Tunbridge Wells residents open their doors to Ukrainian refugees

Olympian Louis Smith

Two weeks ago, before the UK government outlined its sponsorship programme to allow Britons to take in refugee families from the stricken region, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC) launched a webpage where people in the borough could register their interest.


“Within days of the website going live, 148 residents had put their names down”


The Times can now reveal that within days of the website going live, 148 residents had put their names down.

The Council removed the page after just five days on March 15 when the Home Office launched its own official register.

Those who completed the form are now being emailed to say that they now need to register with the Government under the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

That government website saw 100,000 residents across the UK signing up within the first day.

The scheme, which went live last Monday (March 21), will see each household housing a refugee offered £350 a month, tax-free.

They will not be expected to provide food and living expenses but can choose to offer this.

Under the scheme, Ukrainians can enter the UK with a visa if they are sponsored by a resident.

Individuals, charities, communities and business groups in the UK can apply to house Ukrainians for a minimum of six months.

An estimated four million people have fled Ukraine since Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian invasion nearly a month ago.

The news follows the withdrawal of western forces from Kabul last year when Tunbridge Wells was among the first local authorities in the UK to offer help to refugees when it made available three homes to families fleeing Afghanistan.

People interested in housing a refugee family can register on the government website:



Meet the couple who will open home to a Ukrainian family

ACCOMMODATING: Eugene and Karen Gardener

 One of the families who signed up to the local authority’s Homes for Ukraine list is Karen and Eugene Gardner, who live in Rusthall.

The couple were among the first to register their interest in helping Ukranians fleeing the Russian invasion.

“We have a history of helping people here in Rusthall,” Karen told the Times, referring to the World War II Kindertransport that brought Jewish child refugees to the village during WWII.

“It’s also in my culture. My parents used to host exchange students, and one of them was a Ukrainian,” added Karen.

“After hosting students, they always went to the student’s home later, and so my parents went out there to Ukraine to visit,” added Karen, recalling her childhood in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA.

Karen was also an actor in last summer’s Rusthall community play ‘Happy Highways’, in which she had the line: “In the midst of a financial depression, facing an imminent war, Rusthall responded to our plight with selfless generosity by looking after 60 desperately lonely and terrified children.

“I delivered these lines over many performances – during the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan,” she said. “So you could say I was primed to embody the best principles of Rusthall residents when it came to the time to host refugees. The time then was Afghanistan. The time now is Afghanistan and Ukraine.”

As an art teacher, Karen has also welcomed other refugee children that have been fostered locally into her home studio, where she runs workshops.

Yet she is not underestimating the scale of the new challenge.

The UK government has suggested a minimum commitment of six months from hosts, there will be a language barrier and the Ukrainian refugees might be traumatised.

“We also have to be happy to fold someone else’s life into ours,” she admitted.

“The other person could be a mother with a couple of children. But we’ve got such a great community here for someone who might be waiting to make an alternative life for themselves while they are waiting to see what happens.

“We are getting our guest room ready and freshened up. If there’s enough time, we may even repaint.”

Rusthall’s response to the current crisis is being co-ordinated through the ‘Rusthall Stands with Ukraine’ Facebook page, which has details of fundraising events.

By Victoria Roberts


… and the two Rusthall women easing refugees’ strain

HELP: Hannah (left) and Valentina

Aid charity RefugEase has gone to the refugee front line to help and is now helping to evacuate civilians out of Ukraine, after helping with supplying aid to refugees at the border.

Set up in Rusthall by Valentina Osborn and Hannah Jacobson in 2015, following the Syrian refugee crisis, the charity now has a team of volunteers and trustees to help.

Instead of sending items from the UK to support refugees, the group sets up the local aid purchases where they buy products locally for refugees fleeing Ukraine depending on their need.

“We buy what is needed every day and try as much as possible to go to local small retailers, but it can be hard to get everything you need from local shops,” Valentina told the Times last week after returning from the Ukraine-Hungary border.

“Sometimes we do have to go to [the equivalent of] Tesco, but we like to support local retailers as close to the action as possible.”

Volunteers from RefugEase are now also shuttling refugees from the border – identified as a ‘bottleneck’ for refugees.

“Ukrainians can enter Hungary – a member of the EU since 2004 – without a visa for 90 days, which makes the crossing possible,” explained Valentina.

RefugEase is one of the few NGOs working in Hungary and is working at the border town of Tiszabecs.

“Starting from Monday, they will take 20 to 40 a day,” said Valentina. “Volunteers at the moment are all from the Tunbridge Wells area, although once the support dies down, we will get someone locally, in Hungary, to take care of it.”

The charity has an open call for volunteer drivers in Hungary, who can offer a week or more. Only a normal driving licence is needed and volunteers can email:


It was essential to make sure the aid arrangements were on a ‘sustainable’ footing, she said, acknowledging that ‘support dies down.’

RefugEase now plans to reopen a local charity shop on a pop-up basis in the near future.

Aid parcels can be purchased at:



Organisations can offer corporate sponsorship by emailing:



 For more on how to help refugees in the Ukraine crisis, see MP Greg Clark’s column in this week’s paper.



Main illustration: © Olesia Chikova/dreamstime.com



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