This week is Refugee Week, and to mark the occasion we’re reflecting on the main theme this year of compassion, by sharing how North Wales has opened its arms to help those fleeing war.
Ukraine and Russia have been in conflict for over 12 months and during that time thousands of people have had to flee their homes and all of their belongings, arriving in countries like Wales to seek shelter.
This came in the form of Welcome Centres, set up in North and South Wales, offering a safe haven to those fleeing war and providing one stop shops for help and support in adjusting to a new country.
We spoke to Supported Living Manager, Linda Hughes, who for over the last 12 months has been the face of one of the Welcome Centres in Gwynedd North Wales, liaising with partners and agencies to enable refugees to start again.
“What we were able to do was support Gwynedd County Council to provide a wraparound service, offering people initial accommodation and support to help them settle into Wales. My main role was to work with Gwynedd County Council to assess people’s accommodation needs and help them move into longer-term accommodation. This could be social or private rental properties or homes on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
“Whilst at the Welcome Centre we also worked closely with other partners such as North Wales Police, offering sessions on topics such as UK Law and we were also very lucky to have been supported by local organisation Pobl i Bobl, an organisation aimed at helping people in crisis in North Wales. Pobl i Bobl created immersive sessions for refugees to experience the region’s history and culture, helping us to offer them the warmest possible welcome. “
Since opening its doors, Linda and the team have played a pivotal role in supporting the refugees by ensuring their safety and providing them with access to public services and most importantly offering sanctuary. To date, 142 people have arrived at the Welcome Centre, with 104 being successfully moved on to longer-term accommodation, finding employment opportunities, continuing with their studies, or moving on to another country to reconnect with friends and family.
Mariia who went through this journey has agreed to speak to us about their experience since arriving in Wales, she said:
“This place became a sanctuary where I found solace and support during my initial days in Wales. People working there went above and beyond their call of duty to provide not only essential services but also a warm and welcoming environment. Their kindness and generosity made the adaptation process feel less daunting and overwhelming. From assisting with paperwork and registration processes to ensuring that all my personal physical and mental needs were met, they left no stone unturned to make me feel valued and cared for.
“One particular gesture that touched my heart deeply was the provision of separate vegan food for me. The consideration and thoughtfulness exhibited by the representatives at the welcome centre made me feel seen, respected, and appreciated. Their commitment to providing not just basic necessities, but also ensuring cultural sensitivity, truly exemplifies the values of compassion and inclusivity. And beyond the material help, staff extended their support on a personal level. When I remotely graduated from my Ukrainian university, they celebrated this milestone with me, sharing in my joy and a little cake. This gesture of genuine care and recognition reinforced the notion that I was not just a refugee, but a valued individual deserving of respect and support.
“Moreover, the Bangor welcome centre assisted me in finding a sponsor and a place to stay after my time at the centre. Through their careful consideration, they introduced me to Rachel, a remarkable woman whose open heart and welcoming spirit made me feel like a cherished member of her family. Living with Rachel and her beloved dog Stan was a transformative experience, and it filled my life with warmth, love, and support during my stay in Wales. Even distance could not sever the ties that had been woven between us. We remain in touch, with frequent visits during holidays, birthdays, and even weekends. Their continued support, even after I moved to Cardiff to pursue my studies, has been a source of comfort and reassurance. Staff from the welcome centre also maintained regular communication to ensure my well-being and safety. The sense of community fostered by this place has made me realise that distance does not diminish the bonds we have formed.”
Following its great success, the Welcome Centres are now coming to an end as people move into longer-term accommodation, however Welsh Government have said that they will continue to work with councils and housing associations in welcoming Ukrainian people to Wales, helping them move on into longer term accommodation.
With this new direction now being realised, Linda’s been reflecting on her time as part of the Welcome Centre team, saying that being part of the team was the right thing to do and she will never forget this chapter in her life:
“It was never really a question of if I would join the team and help those fleeing war. It was when could I start! These people were literally leaving their home with just the clothes on their backs, and I had an overwhelming feeling of duty to do what I could to help and support as many people as possible.
“And it wasn’t just me, there has been a fantastic team of people giving their all to make sure that these people felt safe and supported, and we did this through offering a consistent service with as little staff turnover as possible, building vital relationships between us. This was key to our success, because it allowed us to get to know each other, which in turn allowed us to work together and agree on long term plans, making the process into longer term accommodation a lot easier for both parties.
“Each and every person who has walked through the doors has been remarkable and has shown incredible resilience; arriving in a foreign country, not knowing anyone or anything, and within a few months having learned a new language and moving on with their lives, it amazes me.
“I often try to put myself in their shoes, going through such heartache and hardship and I can only commend their strength and spirit. I wish I could erase the horrific things these people have experienced, sadly I can’t. But I’d like to think that they’ve left here with hope and optimism, and I would like to wish them all the best through their endeavours.”
“In closing, I want to reiterate my deep appreciation for the kindness, support, and opportunities that everybody has provided me during my time in Wales. I am forever grateful for the positive impact you have had on my life, and I hope that my journey serves as a reminder of the immense difference you make in the lives of countless individuals seeking refuge.
“I want to express a special thanks to Rhys for teaching me the Welsh language, showing an infinite interest in my own culture, and always cheering me up; Luke for always finding time to chat, saving vegan food for me and giving the best advice on what places to visit in London; Lindsay for contributing into my connection with Rachel and always checking on my wellbeing even after I moved from the centre; and all the people working in the welcome centre for their open hearts, kindness and desire to help the Ukrainian nation. Thank you all for your invaluable assistance and unwavering support. I am truly blessed to have crossed paths with you on my journey. You make this world a better place.”