion as their hands clutch a few meagre possessions snatched in flight, holding on tight to their children.
International media teams gather there, hunting for the most arresting and horrific images, doing interviews with whomever they can find. Some humanitarian missions are properly authorised, some are not. It is not a safe place.
So many refugees – mainly women, children and the elderly – are also arriving every day at Medyka, another Polish town on the border, therefore the aid infrastructure is stretched to its limits. Upon arrival they are faced with two choices: go to a warehouse transformed into an emergency shelter, or continue to the neighbouring town of Przemyśl, where they hope to embark on buses for other destinations. Many do not know where they are going, fleeing to safety is all.
Polish police, soldiers and plain clothes officers are everywhere on the border and local towns, trying to protect and uphold the dignity of this relentless wave of refugees. Also a ‘foreign legion’ of fighters has come to Ukraine from far and near is there, waiting to cross into Ukraine. Thousands of people have volunteered to join Ukraine’s International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine – some young, some old, some seasoned soldiers and some not.
Symon also visited refugees in the Bishop of Krakow’s summer residence near Brzozow. Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski personally welcomed some 800 refugees at the city’s train station on the evening of 2 March, the eve of Ash Wednesday. He has opened the doors of his own residence to Ukrainian families.
While driving some refugees to the airport in Warsaw, he met one family from Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, in the northeast of the country, just 25km from the Russian border, with whom he has become friends. The Battle of Kharkiv was particularly horrific, as Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to President Zelenskyy has said, “Kharkiv today is the Stalingrad of the 21st century”.
His new friends, Mila, her sister, Sonya, their mother and a very small child are perhaps typical of Ukrainians who have lost everything, their homes destroyed, communities blown into oblivion, lives shattered, husbands left behind to fight, not knowing what the future may hold. Her little boy, aged 5, took days to speak again. They are now in Frondenberg, near Dortmund, Germany. They do not have any links there and are clearing struggling, as Mila recently wrote to Symon.
“Here we have encountered various problems”- language difficulties for example – but are saved by social payments …. despite all the difficulties, we are a family and cannot be separated. We don’t want to put my little boy through any more.”
Control before compassion
Symon is now back at home temporarily before returning to work with a Polish couple, coordinating the transport of much needed supplies into Lviv and Kyiv. Meanwhile he has helped set up a local support group in Tetbury where people are keen to receive Ukrainian families into their homes. Many similar groups have been set up here in the Cotswolds and across the country. They all express the same frustration at the slow progress of the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme. As Symon points out:
“We have many hosts offering comfortable and safe homes, and others offering ongoing support such as English teaching, transport, help with whatever they need. We cannot understand why the government is dragging its feet when the need is so urgent.”
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians are waiting to travel to the UK through the same scheme, and the government’s slow response to the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War is now attracting anger. This initiative was only launched following widespread criticism of its initially limited response to the huge numbers of Ukrainians, mostly women and children, forced into exile.
To date, the UK has granted fewer than 3,000 visas under its much-vaunted Homes for Ukraine sponsorship scheme while the numbers coming in under the Family Scheme are greater – 22,800 have been issued to Ukrainians hoping to join relatives in the UK.
Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, raised an urgent question in the Commons, on 30 March, describing a Kafkaesque visa system leaving tens of thousands of desperate people still stuck in the system. In reply, the Home Office minister Kevin Foster admitted that one of the problems was that the forms were not available in Ukrainian! These delays can only create more trauma for already traumatised victims of the war.
Enver Solomon, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, interviewed on Newsnight on 4 April, made the point that this government’s policy puts control before compassion.
British people have indeed shown their compassion and willingness to help. Other countries have shown that the system can be made simpler and speedier. Why then is the home secretary dragging her feet? There is a moral imperative for us to help which Symon and so many other generous people feel, but not it seems Tory politicians.