On a bright and warm Saturday morning, I attended a gathering of Ukrainian families and their hosts at the Baptist Church in Cinque Ports Street. A week earlier, I had visited The Common Room on Cambridge Street, for a get together of Ukrainian families staying with their own family members and local host families in Hastings and St. Leonards, so I knew what to expect in Rye. I found the visit to Hastings previously quite emotional - the gratitude of the Ukrainians towards their hosts and to the U.K., not wanting to be a burden to us and the stories of what many had been through, were both moving and thought provoking. My experience in Rye was no different; grasping what these people – mainly women and children - have been through, what they are still going through, and what their fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands are going through is heart-rending. They deserve our thanks for their sacrifice and bravery.
It was also incredibly affecting to witness the welcome given to Ukrainians by the residents of Hastings and Rye. Tough times clearly bring out the best in our local communities, as we have also seen from the recent pandemic, not only towards each other, but towards those in the most dire and tragic of circumstances. Those good souls who bring light to others’ darkness.
Both visits were the initial welcome to Ukrainians, and the start of regular meetings to help them (and their hosts) build networks and settle into our local communities. These social gatherings will help to strengthen community connections and support the settlement of Ukrainians in the U.K. People need information on local employment, education opportunities, language support, GP and NHS services, childcare, and benefits advice. We may not be able to assuage their feelings, particularly around initial isolation and homesickness, but we can all help them overcome the difficulties of the immediate challenges of employment, transportation, language, education, and health and wellbeing.
My team have worked diligently for the past several weeks chasing the Home Office for visas and liaising with constituents about the family visa and Homes for Ukraine sponsorship schemes. The family visa scheme, launched at the beginning of March, is for Ukrainians with a family member in the UK; that family member must have British nationality, indefinite leave to remain, settled status, or proof of permanent residence. The Homes for Ukraine Scheme is for people in the UK to host Ukrainians refugees who are known to them, but who do not have family ties here. It was launched in mid-March, and more than 100,000 people and organisations signed up within the first day, including a significant number of Hastings and Rye residents. Under the scheme, people are asked to offer Ukrainians a rent-free space in their home or a separate residence for at least six months. They will not be expected to provide food and living expenses but can choose to do so.
Both schemes were developed very quickly, and it is not surprising that several issues have arisen which I have been able to feedback into the Home Office and the Department of Levelling, Up, Housing and Communities (which developed the sponsorship scheme).
I am aware that some hosts have not yet been contacted – we have more offers to host than Ukrainians who would like to come. Many understandably want to stay in the region, as close to Ukraine as possible, however, we will need more host families as time goes on – some Ukrainians may need or want to change host placements and vice versa.
I spent a wonderful couple of hours with people who have been brought together for a purpose. One of the best things about being an MP is engaging with people, listening, and doing what I can to help wherever I can. Great things are often achieved by small acts done by selfless people.