Offering a warm welcome

27th November 2022

HRH visits St Andrews Wiveliscombe

The community in and around Wiveliscombe has come together to offer support to their Ukrainian guests, which will be vital over Christmas. 

How do you set up your community support?

As soon as it became apparent that Ukrainian refugees would be coming to our area a few of us realised that being in a rural area would require a co-ordinated approach so we quickly set up a community organisation, Wivey Welcomes Refugees.

How did you address the rural challenge?

We tried to bring people from the same area in Ukraine here together, but it proved impossible to find a partner at the other end to organise this. What was working was the Facebook group, Taunton Homes for Ukraine, who ended up matching about 95 per cent of the people coming to Somerset.

What support did you offer?

We asked the first families who arrived what they needed, and all said their priority was to learn English and that’s when we started planning to set up a Welcome Hub. St Andrew’s in Wiveliscombe was the first to open their doors to us. They already ran a Café for All on Thursday mornings and made it clear we were welcome to come and use their space for whatever we wanted to do.

How were the lessons received?

We quickly realised that we needed them more frequently so added two more weekly sessions and they are going very well. One of our visitors is an English teacher so she started giving lessons at a beginners’ level and I also do some teaching so teach the more advanced level. The local school donated whiteboards, a Bristol company donated text books and local and Ukrainian volunteers have cleared and decorated two new learning spaces within the church.

What other support do you offer?

The wrap around care is important. The community volunteers come into the lessons to help and also offer friendship and trusted practical support for our visitors. The opportunity to build up friendships with fellow Ukrainians, has also been really important, especially for those who are living out in the countryside and not near any fellow Ukrainians, and that has created a wonderful atmosphere. 

Who are your visitors?

We have a lot of families with children. Out of the 68 people we know in our area, 31 children, 37 adults, typically mothers with two children as many men were not allowed to leave and many older people have refused to leave the Ukraine, even if they are displaced from their homes.

You recently had a special visitor, can you tell us about that?

We came to the attention of Her Royal Highness Sophie the Countess of Wessex  as we were one of the first projects to secure funding from a new charity set up by Annie Maw, then the Lord Lieutenant of Somerset, called Somerset Supports Ukraine. It was very exciting for us as we think she was Wiveliscombe Town’s first royal visitor. The church hospitality team laid on a fantastic tea party, with British and Ukrainian cakes on offer. Around 50 of our Ukrainian guests attended, some hosts, volunteers and local dignitaries.

We briefed the Countess about the work we have been doing and everyone welcomed her warmth and her genuine interest in and knowledge about the situation. She was presented with some locally grown flowers and a homemade card by one of our Ukrainian guests and it was a special occasion indeed. Read more about the royal visit.

What about Christmas?

Christmas will obviously be a difficult time as every one of our guests has loved ones back in Ukraine who they are worried about, especially with the recent targeting of power structures in Ukraine. They are a strong and resilient people but a Christmas away from home will be challenging and the friendships, hospitality and support will be particularly important. One of our community partners is making plans to mark the Orthodox Christmas on 7 January and we hope to follow up the success of our recent joint service with a Ukrainian/British carol service.

What would you say to other churches looking to support Ukrainian visitors where they are?

St Andrew’s has really modelled opening its doors and linking to its wider community – we couldn’t run it alone. Bridgwater-based Diversity Voice is looking for new places to open up hubs for English teaching and gathering together across Somerset, so any churches could get in touch with them to offer their spaces.

This is an unprecedented situation that needs fresh thinking. Before refugees have generally gone to cities as a matter of policy, but now this is not the case and moving to a rural setting can be more isolating than inner cities so we do need to offer places of welcome. People of good will need to come together and churches can have a major role to play in that.

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