Activism and the Writer-Cellist in Orkney

Silhouette of church bell tower with three bells visible superimposed over a the flag of Ukraine.
Carol of the Bells Cello Peace Project

Kimberley wrote a few weeks ago about activism and the writer, so I thought I would write a little about my view of the situation in the UK, especially in Scotland, with the Ukrainian displaced people crisis.

Boris Johnson courted popularity as Prime Minister whilst being lazy about the brass tacks of situations. The one bright spot in his time as PM was his offer to help Ukraine both with providing military support in training Ukrainian troops and providing armaments, and by offering to help provide homes for displaced Ukrainians. Johnson set up the sponsorship scheme but then insisted on visas, with no arrangements made to match people with sponsors, no help offered to make contact with Ukrainians who wished to come to the UK. It is still a mess.

Scotland has always wanted to remain in the EU, Scotland voted against leaving the EU at the time of the Brexit referendum, and feeling has strengthened since then that it was a disastrous course to follow. Scotland has a far more committed social policy than the rest of the UK, and has always welcomed immigrants. Our first minister Nicola Sturgeon committed Scotland to accept refugees on behalf of Scotland- a super-sponsor scheme. That meant that, instead of finding and naming an individual person in Scotland as a host, a Ukrainian family could be sponsored by the Scottish government and come to temporary accommodation in Scotland – hotels were used, and then two cruise ships added to house Ukrainian families until families were found to host them.

I believe local councils were expected to match families with available accommodation, but the sudden demand in expertise means that councils generally did not and still do not have the staff capable of doing this. So many of those Ukrainians who came as long ago as March and April 2022 are still in temporary housing. As an immediate commitment Scotland, with a population of 5.5 million, offered to support 3,000 refugees in the initial wave, in line with the numbers that were resettled under previous refugee displacements. But Scotland had to pause the scheme in July having granted 30,629 visas under the super-sponsor scheme.

No that is not a misprint, they expected 3,000 but granted 30,529 visas. Not all of those visas may have been used, but the vast majority have been, and that is not the total number of visas for Ukrainians coming to Scotland, as many also come to individual sponsors using the UK wide Homes for Ukraine scheme where UK hosts and Ukrainian families match themselves, mostly via social media.

The reason why all but one of our Ukrainian families in Orkney have come through the UK-wide scheme, is that no matching was happening, to the extent where some families withdrew from their original offer to host a family. For others circumstances changed, particularly with the severe cost of living crisis making their initial offer unfeasible.

In Orkney the council representative taken on to deal with the expected influx of Ukrainians told me there were 70 families offering accommodation here. Properties tend to be small, and few have spare accommodation, so 70 offers amongst the 22,000 population spread across the 20 inhabited islands of Orkney was not too shabby. But he also told me that it was not his job to match people to families, that he worked from home, did not have a phone and his wife was using his car for her job, so he had no transport. How he could check accommodation and meet with potential hosts in these circumstances I did not understand. (He seems to have gone now, and the head of housing is attempting to deal with Ukrainians resettled here, along with her normal workload.)

So I began matching families with guests, sending out information about Orkney and the life and facilities here, and helping families here find the right people to share their homes. We have perhaps matched half of that initial offer of 70 homes, but despite creating a closed Facebook forum for hosts and volunteers and advertising the work in the local press, there has been a decrease in the number of homes made available. Insurance problems with holiday accommodation, house moves, fuel costs, changes in personal circumstances have all contributed.

Nevertheless those families and individuals who have come here have all been offered work within two weeks, I was inundated with so much Lego that it has been shared between half a dozen families, and we have been offered and accepted bikes for our Ukrainians to get around the island. There is a real will to help evident and concerts and fundraising continues.

I run the hosts forum on Facebook with a local Ukrainian girl, who has just been given a council job this week as resettlement officer – possibly replacing the functions of the man who I’d first dealt with. She also runs a group for the Ukrainians who are here, where advice, complaints etc. can be aired. Being both a Ukrainian and Russian speaker she is eminently suited to her new role as resettlement officer.

Our second get-together for the Ukrainian families and their hosts was Saturday 26th October, and it is a great opportunity for the children to get together, the families to meet, and us all to taste the party food provided by both Orcadians and Ukrainians. I played my Ukrainian cellist friend Vlad Primakov’s arrangement of the Carol of the Bells (who knew it was Ukrainian?) on my cello at the gathering of our Ukrainian hosts and guests. We raised £100 for two charities: one taking aid to Ukraine and bringing back refugees to Scotland, and the other that Vlad works with distributing aid and moving displaced people within Ukraine.

Gill playing the Carol of the Bells on her cello in front of the flag of Ukraine
Gill playing the Carol of the Bells on her cello in front of an adapted flag of Ukraine


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