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17th Mar 2022

Inside the Facebook groups where desperate Ukrainians are searching for spare rooms

April Curtin

 “I wasn’t afraid to die, but I didn’t want to be raped”

Ukrainian refugees are making desperate pleas on social media – writing of their fear of being raped, their grief at losing their homes and livelihoods, and their fear about what the future holds for their loved ones.

They are also expressing concern about being a “burden” on potential hosts in this country and are listing all the ways in which they could help around the house from baking to babysitting.

More than 100,000 Brits rushed to offer accommodation to refugees fleeing Putin’s horrific invasion. But the process of getting Ukrainians into the country has been slow.

Why? Well, Boris Johnson’s government has faced a lot of criticism for the Homes for Ukrainians scheme – which many Brits struggled to sign up for when it launched on Monday. The scheme requires refugees to obtain a visa – a move that charities say goes against their rights. By contrast, the EU has decided against that requirement in a bid to speed up the process, and Ireland has too.

British refugee charities have reported “unprecedented” number of calls, and are scrambling to respond to messages from thousands of people who are looking for a match.

Labour has described ‘Homes for Ukraine’ as a “DIY asylum scheme”, with Shadow Communities Secretary, Lisa Nandy, taking apart the plan announced by Michael Gove in parliament earlier this week.

“He can’t seriously be asking Ukrainian families who are fleeing Vladimir Putin, who have left their homes with nothing, to get on to Instagram and advertise themselves in the hope a British family might notice them,” Nandy said.

At the heart of this chaos lies the fate of millions of Ukrainians, who have lost everything in the war.

And the posts they are sharing are heartbreaking.

New Facebook groups have emerged that serve as platforms for Ukrainian refugees and British hosts to make their ‘match’. In emotional posts, Ukrainians share the horror they have endured over the last three weeks.

Catherine, a mum from Odessa said: “Every day and night an air raid alarm is sounded and explosions are heard. Because of this, children don’t eat and sleep well, and are psychologically tired.”

Lazurenko from Kyiv asked for “friendly and kind” people to let her and her nine-year-old daughter stay with them, “because we suffer from fears and sadnesses connected with war,” she said.

“We have very little things and are short of money. Everything we had has gone when the house was bombed,” she added.

For some, the fear goes beyond death. Elena from Kyiv said: “I wasn’t afraid to die, but I didn’t want to be raped.” She said that “such cases” were reported in the city of Gostomel, not far from where she lives with her family in Kyiv.

Other have reported panic attacks and intense trauma – sitting in basements while “cities are burning”.

Alina from Khmelnytskyi, who had just celebrated her birthday, said: “My biggest wish is peace in my country and that I no longer fear to go to bed.”

She said: “I am scared…scared for my country, scared for our people, for parents, friends, for everyone I know.”

Being close to a hospital is also vital for Ukrainians coming over, with some in the middle of cancer treatment or suffering with a long term condition. It was only last week that a children’s and maternity hospital was bombed in Mariupol – killing three people, including a child. A pregnant woman who was pictured being rescued later died along with her baby.

Anastasia,18, said Ukraine is running out of the medication she needs for an autoimmune disease that causes scarring of her liver. Her boyfriend also has trouble with his heart.

Posting in a group, she described her city, Zaporozhye, as a “war zone,” adding: “We are scared to stay here.”

As well as sharing details of traumas they have already suffered, Ukrainians are pointing out the qualities that make them good house guests. Examples include being “sociable”, “tidy”, “hardworking” or even “clean” and maintaining a “healthy lifestyle”.  Hobbies like cooking and baking are highlighted, with some offering to do housework, washing, gardening and nannying “just for joy”.

Pictures of families, particularly with young kids, seem to be gaining even more interest through likes, loves and comments filled with offers.

These posts read almost like adverts we are used to seeing in houseshare groups, but the tragedy of war adds an urgency to their need to find somewhere to call home.

In response to Ukrainian pleas, Brits are rushing to offer their homes – many promising to do “whatever they can” to help. Some are even offering jobs on farms or in local pubs, with others offering online tutoring for Ukrainian children when they arrive.

UK residents who are found to be fit to host will be given £350 each month to do so, and will be required to keep refugees for a minimum of six months. Many are offering their home for as long as is needed.

Social media groups do appear to be matching people quickly. One group said it had already managed to find rooms for 21 families. And in a recent post, over 100 potential UK hosts put themselves forward to help refugees who don’t speak English – with many offering to help cover travel costs too. Facebook also enables Ukrainians and Brits to translate their messages in just one click.

But this idea of hosts naming the refugees they wish to sponsor is being called out by some as problematic. Posting on the page, one Brit said: “I think is a bit demeaning, feeling that they have to sell themselves and that they are willing to babysit and clean etc in order to find a sponsor.”

Lou Calvey from Refugee Action said there were “huge risks” with requiring UK sponsors to know the names of refugees, because it means more vulnerable people will struggle to access the scheme.

She told The Independent: “People who are well-connected or more social-media literate and will be able to put themselves out there more might generate a match more easily. What about those who might not speak English, who have significant mental health issues, who are physically unwell, or who might not have any access to social media – how are we going to reach them? How are you supposed to gain access to the UK if you’re in that sort of situation?”

For now, those who are making use of social media remain grateful for the support they have received from Brits.

“I’m crying looking at how many people want to help Ukrainians,” one said, “Thank you for your kindness.”

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