The year hundreds of Ukrainian refugees came to Utrecht

The lives of millions of people have been turned upside down since February 24. On that day, Russia attacked neighboring Ukraine. The beginning of a catastrophic war. The consequences are still felt worldwide every day. For residents of Ukraine, the nightmare began that day. A massive flow of refugees started and also reached Utrecht. Many hundreds of refugees arrived in our city by bus, car and public transport. Emergency shelters were opened and assistance was provided from the local community. For many Ukrainian refugees, Utrecht became their new home.

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Anne woke up on February 24 as if nothing had happened. As usual, she had switched off her phone during the night. Her three-year-old son was already eager to make it a nice day. But when Anne from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv turned on her phone, she saw hundreds of messages coming in.

She immediately received a call from a friend. The war had begun. Her carefree life quickly turned into a fight for survival. “The first day was very much still a blur, nobody knew exactly what was going on or what we were supposed to do. It was chaos. I decided to go shopping, but all the shops were closed except for one, where there was an incredibly long queue. “

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After the first day passed, more and more planes flew overhead, the air raid siren went off constantly, and the bombing began. Kharkiv is only about 30 kilometers from the Russian border, and the invasion force had already crossed the border on the first day to advance on the city.

“The situation quickly got worse, the fear grew. We slept on the floor. At least my son slept and I stayed awake. I protected him with blankets from any explosions. It was completely dark, we were not allowed to have any lights on. At that moment I just thought; If we die, at least we go together. I was just worried about him.”

‘We arrived there in the great hall and didn’t know what to do’

After three hellish nights, when the bombardments sounded closer and closer, Anne decided to escape. “I brought a set of clothes and a toy. We had to leave everything else behind.” Together with her mother and son, she went to the train station where the long flight started, ending in Utrecht.

They traveled by taxi, train and bus through Ukraine, Hungary, Poland and Germany before ending up in the Netherlands. It is pure coincidence that she ended up here. Utrecht was the final destination of one of the many buses that brought refugees from Poland to numerous places in Europe.

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Refugees from Ukraine arrive in Poland, from where they travel on.

On March 11, she arrived at the Jaarbeurs in Utrecht, where the emergency shelter for refugees had just opened the day before. Three hundred field beds in a row. That was all it was. At the time, Utrecht municipality was very busy setting up an organization to steer the arrival of refugees in the right direction.

Anne: “It was extremely stressful. We arrived there in the great hall and didn’t know what to do. But what I remember very well was the very warm welcome I received. There were people everywhere who wanted to help us.”

After a short time, she was driven to a hotel, where she lived for the first months. “I knew straight away that I wanted to help and give something back. I decided to go to the Jaarbeurs to say that I can translate well as I am also fluent in English.”

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On 9 March 2022, the construction of the reception center in Jaarbeurs was in full swing

In the first few weeks, a few hundred refugees arrive in Utrecht. There is a lot of empathy and help from society. Hotels are made available as reception points, and the municipality is renovating a number of buildings as emergency reception points. Shelter is being prepared on boats and vacant buildings.

At the end of March, some involved Utrecht residents also decided to open a ‘living room’ for Ukrainians, which was the starting point of the Vital’nya foundation. Refugees gather here every day. Mainly women and children.

Over the months, the living room has grown into a place where language lessons are given, aids are distributed, social gatherings are organized and psychological help is offered.

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Refugees and volunteers in the Vital’nya Foundation’s living room

Anne gets involved at the beginning of April and is now one of the driving forces behind the initiative. Although she speaks passionately about all the positive things happening in the ‘living room’ and help from the city and the residents of Utrecht, she also emphasizes that many refugees are traumatized.

“Me too, of course. We’re trying to get on with our lives here as best we can, but slowly our thoughts drift back to the situation in Ukraine. It’s our country and I love Ukraine. It’s terrible what’s happening there. Fortunately, we get a lot of mental support here from each other and from professionals.” Anne still has a lot of contact with people who stayed behind.She also knows that there is little left of her house.

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The number of refugees who came to Utrecht was the largest at the beginning of the war. In the summer, the number fell again. Now that winter has started, people are coming to Utrecht again, says Anne.

“There are also people who stayed in Utrecht for a while and then moved on. Sometimes people also go back to Ukraine. It is primarily the elderly who find it very difficult to settle here.” According to official data, there are now more than 1,450 Ukrainian refugees in Utrecht, but that number is not complete. Registration is not necessary.

Anne also tries to make plans for the future. She is currently staying at a shelter with her son and mother. “Of course I would love to return to Ukraine one day, but I want the best future for my son. Kharkov has been largely destroyed. There are no schools. It is very unsafe. My son now goes to school here and speaks cautiously some Dutch words. I mainly want to rest for him in the coming period and I want to give something back to Utrecht. It’s a beautiful city that I’ve really come to see as my home.”

How education in Utrecht had to scale up enormously due to the arrival of hundreds of extra refugee children

Anne’s son was also welcomed to school in Utrecht this year, because like all children, refugee children also have to go to school in the Netherlands. The arrival of hundreds of extra students during the year put great pressure on all educational institutions. Earlier this year, DUIC visited 8-year-old Mischa, who had just started her first week at school in Utrecht. Six weeks earlier, he was still in class with his friends in Kiev. He started at Taalschool in March, this is a special school for newcomers to the Netherlands, where, in addition to intensive language teaching, other subjects are also given.

At the language school, children up to the age of 12 from more than 60 countries are taught for around 1 to 2 years before moving on to regular education. Older Ukrainian students, teenagers, this year could go to Shkola, which is part of the educational institution Ithaka.

When the arrival of the many Ukrainian refugee children arrived earlier this year, the school boards in Utrecht put their heads together to provide a soft landing for the new children. It went through the Language School, Shkola, but also general education.

Fawzia Nasrullah is chairman of the PCOU, an umbrella organization for several dozen schools in Utrecht, which also includes the Language School. “When the war in Ukraine started, we quickly got the first signals that there would be a flow of refugees, with refugees also coming to Utrecht. Of course, all children who come to Utrecht must also have regular education.”

In our city, around 130 schools and the relevant school boards work together through the Utrecht PO Partnership. A crisis team was set up to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

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Mischa started at the Language School in Utrecht in March

“Everyone knows that there is already a huge shortage of teachers, so it is a big challenge to get all the extra children. We had to scale up very quickly with dozens of additional staff and additional classrooms.” Ukrainian children may also have to deal with trauma, so extra guidance is needed.

“They offer guidance at special schools, but also through regular education.” What made the situation more difficult was that no one knew exactly how many refugees would come and how long they would stay in Utrecht. “Most of it is still here.”

Looking back on last year, Nasrullah is proud of how Utrecht and all the schools have taken up the gauntlet together. “At times I have been seriously concerned about the enormous pressure on all employees, it has been a very difficult period. There is already a great lack of education. Fortunately, our approach in Utrecht, where we all work together, works well.” It is important for Nasrullah to emphasize that education in Utrecht welcomes all refugees, because of course it is not only people fleeing from Ukraine. “We want equal opportunities for everyone.”

This is how councilor Rachel Streefland looks back on the arrival of Ukrainian refugees

“When Russia invaded Ukraine early in the morning of February 24, 2022, many Ukrainians quickly left their country to escape the war. Soon after, I was in Paris as chairman of the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum, which dealt with homelessness, and I spoke there with ministers from Poland and Romania, among others. They insisted on the flows of displaced people who had already fled in the first 24 hours. I immediately called the social crisis center manager in the municipality about how we could also offer shelter to the refugees in Utrecht, because we saw that they would soon reach the Netherlands. And we have to go to work. The city council quickly called for a search for reception places.

“First, the diaconia started looking for and screening host families to offer families, often mothers with children, a first home. In the meantime, we also started to arrange more reception places, where one of the first actions was: calling hotels to ask if there were spaces available for the first reception. At the same time, we started to set up a crisis organization together with the Utrecht Security Region (VRU) to open the Jaarbeurs. The refugees arrived in large numbers by train to the Netherlands and disembarked at Utrecht Central Station. The team with the municipalities and VRU provided first aid, food and shelter. The Salvation Army, the Intermediate Center and Lister quickly stepped in to help us with social management if municipal shelters were to be realized. Refugee Work were also immediately available to use their knowledge and experience and share it with us.

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Workers are busy converting the former Holland Casino building into a shelter.

“Many Utrecht residents immediately stood up, offered help, wanted to make a contribution. Volunteers and municipal officials volunteered to help in the Jaarbeurs. The refugees arrived there with only the clothes they were wearing, clothes came quickly from the city to the Jaarbeurs and it was more than welcome. We quickly managed to organize the registration, the first medical aid, the matching with host families and the food together with the VRU and the Refugee Council.

“From the first phase you will then build a more sustainable organization. Also because it was clear that the war would unfortunately continue. Now there is the ‘reception and support program for refugees’. All kinds of employees from the municipal organization are gathered here in order to ensure that both the reception and support of Ukrainians goes smoothly. Such as colleagues from Asylum and Integration, Care, Education, Work and Income and the Utrecht Real Estate Organisation.”

The graphs below are from the municipality of Utrecht.


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