Methodists in Harpenden are saying ‘there is room’ and opening their hearts and homes to Ukrainian refugees, writes Louise Schlich.

harpenden-ukraine-2Along with so many others, at High Street Methodist Church in Harpenden we have been watching in horror as Ukrainian lives, towns and communities have been torn apart by the Russian invasion. When the opportunity arose, we were keen to respond and help people affected by the war.

In April, with the help of Methodist contacts in the UK, Germany and inside Ukraine, we were able to match a number of host families in Harpenden with those fleeing conflict and looking for sanctuary in the UK. We now have around 20 Ukrainians who have come via this route.

The wonderful hosts who have welcomed Ukrainians into their homes have done a brilliant job helping them every step along the way. The road has not always been a smooth one! First, our host families had to make contact with individuals and families in Ukraine and then the long (and often painful) process of visa applications began.

After what felt like a very long wait for some, eventually visas were granted and travel plans were made. All our hosts and guests will admit to feeling apprehensive as they met for the first time face to face at the airport. They were almost complete strangers embarking on a new life together in Harpenden.

It felt good to finally meet our guests and know that after all the preparation and dealing with bureaucracy we could offer a safe home to those arriving. Some guests are now well established in their new homes while others have just arrived. They are all slowly starting to build their lives and establish their own community away from their homeland.

Most of them, like us, are strangers to one another. Throughout the process, our church has been keen to ensure that our hosts are supported. They have been assisted with form-filling and now their guests are more settled, we have regular meetings where they can share their experiences, including the joys and challenges. One of our ministers is acting as chaplain to our hosts, offering them practical and pastoral support.

Building new communities

One of the joys of the situation has been witnessing how our church and the wider community have come together, working in partnership to offer what help we can. Our own church community has loved welcoming our new Ukrainian friends to worship on Sundays with us.

We project the worship songs in both English and Ukrainian and we have enjoyed hearing their songs and prayers. We run a number of Ukrainian café events on a Saturday afternoon, so they can come together and get to know each other, and we have also welcomed them to other church events. We also have a weekly drop-in for Ukrainians and their hosts in Harpenden.

They use our church premises while another local church organises the sessions. Some are an informal time to have coffee and a chat, while at others there have been guest speakers covering relevant subjects including healthcare, finances, schooling and housing.

English lessons and practical support

Communication has often been a problem, in fact for many Google Translate is a lifeline! Some Ukrainians have little or no English, which is a real barrier to fully engaging in life here. So our church has formed a partnership with the County Council and are now hosting a number of English language classes once a week, offering both beginner and intermediate lessons.

There are many people within our community who were unable to host but are keen to help. We are blessed they can offer all sorts of assistance including one-to-one English lessons, lifts and financial support to cover days out or day-to-day travel costs. Our town community has also welcomed our new residents and the Town Council continues to organise regular meetings with local churches and charities in order to coordinate our response to meet the needs of our Ukrainian friends.

It is good to be in a position to be able to offer something to people who have lost so much. Seeing our church and town community respond has been a real blessing and we are fully aware that none of this would happen without the kindness and generosity of individuals. We are all likely to meet Ukrainians who are making the UK their home, either temporarily or more permanently. Our experience is that they are so appreciative of the welcome they receive, so please offer whatever you can, even if it’s just a cheery smile and a ‘Laskavo prosymo!’ (Welcome!)