Derry Councillor opens home to two Ukrainian refugees

A Sinn Fein councillor has revealed he will be welcoming two Ukrainian refugees into his home at the start of the week.

By Gillian Anderson
Friday, 1st April 2022, 3:49 pm

At the full meeting of Derry City and Strabane Council, Ballyarnett Councillor John McGowan said the two ladies are some of the first to arrive in Northern Ireland as part of the government’s Home for Ukraine scheme.

He informed the virtual chamber that the mother and daughter will be arriving from Kharkiv which has been devastated by brutal Russian shelling. 

Colr. McGowan said a job has already been secured with a local architect for the daughter, who is ‘very highly skilled’, while a home inspection is being carried out locally by Extern.

Sinn Féin Ballyarnett Councillor John McGowan.

He said: “This Monday coming I’m collecting two Ukrainians at the airport so there are already some arriving. I’ve been speaking to the Polish Abroad here locally, we have been working with them in terms of getting the aid out. These two ladies who are coming on Monday night are the first two in that room scheme. I feel we are going to get many more of these people coming and that was one of the reasons we met as a party with the Polish Abroad to ask what the immediate needs were and they said to us that this will evolve as a situation.

“I believe we should be like a sanctuary city and Extern and a number of other organisations have had a number of meetings and I believe many other families throughout the area have expressed an interest.”

Councillor McGowan discussed the situation after People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin spoke about the ‘frustration’ of local people who were eager to see the ‘offer of opening up their homes move quickly’.

He said: “Our council was very strong in condemning the invasion by Putin and it also called for an end of NATO expansion and stood in solidarity with the millions of Ukrainian people who have fled.

Refugees from Ukraine walk on the jetty after arriving by ferry at the Romanian-Ukrainian border point Isaccea-Orlivka on March 24, 2022. (Photo by Daniel MIHAILESCU / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP via Getty Images)

“The response to the call for people to open their homes here in our district and across the north has been very, very positive. People have reacted with a lot of kindness and a lot of solidarity which is right.”

Calling on council to take the lead in organising a meeting of statutory bodies, he added: “We should also invite representatives from the British and Irish governments to offer some clarification to us as a council so that we can bring some clarity and cohesion to what is actually happening.”

Council Chief Executive John Kelpie explained that meetings have taken place in recent weeks. “Structures and arrangements to support the Ukrainian refugees are currently being considered and designed by a multi-agency group which has been set up and is being chaired by the Executive Office,” he said. “They are looking at issues such as welcome centres, where they are needed across various council areas, what they should look like, looking at induction and orientation for incoming refugees, looking at things at local level like community assistance and how they might be provided. Welfare and benefit support, health issues, schooling issues and also very important, engagement with the local Ukrainian community and local Polish community who will have interpretive schools, local knowledge and how that’s harnessed and provided as part of that.”

Mr Kelpie added that the key purpose of having these structures in place is to ensure each council area ‘does not try to reinvent the wheel and doesn’t try to do something that is duplicative of the broader effort’.

Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly spoke of his concerns saying: “When we were in this position before with Syrian refugees, the advice from council officials was that there would be people dealing with them and people shouldn’t approach them to offer help because some would be very vulnerable. Down the line when myself and other elected representatives eventually spoke to some of these families we found that there were very serious failings on behalf of everyone. They were basically abandoned and some of these people didn’t have the basic help. It’s very important we don’t make the same mistakes here.”

SDLP Councillor Martin Reilly welcomed the news from the Chief Executive that efforts were being coordinated across council areas, however he felt council should use its social media platforms and website to keep members of the public informed.

Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter