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Tunbridge Wells is well ahead of surrounding areas in terms of hosting and support for Ukrainian refugees.

Hundreds of Ukrainians have arrived in the town through the sponsorship scheme and the response of the local people has been very supportive.

Tom Dawlings, the leader of the Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, said to KentLive: “We have 313 refugees in Tunbridge Wells in 120 places. They tend to be mothers and children and older parents. The men of fighting age have to stay in Ukraine.”

Julie Nicholds, an admin for the Tunbridge Wells Ukraine Refugee Support Group, has been at the heart of the Tunbridge Wells response.

Mrs Nicholds said: “The message that we’re getting is that all of the things that are happening in Tunbridge Wells are way ahead of what is happening elsewhere in Kent, and they think the same thing nationally.

“Tunbridge Wells has got the highest number of hosts in the whole of Kent and actually one of the highest numbers in the country.

“So, we’ve got a lot of people who really want to help.”

Simon Merritt, of Lamberhurst, is currently awaiting the arrival of an 18-month-old daughter, mother and grandmother from Ukraine.

Mr Merritt said: “What’s interesting is that at the point we did it (applied to sponsor) there were many more people who wanted to sponsor than there were people available.

“Instead of having people contact us it almost felt like as soon as someone put something up and they were vaguely suitable you had to message them, so it was a bit of an odd, almost perverse way of doing it really.

“We ended up messaging about nine or ten people I think and probably half got back to us saying, ‘thank you but we’ve already found something, we’ve had loads of messages from sponsors.’”

Finding homes for those that need it has been just the first step in providing the support needed for Tunbridge Wells’ new arrivals.

The Tunbridge Wells Ukraine Refugee Support Group has been putting on various events such as conversation classes and job clubs.

Mrs Nicholds said: “The first thing that we wanted to focus on was the language barrier, as if you can’t speak even basic English your ability to get a job is compromised.

“Those classes started this week and we’ve got one on a Monday afternoon, one on a Tuesday morning and one on a Tuesday evening and they’re all full already and we have not yet had the peak number of the people arriving in the town.

“A lot of Ukrainians have been taught English but haven’t had the opportunity to speak it. So, it’s a bit like learning French at school, you just never use it and then you have no confidence to speak.”

As for the job club, Mrs Nicholds added: “We’ve decided now to move into the next stage which is if people are settled, feel that either they’re confident enough of their English or getting there, they could do a job that English isn’t really necessary.

“And Ukrainians under the visa scheme can work straight away and actually if you don’t work or have some sort of purpose then things are quite difficult for people. Just sitting around doing nothing is not good for your well-being.

“There are people coming over who are highly qualified but even some of those are saying ‘I’m not ready to take on a serious job, I’m still upset’, but they may be happy for a few months to work in a hotel or a café.”

Bill Hunter, of Frant, is a member of Hope and Aid Direct, and has been part of the response going straight to the Ukrainian border.

Mr Hunter said: “When the Ukraine thing happened, we started concentrating on that and we’ve got quite a big garage in Essex, and I’ve been driving around the UK collecting various aid from people and bringing it to Essex.

“We’ve got a big warehouse that’s been emptied and that’s our collection point where we take all the stuff that’s been donated and then it’s transferred onto a 44-tonne lorry.

“And then we do regular trips down to the Ukrainian border where we have three warehouses set up and then it’s transported into Ukraine from there.”

One issue that has arisen as a result of the influx of new residents is the lack of school places.

Mrs Nicholds said: “We’ve been flagging concern around this with William Benson who’s the chief executive of Tunbridge Wells, but I mean it’s a Kent issue rather than a Tunbridge Wells issue.

“People who arrived early through the system, some of them have been able to get places but there aren’t many school places in any event and they’re all full now.

“We are actually going to put a stop on us seeking more hosts now because we think it’s important that we let the people that are already in the process bed in. We need to make sure we can support the people that are coming in and that includes education.”

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June 2024