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Members of North Yorkshire parish offer to house Ukrainian refugees

13 May 2022

Robert Opala

Dr Opala and three of the Ukrainian guests on a pilgrimage in north Yorkshire

Dr Opala and three of the Ukrainian guests on a pilgrimage in north Yorkshire

CRATHORNE, in rural north Yorkshire, is a long way from Ukraine. But, in the days following the Russian invasion, the Rector of the Whorlton benefice, of which Crathorne is a part, was determined to do something. The Revd Dr Robert Opala was born in Czestochowa, Poland, and heard from family and friends in Poland how dire the situation was for refugees crossing the border.

Fund-raising at the start of the war had raised almost £4000 for the British Red Cross, but to Dr Opala it was apparent that they could, and should, do more.

Through a partnership with Investing in People and Culture, a Middlesbrough-based refugee charity working in Warsaw Central Station, Dr Opala was able to match people fleeing Ukraine with prospective hosts in the Whorlton benefice (News, 8 April 2022).

Dr Opala asked his parishioners if they would be willing to host. “The generosity was overwhelming,” he said. “Every day I was getting phone calls — offering a home, offering money, to drive people. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.”

They ended up with a list of 25 people who were “very serious” about offering their home. “We had to be very selective,” Dr Opala said.

Feeling that they should be an example, Dr Opala and his wife, Lisa — a hospital chaplain and former member of the Discalced Carmelite Order, and a deacon in the Church of England — offered the vicarage.

“The people in the parishes are amazing — they really surprised me, in a positive way,” Dr Opala said.

But, despite having willing hosts and identified refugees, the difficulty of acquiring visas through the Government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme threatened to derail their efforts.

Dr Opala spent six hours online helping one family to complete the form, and they were among the lucky ones, as they had temporary accommodation in Poland with internet access. He said that many others are simply unable to apply because they are in transit. “It was a huge disappointment that the Government was not willing to help us,” Dr Opala said.

The Government has admitted that there have been issues with processing visas, although a Home Office minister, Kevin Foster, speaking in the House of Commons on 28 April, dismissed as “absolute nonsense” claims that the Government had deliberately withheld visas.

“I lost my hope,” Dr Opala admits. He feared that by keeping refugees in limbo they were exposing them to greater danger, and that they would be better off seeking sanctuary in a European country that was not requiring visas.

“Robert, you are the priest, you shouldn’t lose hope,” Ms Opala told him, before taking matters into her own hands by writing a “dramatic” email to the Home Office. A reply came in two hours, asking them to provide the details of the refugees they wanted to help, and the next day the visas were granted. Two women from the bombarded city of Kharkiv were able to arrive in Yorkshire just before Easter.

Communication has proved an issue for the two, who are Russian speakers, but Dr Opala has tried to make them feel welcome by repeating phrases in the liturgy in Russian and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in their language. A month after arriving, they remain deeply traumatised by the experience of abandoning their home.

Three more women, from a Ukrainian-speaking village in the south of the country, arrived after Easter, travelling from Poland with the Opalas who were in the country to visit family and help Investing in People and Culture’s continued efforts in Warsaw.

Reflecting on the trip last Friday, Dr Opala described it as one of the most emotional experiences of his life. The tent set up to provide meals for arriving refugees was eerily quiet, “like a church”, despite it being full of young children and infants. A wounded man who had spent three days without food collapsed while he was talking to him.

He described seeing a refugee family arrive: mother, grandmother, and five children under seven. On the back of little girl’s coat was in big black letters her address. “We approached them and gave them some money. They really looked hungry.”

Among the refugees he met were Olena and Sam, doctors who had been working in Kherson. “They escaped in the very last moment,” Dr Opala said. He has found a host for them in Yorkshire, but they are still waiting for their visas. Recent emails to the Home Office have not proved as successful as the first.

None the less, he will persist. “The Ukrainians have brought a new spirit into our parishes. There’s a very different dynamic. There is a danger that we become a sort of ‘religious machine’, not thinking about what we’re doing. But this situation has given me new life.”

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