The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked what the UN has described as the fastest-growing exodus of its kind in Europe since World War Two. The figures alone drive home the severity of a crisis that is only likely to worsen if the military conflict continues, with more than three million people having fled to Poland and other neighbouring territories since Vladimir Putin gave the order for troops to advance.
In the weeks since the invasion began on February 24, countless individuals in the UK have answered the call to help displaced Ukrainians. Donation centres have sprung up across the country, finding themselves inundated with everything refugees could require and much more besides – so much so that in some cases centres have called a halt to collections as organisers face the challenge of getting essential items to the front line.
In Hull, a small army of volunteers and charity workers have been handling donations from the public and businesses across the city. A drop-off centre has opened inside a former Staples store, with supplies of toiletries, medical equipment, blankets, children’s clothing and sturdy boots being sorted and placed in ever-growing mini-mountains of cardboard boxes.
Some of the items have been less useful, however. Stiletto shoes, bottles of fake tan and even a landline telephone complete with its own plug-in point are just some of the more unusual things given as donations on Humberside.
Helen Skinner, from the Hull4Heroes charity which is working alongside volunteers from the Hull4Ukraine community group at the drop-off centre, said: “We really appreciate every donation but there are obviously some things that are not going to be particularly useful or practical if they were just boxed up and sent out there. What isn’t immediately needed for refugees arriving in the countries nearest Ukraine is being sorted and then re-distributed to refugee and homeless charities in Hull.”
A lorry carrying 22 pallets of items has left the site bound for Poland, with another due to follow shortly afterwards. Hull4Heroes founder Paul Matson said: “A team of us are going out to Poland to meet up with a similar charity to ours out there to see what sort of links we can develop to work together on a few things.”
Meanwhile, in Scotland, Edinburgh’s Ukrainian Club on the Royal Terrace has been one of the city’s main donation points. The centre has been overwhelmed with donations, and an eager team of volunteers has worked tirelessly to organise the essential clothes and items into boxes to be shipped to Ukraine and the Polish border.
Hannah Beaton Hawryluk, one of the main organisers, said people had gone “above and beyond”, adding: “It’s been quite amazing what has been delivered. It’s been overwhelming – I keep using that word, but it really has been overwhelming.
“We don’t need any more physical items because transport through the different borders is becoming problematic. Your best bet is to donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee and the Government will match the donations. Money on the ground and it’ll go to the right people.”
In the North East, an articulated lorry packed with nine tonnes of humanitarian aid has been dispatched to Ukraine from North Tyneside, with more set to follow. A campaign spearheaded by the Lithuanian owners of waste removal firm Newcastle Rubbish Taxi has reached hundreds of people and businesses, with organisers having to temporarily stop taking donations which still fill a massive room at an office building they have been loaned in Gateshead.
A consignment has left the region bound for the city of Lviv in western Ukraine, via Lithuania. The shipment included 1,150 sleeping bags, 1,300 bedding mats, 900 blankets and 250 pillows, as well as two pallets each of sanitary products, baby food, dried provisions, rucksacks and toiletries, six pallets of clothes, seven of nappies and one of baby wipes.
Irina Fedonina, who is among those co-ordinating the efforts on North Tyneside, said: “When everything started in Ukraine we wanted to help. We put out an appeal for donations which we were collecting at our business.
“Then everything went crazy. That is the only word for it. We had enough stuff coming in to make daily trips to London. A friend of a friend loaned us the ground floor of an office building as it was taking over our business. We still have a room full of donations and the plan is that when this delivery reaches Ukraine we will send another lorry load.”
Irina added: “We can’t stop saying thank you to everyone who has given their time and support to make this happen. We knew people would be generous, but we never expected this response. But I think everybody has been shocked by what’s happened, and they still are, and they want to help.
“When they see the houses destroyed and the kids with no clothes and people with nothing to eat, they want to help. I think everybody’s heart is breaking at what is happening.”
But one humanitarian group has now pleaded with those wishing to support refugees to send cash, rather than material items. Cassandra Nelson, from Mercy Corps which has its European headquarters in Edinburgh, has been working near the Ukrainian border at Siret in Romania’s Suceava region.
“A lot of people in Europe are really keen to help by sending goods, what we call material aid,” she said. “Please don’t do this. Unless there is a very specific request for something like a certain type of medicine, money donations are best. Having stuff trucked in here, like clothing items, is not the right solution right now.
“It’s so hard to distribute correctly to the right people, and the transportation costs getting it here with the high gas prices just doesn’t work. We have functioning markets here in Romania or in Poland that we can buy what we need from.”
And another route to support those fleeing the war has now opened in the form of Homes for Ukraine, the scheme allowing British households to provide a home for refugees. Nearly 89,000 households signed up within hours of its launch on Monday, March 14, with the website crashing within the first few minutes of going live.
The scheme means Britons can host refugees for a minimum of six months in exchange for a £350 ‘thank you’ payment. But, under the current rules, households need to have a named refugee in order to take part rather than being matched with those in need by the Government.
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