Two weeks earlier she’d emailed us, asking if we could sponsor her visa application. She’d already travelled through Poland and the Czech Republic, and was in Augsburg, Germany.
We talked with her and her mother on Whatsapp, then ploughed together through the forms. “Have you ever been a judge?” one question asked. I once helped judge at a rabbit show, but that didn’t seem to be what they were after.
Weeks into the Homes for Ukraine scheme, only a few hundred people have made it to Scotland. If Home Office prevarication seems unconscionable to you, try sitting beside a young Ukrainian woman who knows Bucha and Mariupol as well as you know Edinburgh or Dundee. While she hears about a Ukrainian girl in Bucha raped and brutally murdered. Unconscionable doesn’t come close.
I’m reminded every day of something that Samantha Power, who served as President Barack Obama’s Ambassador to the United Nations, says in her book A Problem from Hell, “policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil”. She’s describing how Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, tried in the 1940s to find a word that would convey the destruction of an entire people.
How to get the wider world to comprehend the scale of it. He coined the word “genocide”. Lemkin lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust. These things don’t seem so remote now. Varvara’s family are Jewish.
UK policy towards Ukrainian refugees is, above all, a failure of imagination. A failure by politicians and civil servants to put themselves in the shoes of people who have had to leave family, home and career behind.
The government has legitimate security and gatekeeping concerns, but it also has a responsibility to provide immediate assistance. Legally, that responsibility is grounded in the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Most of us would say it’s grounded in common humanity. The government has prioritised gatekeeping and dispensed with compassion.
Varvara is here and so now are others. But for sponsors and guests, the bureaucracy continues. Two weeks on, Varvara still doesn’t have the welcome payment she was promised, still can’t work or claim benefits. The biometric data essential to her longer-term stay in the UK hasn’t been taken and after more than a week of trying we still don’t know where or when it will be.
In contrast, the NHS has been brilliant; within 48 hours of visiting the surgery, Varvara had seen a nurse for a welfare check, spoken with a GP, and collected essential meds. For the NHS, gatekeeping is secondary: care at the point of need. It’s why we treasure it, because that primacy of immediate care is the instinctive response of ordinary Scots.
It turns out that imagination is what enables us to turn from dismay to practical action. What would we want if we were in their shoes? Mobile phone companies are providing free sim cards to Ukrainians because they know how important it is to be in touch with family back home. Opportunism, sure, but it started with imagination, and the sim cards work.
What few seem to realise is that Ukrainian arrivals are desperate to meet other Ukrainians. The most important support networks are always the peer-to-peer networks that refugees build for themselves.
As Varvara says, “We all share the sense of uncertainty, anxiety, and hope. I want to enjoy Ukrainian culture. I want to speak my mother tongue”.
Varvara’s university in Kyiv has reached out to the school of social work in Dundee. But universities are preoccupied – necessarily – with the complexities of fitting Ukrainian students into Scottish courses and modules.
They’re thinking about the next academic year, which is six months away. Six months is all the commitment that sponsors are asked to make. Guests could be in a different part of the country in six months. They need to make contact with other Ukrainian arrivals now, in days, not weeks, and certainly not months.
There’s no funding issue: they just need to be welcomed into campuses and student bars, to places where they can put up posters. Peer-to-peer networking is organic, the stuff of chance encounters, noticing a poster, catching a few words in a familiar language.
For local councils, the question is not “what do Ukrainian refugees need to do?”, it’s “can you help us work out how to meet the needs of the next wave of arrivals?” Varvara insists, “give me agency”.
The visa process is so obstructionist that only people with excellent English and tech skills have much chance of getting through: disproportionately, new arrivals are highly qualified people with energy and initiative. They’re the best support workers councils could wish for.
Varvara again: “I want to scream at the UK Government, ‘thank you for helping Ukraine, we do value it. Now, less bureaucracy, less gatekeeping, more aid. Give us access. Give us opportunities.’”
The switch from gatekeeping to immediate assistance isn’t easy to make for people whose working lives have been shaped by routine and the rule book. It’s hard to adjust to a world where every rule book has been ripped up by a man in the Kremlin and we don’t know what to do for the best.
But, as Ukrainians have shown us, they know. Give them what they need – the chance to help themselves.