How a Norfolk town came to the aid of Ukraine 💛💙

How a Norfolk town came to the aid of Ukraine 💛💙
Ian Odgers, co-founder of the Dereham Ukraine Aid Centre. Photo Mark Nicholls

Good morning from The Seeker

This weekend is a poignant one as we remember the fallen and those who gave their lives fighting for their country.

And as we watch events unfold in Gaza and Ukraine we see daily the human costs of conflict.

But amid the despair of war everyday acts of kindness emerge - sometimes many miles from the battlefields and in fact much closer to home.

Mark Nicholls visits the Dereham Ukraine Aid Centre to find out how Norfolk communities are supporting families driven from their homeland by the war with Russia.

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War torn

Twenty months ago, as the Russian army massed on Ukraine’s borders, there was a common belief – even hope - that any conflict would be brief.

Yet today, in November 2023, heavy fighting continues with huge loss of life.

The global focus may have shifted to Gaza, but there remains great need in Ukraine.

Civilians and soldiers are being killed and families have been made homeless, often divided by war as they flee their homeland.

In the last year and a half, many have arrived in the UK with just under 2,000 (including 670 children) seeking refuge in Norfolk.

Focal point

Around 800 local host families have welcomed them into their homes, supported by local authorities and the work of countless individuals and organisations who have set up collection points for essential items, volunteered at aid centres, or raised funds.

The Dereham Ukraine Aid Centre. Photo: Mark Nicholls

In Breckland, this kindness has seen the Dereham Ukraine Aid Centre spring up in the town’s shopping centre.

It is a focal point for Ukrainian families to meet up, acquire essential items, and seek advice in finding work and more permanent accommodation, or simply chatting over cup of coffee.

It is where Nataliya meets Anna; where Kateryna can bring her teenage children during half-term; or where Ruslana, husband Andrew and toddler Olivia can play together in a creche area.

Tea and coffee

As you walk around, the Dereham Community Crafters are in one corner, chairs are set out for English language lessons, while elsewhere tea, coffee and refreshments are served.

Since opening in May 2022, the centre has seen thousands of items of clothing and bedding distributed, 500 bikes provided, and 20 homes furnished.

It has a sense of community with play and gaming areas and it is also where Ukrainians come to speak with others who have fled the war, or seek advice on financial or housing matters.

There are links to the local Job Centre, Citizens’ Advice Bureau, Baby Bank Norfolk and MIND for those needing mental health support.

Essential items

Essential items listed in the Dereham Ukraine Centre window. Photo: Mark Nicholls

Shelves are lined with an array of items and there are washing machines, TVs, and microwave ovens ready to go to families in their new homes while other items are sent to the frontline.

But there is always a need for more. Signs in the window list items in most need: medical items, toiletries, canned food, pasta, and clothing.

Co-founder Ian Odgers explained how the centre’s origins lie in the response to the early days of the invasion.

From collection sites at various businesses, which were soon overwhelmed, he teamed up with Leanne Jarman, the community champion at Morrison’s supermarket in Dereham, as a point to receive donations as other companies joined in.

Warm and safe

With the establishment of the Homes for Ukraine Scheme to recruit host families and accommodation for Ukrainians arriving in Norfolk, assistance was offered with food, clothes and bedding, while aid lorries were despatched to Ukraine.

On May 6, 2022 the aid centre – operating from 10.30am-3.30pm on Wednesdays and Fridays – opened in the Dereham Shopping Centre unit funded by Dencora.

Ian Odgers, co-founder of the Dereham Ukraine Aid Centre. Photo: Mark Nicholls

“When we opened, no-one had any idea how long the invasion would last or how many families would arrive in the area,” said Ian, “but we did not think we would still be welcoming families now.”

Run by enthusiastic volunteers and managers, the centre aims to be a “warm, safe place for families fleeing from a war zone.”

“We aim to make it feel like a home from home and while some families have gone back to Ukraine, others have nothing to go back to,” said Ian.

Today, the centre also organises social and peace events: there are trips on the Polar Express Train on Mid-Norfolk Railway and tickets to see the Royal Ukrainian Symphony Orchestra at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, for example.

Giving back

The centre also helped those affected by the Ashill fires during the heatwave of 2022 – returning the generosity of the Ashill community in supporting the centre.

Ian, 55, who is Operations Manager at Peerless Plastics and Coatings in Thetford, is a long-standing fundraiser.

Having run more than 200 marathons, he has raised money for Sense and VICTA, a charity for blind children and young adults as his son Jordan was born with hydrocephalus and is blind. He also supports cancer, Parkinson’s and Dementia charities.

Ian lives in Dereham and has travelled to 68 different countries, but has yet to visit Ukraine. 

Putin’s bombs

Everyone who passes through the centre has a story to tell, tinged with sadness, loss and uncertainty.

When the war started Nataliya Plastun (46) lived in Kharkiv in the eastern part of Ukraine near the border with Russia.

Nataliya Plastun and her son Stepam. Photo: Mark Nicholls

“After a few days of Putin’s bombs, I was very scared,” she said. “Because of my son I realised I could not stay so we moved to the western part of Ukraine.

“But I had lost my job, lost my life as it was and started to think about which country I could move to. As I spoke English, we moved to UK under the programme for Ukraine people.”

Divorcee Nataliya, a project manager for a building company in her homeland, now lives in Hethersett and works for McDonald’s.

Good atmosphere

A regular visitor to the centre, she said: “It has a good atmosphere and I attend English lessons. It was a lot of help when we arrived and there are always people who can give advice and information and it is a place where I can communicate with Ukrainian people.”

Her sister, mother and elder son Grigoriy, 27, are still in Ukraine and while she hopes to return when the war is over, she is not sure when.

“My apartment is still not safe to return to,” she added. “It is stressful, we cannot make any plans about our future. We dream about our past life but our past life has been destroyed.”

Stepan, 14, goes to school in Norfolk and has joined volleyball and football clubs, and the army cadets.

Massive attack

Anna Hrabarchuk, 51, from Odessa arrived in Norfolk in July with her son Yaroslav, 13.

Anna Hrabarchuk, from Odessa lives with a family in Dereham. Photo: Mark Nicholls

“We lived near the airport and there was a massive attack and my house was damaged,” she said. “It was noisy and scary, we hid in the basement to protect ourselves.”

A fashion designer, she now works at a garden centre in Toftwood, and lives with a family in Dereham but her 87-year-old mother remains in Ukraine and her partner is in the army.

“At the centre all the Ukrainian people are here and we have a lot of support and English lessons.”

Psychological help

Kateryna Krychun, 38, is from Mariupol and came to Dereham in May 2022, initially living with a host family but later moved into a house with her children Liza, 13, and Dima, 12, with husband Serhii joining them this summer.

Kateryna Krychun with children Liza and Dima. Photo: Mark Nicholls

“We have all the equipment for our house and got psychological help for all the stress we had in Mariupol,” she said.

“The centre has been very helpful and we can meet with other Ukrainian people. I arrived with my whole life in a bag and now we are together in a rented house. We feel safe here but we have no place to go back to.”

Their house in Mariupol was destroyed along with 90% of the city’s residential buildings.

Like a family

Ruslana Yolf, 29, arrived in March from Kyiv with her husband Andrew and daughter Olivia, aged 20 months.

Ruslana Yolk, with husband Andrew and daughter Olivia. Photo: Mark Nicholls

“There were missiles and bombs and no electricity,” she said. “It was cold and not safe to stay in our flat on the 9th floor so we decided to leave Ukraine.”

Andrew drove 3000 miles to England in three days. They initially lived with a host family near Wymondham but Andrew now works as a delivery driver and they have rented a flat in Dereham.

“The centre is an amazing place, we have help with everything,” added Ruslana. “They helped us find furniture for our flat, we are so grateful.

“It is hard to say what we will do after the war, we want to live in Ukraine but we understand our child must live and sleep in a safe place.

“It was so nice to get here and be able to sleep the whole night. We love it here, there are very good people and when we come into the centre it is like a big family.”

Host family

Hundreds of families in Norfolk have opened their homes to Ukrainian families.

Among them is Kate and William Morfoot from Yaxham near Dereham, who hosted Yuliia and her children Bodham and Veronika after making contact via Facebook.

After they arrived in April 2022, Kate helped the family set up a bank account, National Insurance number, mobile phone and transport.

“We wanted to help, we had the house and the space and they were very appreciative. We did our best to get them sorted and people came with toys and clothes as they arrived with just one suitcase,” said Kate.

Teenager Bohdan left after eight months to join his father in Vienna; Veronika, 7, went to school locally; and Yuliia – a neurologist in Ukraine - found work with Breckland Council supporting Ukrainian families and hosts.

In April 2023 they moved to their own place in Costessey but remain in close contact with their hosts.

Practical considerations

Anyone planning to host should consider practicalities such as access to transport and local facilities, advises Kate, who works in PR.

“There is also a need to be emotionally prepared as some people arriving from Ukraine have experienced massive trauma.”

She said the Dereham Ukraine Aid Centre offers great support for families and hosts and the couple are now planning to take in a woman from Kherson who has lost her home in the war.

Across Norfolk, the County Council runs Community Help Sessions in Diss, Aylsham, Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, Norwich, Cromer and Thetford, offering support to Ukrainian arrivals in getting online, accessing library services, joining conversational English groups, and assistance with housing, employment and family life.

Become a sponsor

Meanwhile, there is still a need for more people to host a family through the Homes for Ukraine Scheme.

To register with the council or to sponsor a family click here

Norfolk councils’ packages of support include £500-a-month ‘thank you’ payments for hosts, safeguarding and accommodation checks, information packs, welfare visits and updates on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

📞Dereham Ukraine Aid Centre always needs volunteers and donations. Contact Ian Odgers on 07540 792050.