War, forced migration and the health of Ukrainian refugees in Kent

As Refugee Week approaches, Dr Olena Nizalova, Senior Lecturer at the University of Kent, shares her perspectives – as both a Canterbury for Ukraine (C4U) trustee and a scholar in Health Economics – on the war in Ukraine and the recent C4U Community Forum.

This year’s Refugee Week theme is ‘compassion’, and with this in mind Olena writes:

I have been all too aware of the consequences of the escalation of the war in Ukraine (which began on 24 February 2022) on the individual physical health and emotional well-being of those who continued to live (or rather survive) under fire, and those who fled for safety to other (presumably safer) regions of the country or found refuge abroad.

My knowledge came from my own scholarly work, a broader understanding of the effects of war, as well as my everyday work with refugees –from providing support with the evacuation from regions under attack, to those who were en route to England and those who had arrived to Canterbury under the Homes for Ukraine scheme throughout the previous year.

Compassion for refugees

My understanding of the NHS system has helped to signpost Ukrainian refugees to health services. We have supported registrations with GPs, chaperoned people’s first appointments, or translated their medical records. Through this experience I’ve gained a broad understanding of the health needs of the community, which has been enhanced by the discussions of growing needs documented by other C4U volunteers and through a number of engagement activities with the Ukrainian refugees.

Canterbury for Ukraine Community Forum

Having a fellow C4U trustee with a health research background, Dr Annette King, Director of Research Development, Canterbury Christ Church University, and a network of amazing colleagues from the Centre for Health Services Studies (CHSS) (Professor Sally Kendall, Professor Lindsay Forbes, Dr Rebecca Cassidy), and from the Association of Family Therapists (Julie Reilly), meant that I had an exceptional group to collaborate with. Having such a powerful group of people meant that each meeting was productive and inspiring, leading to the final concept of an inclusive and focused Community Forum. This Forum had the aim of delivering tangible outcomes, leading to a lasting impact on Ukrainian refugees in the Canterbury district and beyond.

However, the actual implementation of the idea would not have been possible without the funding that C4U obtained through the Migration and Movement Signature Research Theme at the University of Kent, endorsement by the Canterbury City Council, and day-to-day organisational support from the ARC KSS Research Coordinator, Louise Law.

We invited a diverse group of people to the C4U Community Forum, including academics, healthcare professionals and Ukrainian community members.

On 18 May (which happened to be a Ukrainian Vyshyvanka’s – Embroided Shirt Day, captured in the photos) we had 36 participants:6 academics, 13 Ukrainians, and 17 professionals. Among the latter 11 people were from the NHS, the newly re-elected CCC Councillor and C4U Trustee Cllr Connie Nolan, Dr Kate Langford (Chief Medical Officer from the Kent and Medway Integrated Care Board (ICB), Sarah Deakin (Public Health Specialist at KCC), Michelle Simmonds (Housing Services Manager at the CCC) and Teresa Smith (Canterbury Children’s Health Visiting Team).

To explore the health and care priorities of the Ukrainian community we invited organisations that play an important role in either commissioning, provision, or enabling access to healthcare services and considered three topics: primary care, emotional wellbeing and maternal and child health. A fourth topic on oral health was due to be included, but it was agreed to be considered another time due to its huge impact on Ukrainian and other refugee groups.

Guests were enthusiastic and well-engaged during the event, forming five diverse working groups who were involved with various tasks during the two one-hour sessions. Dr Kate Langford, Chief Medical Officer from the Kent and Medway ICB and CCC Cllr Connie Nolan explained how vital these forums were in ensuring community engagement in developing solutions to healthcare-related issues and providing a network of support and services available to connect people and organisations.

Feedback has been very positive with many people commenting how fruitful the forum was. New contacts were made, including the Children’s Health Visiting Team from Canterbury, and we had the Children and Young People’s Counselling Service (CYPCS) wanting to reach out to the Ukrainian support group to offer an informational session on the services they run.

One of the Ukrainian Community representatives, Maryna Poltavska, said: “I’d like to thank the organisers of the Canterbury for Ukraine Community Forum for inviting me to speak and share my experience. The event was truly insightful. And I am beyond grateful to all the distinguished professors, council representatives, and NHS professionals for showing care and support to the Ukrainian community and for finding the time and resources to listen to us and make a change, even though the UK has been helping the Ukrainians immensely! This is truly invaluable, thank you!”

If you have any questions about the C4U activities, please contact us at canterbury.for.ukraine@gmail.com or attend our C4U Welcome Hub held every Monday, 13.00 –15:00 at the Canterbury Umbrella Centre. Otherwise, stay tuned by following the C4U Facebook page.