Communities in Herefordshire are pulling together to settle refugees from the Ukraine conflict in the county – but are not finding it easy.

Revd Guy Wilkinson, rural dean of the Kington and Weobley deanery, and his wife are already host a mother and her two school-age daughters, and last week he drove to Berlin to bring another woman in her 60s, to stay with a family in Eardisley.

“There is no scheme to match refugees and hosts – it’s all through personal contacts, or voluntary organisations like Citizens UK,” he explains.

“The visa system is pretty dreadful – you still have no idea when or even if an application is being dealt with. And they don’t deal with families together.”

Money is also an issue, he says. “Opening a bank account is difficult as they want to do credit checks, but you need that for benefits, which can then take five weeks to come.”

Meanwhile “nothing is happening” about the £350 a month which the Government promised hosts, he says. “There are expenses to both parties – food, transport – and money worries are already beginning to appear for some families.”

Revd Guy operates a “hub” of around 25 families offering accommodation in the west of the county, one of 15 within the Diocese of Hereford.

Coordinating these for the church is Liz Mackay, who says: “Citizens UK referred 40 families to us last week and 20 this week. But I think we are ready – we have spent a lot of time and effort building up support networks, and how we help sorting out processes such as registering with schools and doctors.”

The system set up by the Government “puts the onus on individuals to make it happen, and that’s more feasible if we work in groups”, she says.

Leaving the process up to the goodwill of individuals is not without risks. The Observer recently reported that the sponsors of 600 Ukrainian refugees already granted leave to stay in the UK were found to be unsuitable, some due to having a criminal record.

Herefordshire Council “is there as a safety net – if the hosting breaks down and the refugees need to find new accommodation” Ms Mackay says. But she believes this is less likely when work is done beforehand match potential hosts with individuals and families in Ukraine, who meet each other first over a Zoom call, helped by a translator.

“Those coming over can talk about the kind of situation they need or want, for example if they’d rather go somewhere urban or rural,” she says.

Here impression locally is that “there is a tremendous amount of willingness to help, not just to host, but also to provide transport and translation,” but she adds: “It would be wonderful to have more.”


Also making things happen locally is Hereford City of Sanctuary (HCoS), part of a national charity offering local help to refugees with housing, and working to make communities more welcoming to them.

With “around four dozen” local volunteers in the county, it has been working for some years with other recent refugee communities in the county, its secretary and coordinator Jan Doran says, as she takes a moment off from distributing around 50 donated bikes to refugee families.

“We fundraise and apply for grants for particular needs, such as teaching people to drive – which you need to be able to do to work here,” she says.

Of the current resettlement of Ukrainians, she says: “So far there are only a handful, but a lot arriving will put a strain on things.

“People think, ‘oh, we have a room’, but they may also have to share a kitchen and bathroom for months – they may not have thought it through. The Ukrainians may need more help than they imagine, for example in getting visas. And it’s hard to get about Herefordshire without transport.”

She points out: “The hosting scheme is set up for six months. If the war drags on, it could be difficult beyond that.”

Ms Doran reckons there are already about 100 Syrian refugees in the county, and so far around 65 Afghans, as well as smaller numbers of Egyptians, Iranians, Indonesians and others. HCoS runs regular drop-ins for women from the various communities, mostly giving language help.

“Some speak no English,” she says. “We have learned to prioritise that – after the first year or two you can lose the motivation and opportunity.”

Hereford Times: Jan Doran says the challenges faced by earlier immigrants to the county now await those from Ukraine and their hostsJan Doran says the challenges faced by earlier immigrants to the county now await those from Ukraine and their hosts

Language ability then enables refugees to join the workforce, she says. “We learned from the Syrian community that there are many skilled workers. And Herefordshire has lots of work – there are signs everywhere.”

Herefordshire Council has more responsibility for refugees under the previous programmes, for which it employs a Birmingham-based agency to deal with housing.

“It would be great if they were local and had more resources,” Ms Doran says. “Dealing with people in a foreign language at a distance is very difficult. But as a small voluntary organisation, we are seen as on the periphery and not necessarily reliable.”

Despite this, “We do a lot of troubleshooting – sorting out housing issues, taking people to appointments,” she says. “There are so many silly mix-ups, and a lot gets lost in translation.”

All those involved need to see settling refugees as an ongoing challenge, not a one-off, she believes. “Wars, natural disasters – these things will continue to happen.”

Mum and daughter tell of county's warm welcome

Ksenia Mykhalko and her 10-year-old daughter Anastasia are among the lucky ones. When war broke out, they were put in contact with Natasha Shanks, who lives with her husband Ian at Upper Hill, near Leominster.

Both women are from the same city, Sumy in north-eastern Ukraine, which saw fighting and bombardment earlier in the conflict before Russia withdrew to concentrate on its military campaign to the south-east, but is still far from being out of danger.

The two travelled by bus, train and then plane to get to the UK, leaving husband and father Alexander behind in Sumy, where he works as a lecturer and researcher at an agricultural institute.

“He wanted to fight, but was told they did not have enough weapons and helmets,” Ms Mykhalko says.

Ms Shanks says that as one of the few Ukrainian and Russian speakers in the area, sorting things out for her guests and others “has become almost a full-time job”.

Anastasia is continuing her Ukrainian schooling online – habits formed during Covid enable her to stay in touch with teachers and classmates now dispersed around the continent – but will shortly switch to a local school.

“My Ukrainian credit card doesn’t work here, and opening a bank account takes time,” Ms Mykhalko adds. “I would like to find work in embroidery design.”

While understandably worried about the situation back home, “I’m struck by how welcoming people here have been”, she says – and by how much they have organised, such as the weekly Ukrainian mother-and-child group at Hereford Cathedral School, and by the many local fundraising events.

Mr Shanks, who has already been on an aid convoy to the Ukrainian border, says the diocese’s local hubs “have helped form support networks, and match volunteers to those needing lifts”.

But he has found locals keen to offer support, with a chance remark in the Forge Filling Station, Wormbridge, leading to a donation from customers of £1,000 for further aid work.

Hereford Times: Staff Forge Filling Station in Wormbridge present Ian Shanks with £1,000 towards his planned aid trip to Ukraine. (picture: Rob Davies)Staff Forge Filling Station in Wormbridge present Ian Shanks with £1,000 towards his planned aid trip to Ukraine. (picture: Rob Davies)

But he says officialdom has been of little help, and not just the well-documented tardiness of the visa application system. Queries to Herefordshire Council regarding the £200 due to his two guests are so far unresolved.

“In that way it’s a very different experience to, say, Germany,” he says. “Nothing is simple, and some people will struggle.”