How Czech woman is helping Ukrainian refugees in Prague get to Britain
Prague’s capacities for taking in refugees filled quickly following the Russian attack on Ukraine, and in mid-June, the capital’s centre for Ukrainian refugees closed down. Although it re-opened in July, the capacity problems have not gone away.
Neela Winkelmann, a Czech woman living in Prague, decided to do something about it, so in cooperation with the city authorities, she set up The British Homes for Ukrainian Refugees Agency. The agency helps those fleeing the war get to the UK by matching Ukrainian refugees in Prague with British hosts via the UK government’s visa program Homes for Ukraine. The sponsorship scheme offers a visa for 3 years including a work permit, healthcare, social support, free access to education for children, and a welcome payment of GBP 200 upon arrival.
I spoke to Neela recently, and asked her what the catalyst was for her idea.
“It started when I successfully managed to find, through friends in Britain, a house in London with a garden for a refugee family that I picked up at the Prague Main Station and had stay with me for a week. Initially they wanted to go to Canada, but Canada hadn’t opened its visa programme yet. So after asking at the Canadian embassy to no avail, we then figured out that Britain was opening its visa scheme for Ukrainian refugees at the same time. I helped them to get to Britain and then I realized maybe we could be doing this for more people – especially since Prague was overrun with refugees.”
“The timing was good because Prague was really reaching its capacities – I was quite sorry to see that in the middle of June the city stopped accepting refugees, and they dismantled the refugee welcome centre at the main station where I had been helping two months before. So it was kind of sad for me – I was upset about it. But Prague can’t be blamed, the city really was full.
“I actually started off by picking up my courage and going to help at the main station for a few nights in a row to help people getting off the late-night trains from Warsaw and Košice. It was so moving, I couldn’t sleep after that. And the third night I brought home this family. And I know Prague did its best – there was so much help offered at the main station, all the organisations that started helping and finding ways to do things. So I thought, ‘OK, I know a way I can help.’
“We need to keep moving these people further westward – also for geopolitical reasons, it’s important that we share the burden in Europe. We can’t let the former Communist countries be overwhelmed by the refugee crisis because there are old sentiments, there are old Communist structures still here, pro-Russian structures, and it would only help them if there were a crisis or if there was too much strain on the population – it would only help people who support Putin."
And what were the next steps?
“I wrote up a project and I started looking for who would be interested, so I talked to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I talked to the City of Prague, and the City of Prague was really fast in responding. They gave me the OK, they gave me the budget and an office and computers and telephones, and I was able to hire two Ukrainian refugee ladies with English, and we’ve been working since the second half of April.”
And how does it work – does the city of Prague pass on refugees to you who are interested in going to the UK, or do the refugees contact you directly?
“They contact us directly. We advertise on the website of the City of Prague, we have a Facebook page, we have leaflets that we’ve distributed at the Main Station, in the registration centre for the refugees, there is now a Youth Ukrainian centre, there is a self-help centre for Ukrainians on Wenceslas Square, there is the Ukrainian embassy – so everybody got a stack of our leaflets and from then on we haven’t had to advertise, it’s just been passed around by word of mouth, and we have more refugees than we can handle.”
“The current situation is that we have a lot of refugees and very few available hosts. We are spending a lot of our working hours looking for hosts in different ways. If anyone in Britain is reading this, who is willing to host Ukrainian refugees with an all-round service from the premises of the municipality of Prague, please get in touch with us – we would be really very grateful to have more British sponsors.”
You can contact The British Homes for Ukrainian Refugees Agency via their Facebook page: British homes for Ukrainian refugees Prague-London.
More info also on the City of Prague website: https://international.praha.eu/articles/prague-has-partnered-with-the-uk-to-find-homes-for-ukrainian-refugees
If you live in the UK and are interested in registering your interest as a sponsor, you can do so here: https://www.gov.uk/register-interest-homes-ukraine