Supporting Ukraine, one year on
23 February 2023
We were shocked and dismayed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 and immediately took action to support those employees affected and their families. As we reflect on tomorrow’s first anniversary of the invasion, we are sharing some of the hope that has come from working with our local community in Frome, our colleague in Ukraine, and supporting families relocating to the UK. What started as a small WhatsApp group of like-minded people offering support, is now an integrated refugee support programme run by Frome Town Council with funding from the UK government.
The story is told by those that made it happen – our team, our community, the hosts and our guests.
Luke Wilde: In late January 2022, with our Kyiv-based consultant Kirill Ermichine, we hosted a responsible business webinar with the Ukrainian MFA, the European Business Association and the German-Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce. Over 60 Ukrainian business leaders joined and there was so much energy, engagement, and optimism. When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, our focus had to change.
Kirill Ermichine: In early March 2022, with invading Russian troops approaching Kyiv, I evacuated my teenage daughter to Brussels. After an exhausting night-time train trip west, we crossed the border on foot. The next day, we said our goodbyes and from there my daughter continued alone, starting her adult life without us. I hurried back home, the only passenger of a long 15-carriage train, slowly moving eastwards to collect another several thousand refugees from Kharkiv. A few days later I had a call from Luke with the idea of an evacuation to Frome and got to work. In March and April, I identified the first wave of Ukrainians in need of shelter in the UK. We connected guests and hosts via WhatsApp, following 12 different introductory ‘chats’ at a time. This was before the official UK Government scheme had begun. A lot of practical questions were unanswered, so we were finding our way together.
Emma Boyce: I am Head of Human Resources at twentyfifty. In March 2022 I was part of a small team in twentyfifty responsible for coordinating and tracking potential hosts and guests in Frome. Our small WhatsApp group soon turned into spreadsheets registering potential hosts and guests, taking in offers of support and responding to email queries. Jess, Meki and I also signposted where support was available to the families as they arrived in the UK. The Frome community was brilliant and the host families were so welcoming. It’s amazing that I was able to donate my company's time and resources to this very special project. I was so happy to be able to help and created some close friendships in return.
Clare Hein: I represent all those in the Frome community that helped and supported our guests from Ukraine. Today, Frome and the local area are supporting over 50 families. Soon after the invasion of Ukraine, we created ‘Frome Welcomes Refugees’ a community group of people who wanted to offer support from places to stay, to language lessons and a summer language camp for Ukrainian children. I worked closely with Peter Macfayden (a former Mayor) to help our hosts and guests to navigate accessing funds, jobs, food, medical care, government grants and counselling support. We wrote a guide and translated it into Ukrainian to help hosts and guests understand expectations and find the support they needed. We also found space in the town where our guests could meet and support each other. In August we worked with Frome Town Council to hand over our knowledge and in October a council-led programme to support refugees today and in the future was launched - a strong legacy for everyone involved. I am delighted that two of our Ukrainian guests are working on the team. The generosity of everyone’s response has been extraordinary and is a classic example of the people of Frome stepping up as volunteers, alongside local charities and business owners, to make a difference.
Iryna Ladyzhenska: Before the war, I worked as a human resources manager in a big international energy company. Together with my teenage son and 21-year-old daughter, we moved to the UK straight from Kyiv in May 2022. It took us 40 hours to get here. We established an immediate affinity with our host Neil and appreciated the support of the twentyfifty team soon after our arrival. My daughter continues to teach English language online and my son is connected with the local football team, he is seriously thinking about a soccer career in the UK. It took me almost four months to find a job at the Frome Town Hall where I work as a social facilitator, assisting refugees from all over the world. Life is good here, we do feel integrated, my only concern is that by the time it’s safe to return, many people from Ukraine will find themselves deeply rooted locally and returning home (for those who will have their homes intact) might become a difficult issue. I want to thank the UK and Frome’s local folks for their kindness and support.
Anna Agapodchenko: My 64-year-old mother and I urgently left our home in the Eastern suburbs of Kyiv in March 2022. My former colleague connected me to Kirill and I took his word that moving to the UK was a viable option. The openness, generosity and totally friendly attitude of our hosts David and Nikki, and three grown-up kids (and two excellent dogs) came as a very pleasant surprise. With my spoken English and experience in catering, I got a job in a local café before moving into my current job in an international logistics company. My mom is totally happy in Frome. We are in touch with the Ukrainian community (around 140 people) and became friends with the 10-15 families who were the first to move here. There is a lot that unites us; one is a shared understanding and appreciation of how good the UK has become to us. On returning home? The majority prefer to wait and see. The younger kids are now totally integrated, it will take a long time before Ukraine can allow for a comparable tuition level and quality. Most think they will take the allowed scheme’s three years to the full, and then take decisions.
Victoria Gryb, Kyiv-based Ukrainian MP (independent): As a parliamentarian, I travel frequently abroad, and have had a chance to meet many Ukrainian refugees in several European capitals. Having heard a lot of life stories, most of them quite sad, or even tragic, I know for certain that the UK response; both that of public services and attitudes of private citizens to Ukrainian women's exodus, qualifies among the most generous and humane. My daughter and grandson moved to Frome from continental Europe in Summer 2022, and although I miss them both very much, I am quite confident about their well-being and am happy about their integration, both with local folks and with the small Ukrainian community. Via Kirill, a long-time friend and a former colleague, I connected with Luke, who helped my daughter find a suitable job. twentyfifty’s response and Frome’s inhabitants’ attitude towards the humanitarian crisis in my country has been rather exceptional, during this hard and worrisome winter my overall feelings are of gratitude and relief.
Kirill: this is my second war in Europe, which makes it two wars too much to live through. In the mid-1990s, I was one of the first UN Human Rights Field Officers in the former Yugoslavia, covering Central Bosnia, where the war was at its ugliest. Back then, in Sarajevo or Mostar to stay credible in my field reporting, I had to be impartial and keep my feelings to myself. This current war is totally mine. Each of us here in Ukraine knows exactly what is needed to make the victory inevitable, we will survive and we will prevail. Of all places, I wouldn’t wish to be anywhere but in Kyiv, among the people I love and respect wholeheartedly.
Luke: We are far from alone, many thousands across Europe and beyond are supporting refugees of this and other wars. What I hope this story shows is that a small business, with capabilities but limited resources, can work skillfully with others in its community and local institutions. As twentyfifty, we are now turning our thinking (with hope) to what comes after the war and the reconstruction of Ukraine. The Ukrainian government is clear – it wants ‘good’ companies to be involved in the reconstruction, operating in line with international standards. Building good companies is what we have been doing for 19 years, we are ready to support those who will rebuild Ukraine.
Photo credits: Frome Town Council and Luke Wilde