Homes for Ukraine scheme: tips on how to help Ukrainian refugees arriving in the UK - and what not to do

 Psychotherapist Noel McDermott gives advice to those hosting refugees under the Homes for Ukraine scheme

Ukrainian refugees arriving in the UK may have found safety, but it’s likely they will be suffering from trauma after fleeing the war.

More than 150,000 people have registered an interest in offering shelter to refugees as part of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, with more than 20,000 visa applications also made.

As of 31 March 3,705 visas have been granted under the scheme which opened on 14 March, though it’s not known how many refugees have arrived in the UK.

Homes for Ukraine allows individuals, charities, community groups and businesses to bring Ukrainians – including those with no family ties to the UK – to safety.

The refugees may show signs of transition shock which stems from the sudden removal of all that was normal and every day in their lives.

But what should people who have offered to sponsor refugees do to help once they arrive, and what should they avoid doing?

What can people do to help refugees arriving from Ukraine?

There’s no limit or cap on the sponsorship route, with the Government describing the situation as a “huge humanitarian crisis” and saying it will welcome as many Ukrainians who wish to come and for who there are sponsors.

Many refugees fleeing Ukraine will be suffering from the trauma of war.

Hosts are being asked to provide accommodation for at least 6 months.

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott who is the CEO of Psychotherapy and Consultancy Ltdhas told of the steps people can take to put refugees at ease.

Noel said one thing to consider was that those arriving would be lacking the basic necessities, so on a practical level people taking part in the Home for Ukraine scheme should make sure they have items the refugee or refugees they are hosting would need.

He said: “The first assumption I would make is that they’re arriving without all the basic necessities.

“So if you are hosting a refugee, make sure you’ve got that in stock, don’t wait to be asked. They’re a fantastic way of welcoming people, here’s your food is your clothes is your bed, all of that sort of stuff, you know, be a good host.

“We happen to know that this wave of refugees are unique in the history of refugees coming to the UK, in that they are the most vulnerable groups. So it is going to be mums with kids.

“So make sure you have stuff in for kids and mums, which would include sanitary products.”

In order to help refugees settle and provide support, hosts should make sure they themselves are in the best possible shape to help.

Noel said: “And so make sure that you’re okay, you can provide the handling and support, provide the basic necessities and also focus on integrating as quickly as possible your guests into local services.

“With children, it’s absolutely vital, you get them into school ASAP.”

He said practical, simple things and getting guests engaged in local services and support would go a long way, adding: “If you can focus on that and giving that parent meaning and purpose, again, they’re a parent, they’re doing their job and you’re sporting, you’re going to be going a very, very long way to avoiding any long term psychological problems.”

What are some of the signs of distress people should watch for?

Having left their homes behind to seek safety in another country along with experiencing the horrors of war many refugees may be suffering from the effects of the trauma.

People fleeing the conflict from Ukraine, arrive at the border crossing in Medyka, southeastern Poland, on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. U.N. officials said that 100,000 people were believed to have left their homes and estimated up to 4 million could flee if the fighting escalates.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Among the psychological emotional issues they may encounter is shock, something which can manifest in several ways.

Noel said: “People can sort of exhibit shock in a number of ways. One can be shocked and numb. Often the first stage of bereavement, for example is going very numb, not having very many feelings, and that can often be a survival mechanism.

“And people they go numb emotionally just because they can get through, they can function and then get to a place of safety, your home which is the place of safety -  and then fall apart.

“So the adrenaline, the cortisol, all of that activation in the body wears off because I’m in a safe space. That’s when typically you’ll get the tears, the night terrors, the interruptions, sleep, problems with food, eating appetite. All of those things are signalling someone in a lot of distress.”

However, he said this is a reasonable reaction to the situation and people shouldn’t assume they have mental health issues.

Noel said: “Yes, psychological distress will be apparent, but it will be a reasonable response to an unreasonable situation. So it’s not an illness and doesn’t necessarily need treatment. But it will need compassion and kindness and understanding and insight, it’s going to need and warmth and support.”

He said what might be more of a cause for concern is silence and withdrawal.

“If you get a long period of silence and withdrawal, that you might want to do some outreach and some conversation with people, I guess, I would say to people, don’t be afraid of asking direct questions about how you’re doing, and sort of coaxing people into conversation.”

Is there anything people should avoid doing?

While people may be curious about their guests and what they left behind, Noel says it’s crucial not to ask those who have escaped from the trauma of war to relive what happened.

He said: “The worst thing to do is ask people to go over and over their experiences, because you will traumatise them then. So I’m pretty much guaranteed that if you ask people to remember all these horrific things, that they’ll be in a really, really worse state.”

Instead, the key is to be there for anyone you are hosting and to steer them in the direction of professional services who can help if they are struggling.

However, while asking people to go over their experiences is a no-go, directly asking how they are is fine.

Noel said: “If you notice that your guest is withdrawn, it’s perfectly okay to just be really direct and open and say, ‘Are you okay?’

“It may be that they’re withdrawn, not because they’re psychologically hurting, because they just don’t understand the rules, and they’re trying not to upset you or disturb you.

“They’re staying in their room to avoid being a pest. It may be that you just need to have those types of conversations and organise what the rules are.”

He added: “Don’t get ghoulish about wanting to know what happened, but apart from that, I think it’s pretty much follow your heart on this one.”

How long could refugees suffer from trauma?

Untreated trauma can be lifelong Noel said, emphasising how serious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be.

Crucially the key to successful treatment is getting that treatment as soon as possible.

A young Ukrainian refugee looks up at guards on a platform at Przemysl Glowny train station in Poland after arriving with her family to flee the Russian invasion.

Noel said: “Mostly, we will get over events that are frightening and difficult, and mostly, we will just process them. People need to remember that it’s not the thing that is the trauma, it’s our response to it. That is the trauma.

“One person can develop trauma responses another person not,  it’s very much dependent on the individual.”

Support people fleeing the devastating conflict in Ukraine: donate to the DEC appeal

Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) charities and their local partners are in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries providing food, water, shelter and medical assistance. Learn more and donate what you can today