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Shortage of West Berkshire hosts for Ukrainians fleeing war

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A West Berkshire support group has struggled to find local hosts for people escaping the war in Ukraine, writes Lars Mucklejohn.

The government launched the Homes for Ukraine scheme in March, enabling UK sponsors to offer their homes to Ukrainians for at least six months.

Refugees with a visa under the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme can stay in the country for up to three years.

A West Berkshire support group has struggled to find local hosts for people escaping the war in Ukraine
A West Berkshire support group has struggled to find local hosts for people escaping the war in Ukraine

As of June 14, there were around 170 hosts in West Berkshire. In total 390 Ukrainians had applied for visas to stay in the area, with 228 refugees having already arrived.

Most of the guests are women and children of school age.

Ukrainians must reach an agreement with a named host before submitting a visa application to enter the UK, and the matching process is left to individuals, who often rely on non-governmental organisations and community groups to find guests.

The Newbury and West Berkshire Ukraine Support Group was created in March and is a prominent local community for matching guests with hosts, as well as supporting refugees once they arrive.

It has amassed more than 600 members on Facebook, with over 70 hosts based in and around Newbury.

Gillian Durrant, a former mayor of Newbury, is one of the group’s leaders and herself hosts a Ukrainian family.

At a recent social event, she told the Newbury Weekly News that with only 10 remaining prospective hosts, the group has struggled to meet demand.

She said that almost all of these prospective hosts have one available bedroom, whereas most Ukrainians come as families with children.

Mrs Durrant added that refugees already living in West Berkshire regularly ask the group at its weekly gatherings if there are potential hosts nearby for their friends and family, and it often receives appeals from Ukrainians via Facebook.

Former soldier John Learoyd joined the group after spending several weeks delivering humanitarian aid in Ukraine.

He also supports Highway to Help, which facilitates refugee travel between Ukraine and the UK.

Mr Learoyd said that the influx of refugees would be “ongoing” and require “really strong” support.

He added that he has received up to four or five daily requests for local hosts.

Mrs Durrant acknowledged that hosting is a “huge commitment”, and many people may not be able, or want, to share their living space for an extended period.

She recommended that those unsure speak to a host or contact the group to discuss it.

“We can really help people if they’re anxious about it,” she added.

Speaking with organisers at the event, West Berkshire Council's public protection manager Sean Murphy said that “several hundred” district residents had expressed an interest to the government in sponsoring, and the council would contact them “to see whether they are still looking to host”.

The Newbury and West Berkshire Ukraine Support Group’s website can be found at https://sites.google.com/view/newburyareaukrainecommunity and Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1816898838508647

Those wishing to record their interest in sponsoring to the government can do so at https://www.gov.uk/register-interest-homes-ukraine

Mrs Durrant proposed that when the council makes contact, it could promote the group to help match them with guests.

In response to this idea, Mr Murphy said: “We are making contact with those that have expressed an interest, and as part of that process we will ask potential hosts if they would like details of support groups they could join and then make the relevant introductions.

"Council officers will work to facilitate rematching of hosts and guests where it becomes necessary.”

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