Local sponsors are delighted to help but found the system unwieldy in the early days of the scheme By Nadoya Reid
Since the Russian invasion in February, almost 200 Waltham Forest residents have registered to take in a Ukrainian refugee.
The Government’s Homes for Ukrainians scheme launched on 14th March, allowing UK residents to sponsor a visa for an individual or family, provided they offer a suitable home.
The scheme offers a monthly “thank you” payment of £350 for hosts, along with a £200 “welcome payment” for refugees.
However, local sponsors told the Echo they were surprised by the “frustrating process” of bringing the refugees they sponsored to the UK and receiving the promised support.
Frances Balaam, a Walthamstow 41-year-old, applied for the scheme as soon as it opened but said the Ukrainian mother and daughter she sponsored were only able to arrive in May.
She gets on well and “lives in quite a connected way” with her sponsee, adding: “It is quite nice to see her really embracing it here. She is very engaged with others in the area, she has even met people on my road that I have never met before!
“Her daughter and my daughter get on very well and I feel them being around demonstrates good values for her, such as caring for and helping others.”
However, Frances found the sponsorship application so long and strenuous that she at one point wondered if the family “would ever be able to come through”. The process was made easier by “almost daily” support from Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy’s office, who were “extremely helpful” in pushing the Government for documents and updates.
She said: “We had to apply for separate visas for them and her child’s letter didn’t come through until two weeks after hers. With all that was going on, you can imagine how stressful it was for her.
“The visa application form took about a day… and is only in English. It is worded in such a way that it could be difficult to a non-native English speaker.”
Veronika Rasickaite, a 36-year-old from Chingford, also found the application process “unclear” and faced a “lengthy” wait before her sponsee was able to arrive on 28th April.
Coming from a Baltic state, she told the Echo: “I decided to be a sponsor because, if my parents back home were in a similar situation, I hope that someone would help them.”
However, she was deeply concerned by the way the £200 welcome payment was issued, in the form of two £100 shopping vouchers for Tesco and Aldi.
Beyond the fact that issuing vouchers “feels as if the Government is deciding what the individual needs”, Veronika said there are no Tesco or Aldi stores in her neighbourhood.
After contacting the council department that issued the vouchers and her local councillors, she was told her guest would receive the £200 in cash via the Post Office instead.
It is understood that, from late March to April, the council issued welcome payments in the form of shopping vouchers before switching entirely to the Post Office pay-out scheme in May.
However, the Post Office voucher they were eventually sent to exchange for the cash was issued in the wrong name, creating yet another obstacle.
Veronika said: “There is a lack of logic behind the service provided. With this whole process, I think if someone didn’t have an advocate like myself to figure things out for them, a lot of people would end up stuck.”
At the time of speaking to the Echo, both hosts had also yet to receive their monthly “thank you” payments.
It is understood that this process can take several weeks while a number of checks are carried out, including confirming the refugee is not contributing towards the rent and an accommodation visit.
Following the original publication of this article, council leader Grace Williams told the Echo: “The first stage in this scheme is dependent on receiving data from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Home Office. Once received, the relevant council departments move quickly to carry out required accommodation, DBS and welfare checks.
“As part of this process our teams signpost guests to services and ongoing support, including helping them navigate the benefits, education and banking systems as well as provide drop-in sessions, interpreters, and learning tools for children.
“Waltham Forest Council has continued to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine by driving and co-ordinating donations, signposting to support services and hosting a number of information sessions at the Town Hall for those affected by the conflict.”