A community-led resource hub is opening in Exeter today to support Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion in search of new homes in the UK.
The pop-up hub is housed in an empty Princesshay shopping centre retail unit at No.6 Paris Street where it is open from 10am to 4pm daily.
It offers information and resources for people directly affected by the Ukraine crisis as well as those who wish to help them, and will act as a focal point for refugees as they arrive.
The Conversation Café intends to cut through the confusion surrounding the government’s new Homes for Ukraine scheme by offering reliable advice on how to approach it, with Ukrainian and Russian speakers available to help directly connect Devon residents with refugees.
The new Homes for Ukraine refugee scheme follows intense criticism of the government’s Ukraine Family Scheme, which is restricted to applicants with a UK-based family member.
However while the new scheme offers a £350 per month grant to those housing Ukrainian refugees, it does not include a system to match them with the 150,000 households that signed up when it opened at the weekend.
Despite expectations that hundreds of thousands of refugees will arrive in the UK in the next few weeks, the scheme’s sponsorship system also places barriers in the way of people fleeing war who may not possess all the documents and the high levels of English fluency required to apply.
UK refugee charities have been asked to become matching organisations without being told what the scheme involves, and local authorities are expected to take responsibility for grant payments and accommodation and safeguarding checks without being given further details.
Exeter City Council’s website currently simply redirects prospective hosts to register for the scheme on the government website, and the county council’s advice is similar.
The sponsorship scheme requires UK residents who want to house Ukrainian refugees to either contact them directly or rely on ad hoc matching mechanisms which are springing up to connect them.
Some matching services are administered by national refugee charities while others are being organised by local faith or community groups.
These include Exeter Friends of Ukraine, set up recently by local resident Shannon McGinley. As well as helping connect Ukrainian refugees with Exeter hosts, the group’s members, many of whom are Ukrainian, organise collections of food, medicine and other essentials then transport them directly to where they are needed on the ground.
The Za Rogiem Polish shop in South Street has been collecting supplies since the first day of the war, Parrs Farm in Matford has donated a large barn to store and sort donations and Blessed Sacrament church in Heavitree is acting as a collection point. Catholic Exeter is considering sending a driver and van of its own.
There are similar groups across the county, including Devon for Ukraine and Devon for Ukrainian Refugees.
The Paris Street Conversation Café resource hub is the latest extension of this network of committed local volunteers, offering in-person access to the experience and insight they have gained in the 28 days since the war began.
It also provides a place for people to meet and extend their crisis support networks, and intends to raise awareness and money with talks, screenings, readings and art-making for all ages, a café supplied by Exe Coffee Roasters and The Sidwell Street Bakehouse and works donated for sale by local artists.
Visitors can also learn about Ukrainian history, culture and language while refugees will be given support with learning English.
The volunteer-run hub has been put together by Olya Petrakova, Director of Maketank, an artists’ collective which has transformed an empty furniture shop on the other side of Paris Street into a three-storey creative and performance space.
She is emblematic of the complex identities of many in the region now under threat, and a reminder of the importance of not confusing the Russian language with Russian nationality or either with the actions of the Russian state.
She was born in the former Soviet Union in what is now Moldova and speaks Russian as her first language. Her mother was born in what is now Ukraine and her father in Russia. She studied in Saint Petersburg before leaving for the US, where she remains a citizen, just a few weeks before Moldova became an independent state.
Exeter Community Alliance also contributed to the creation of the new hub. It is a group of 28 local organisations which is in the process of setting up a permanent resource and information centre in the city centre.
Its member organisations are focussed on a wide range of issues including climate change, biodiversity and social justice.
The Ukrainian refugee support hub will initially operate from No.6 Paris Street before either moving to another empty Paris Street retail unit or finding a new home at Maketank.