Toby Illingworth, Wealden district councillor for Buxted and Chairman of Wealden Conservatives, has made a mercy dash to the Ukrainian border in Poland to help refugees fleeing their war-torn country to find a new home in East Sussex.
Toby takes up his moving story of humanity in action:....
A week ago today, I was standing on the Ukrainian border, witnessing sights that haven’t been seen in Europe since the Balkan wars 30 years ago.
About a month ago, I put out a message on our local community Facebook groups asking if anyone was interested in some assistance in finding a refugee family to sponsor. I naïvely expected to receive a handful of responses and, through my Ukrainian friends, easily be able to pair them with Ukrainian families in need. Within a very short space of time we had space for over 150 Ukrainians and concluded that my plan needed to change.
After recruiting a friend from the village, we set of for the Ukrainian border, intending to plug into a UK NGO there to find our matches. We arrived at Przemyśl Humanitarian Centre about 20 minutes’ drive from the border to a scene that I will never forget. As we entered the building, a condemned Tesco store, the first thing that hits you is the smell, something I have since discovered is irremovable from your clothes, of 4-5000 humans who have not washed or had proper facilities for days. The crowds of mainly women and children who had lost everything, left with only the clothes on their back, and a sense of utter despair was completely overwhelming. At the back of the centre, there was a row of tables each draped in the flags of various countries providing registration for transport to each respective European country. Every country had queues of hundreds of refugees registering for busses and transport, except one, there, empty, stood the UK stand. The UK is the only country in Europe asking for visas and, whilst I personally agree with the concept of sponsorship and recording who is staying where, the complexity means that the vast majority are choosing to travel anywhere else.
When we had waded through the crowds eagerly awaiting travel to other parts of Europe and reached the UK desk it became immediately apparent that there was no effective operation in place to explain the UK process, assist with matching sponsors and helping complete the forms. The group there had on average completed fewer that 10 visa applications a day, out of about 5000 refugees every 24 hours. The whole situation was utterly disheartening and we felt, for a moment, the whole trip had been a wasted journey.
It was at this moment that we happened to bump into two incredible women, one a military wife called Sarah and the other a young student from Bristol called Eleanor. Both had independently turned up to volunteer, both were frustrated by the issues with the UK process. It was clear that there was a possibility of setting up a system to provide a process to support Ukrainians leaving their country and seeking refuge here in the UK.
Over the course of the next couple of days, we had meetings with other Brits, including an organisation called Make A Difference Foundation, also committed to do their bit to establish a process and we came up with a plan. This Saturday we had the first meeting, by zoom, of our team. They are based in Kharkiv, Kyiv, Przemyśl, Krakow and the UK. We have put in place an organisation that is; Delivering aid to the front line such as in Donbas, extracting refugees from there to Kyiv and Lviv and on to Poland, finding and matching sponsors, providing translation services, helping Ukrainians complete the complex visa forms, finding temporary accommodation in Poland and providing transport for them to the UK. We are the only group operating around the front line where the situation is beyond dire and the only organisation providing assistance from extraction to sponsor family in the UK.
In conclusion, I am proud of what we have achieved in such a short space of time, proud that it is a team from Wealden that is leading sorting this issue out and grateful for all your support. If you would like help finding a family to host, are willing to contribute to our work via our registered charity or are willing to volunteer in the UK or at the Ukrainian border, please visit our website at: www.madfoundation.com
Toby Illingworth - Buxted Councillor and Chairman of Wealden Conservatives