Dozens of Ukrainian families have the chance to get together in Swindon with the help of a Wiltshire Community Foundation grant.
The town's Pattern Church runs The Table, a weekly group for families who have fled the war, and where they can share food, stories and experiences of their new lives.
It has been awarded £2,500 from the community foundation's Welcome Fund, which was set up last year to support grass roots groups in Swindon and Wiltshire working with refugees and asylum seekers.
The Table was launched in April by the Pattern Church curate Rev Tom Norman, in response to the number of refugees arriving in Swindon. The church is based at the former railway works Pattern Store building.
“I wanted to do something because I have a passion for this type of thing. We have this building and we have the vision and it has grown very quickly,” he said.
The church is a member of Swindon Welcomes Ukraine a group run by an English and Ukrainian committee to help integrate families. “It’s a very strong partnership and the group does a marvellous job, it has been a big supporter of The Table,” said Rev Morgan.
The weekly event has taken over three floors of the church, with food on the second floor, stalls offering donated clothes and goods from the church’s Growbaby group and Swindon Borough Council, and a donated bike scheme run by Swindon Welcomes Ukraine.
In the basement Swindon Tuition Centre is running free English lessons and the first floor is a social space with food and games, where up to 90 adults and children now congregate each Tuesday evening.
The event became so popular the church ran out of table space, plates and glasses, so the Welcome Fund grant has provided enough to seat and feed everyone. The tables are also being used for the English classes.
Rev Morgan said: “We are very grateful for the grant because it means we can fit everyone in all at once. Being able to welcome everyone is really important because it’s an opportunity for the Ukrainians to meet, share a meal and talk.
“The numbers fluctuate each week depending on what else is going on and some are getting jobs now.”
He said the English classes were already fully subscribed, and added: “People are really keen to learn English as quickly as possible. There is a disproportionately high number of Russian speakers because most of the people are from Eastern Ukraine, where the war is. There’s a lot of people from Kharkiv, a few from Irpin and some from Odessa. There’s also a lot from Kyiv.”
Sofiia Volovyk left Kharkiv with her mother and sister in April but she has already become chair of Swindon Welcomes Ukraine and has helped relay essential information to her compatriots about schools, health and work opportunities, as well as the other events the groups runs, such as music nights.
She said The Table was a vital way of sharing information, especially those who have little English, and added: “The families who come here can share their experiences, if one has faced a challenge then they can share that with others.
“It is also very good for the children who find it hard to talk in their language in front of English children so here they can be more relaxed.”
She left behind a senior marketing job in Kyiv and has no idea what has happened to the family’s home or possessions in Kharkiv. “We have lost everything,” she said. “It is like you haven’t got any foundations under your feet, like you have no gravity.”
She said some Ukrainians planned to start their own businesses in Swindon and the group is trying to support them in setting them up.
“People want to work and contribute, especially those who have lost businesses in Ukraine,” she said.
The Table’s weekly meetings at the church will pause for August but Rev Morgan is planning to use some of the Welcome Fund grant to help pay for trips out for the families. “They are desperate to soak up English culture, they are fascinated,” he said. “The dream is to have a trip every Tuesday, going to the beach is high on the list.”
Wiltshire Community Foundation joint chief executive Fiona Oliver said: “We are delighted to see the grant is helping bring these amazingly resilient families together.
“The Pattern Church and Swindon Welcomes Ukraine are doing a fantastic job and what they are providing is not only practical help but real compassion and care.”
More information about the Welcome Fund and how to support it can be found at wiltshirecf.org.uk/ grants-and-support/groups/welcome-fund-programme/