How a Czech woman is helping Ukrainian refugees in Prague get to Britain
Prague’s reception capacity for refugees quickly filled up after the Russian attack on Ukraine, and in mid-June the center for Ukrainian refugees in the capital closed its doors. Although it reopened in July, capacity issues have not gone away.
Neela Winkelmann, a Czech woman living in Prague, decided to do something and, in cooperation with the city authorities, she set up the British Housing Agency for Ukrainian Refugees. The agency helps those fleeing war to get to the UK by matching Ukrainian refugees in Prague with British hosts through the UK government’s Homes for Ukraine visa programme. The sponsorship program offers a 3-year visa which includes a work permit, health care, social support, free access to education for children and a welcome payment of GBP 200 on arrival.
I spoke to Neela recently and asked her what was the catalyst for her idea.
“It all started when I managed to find, through friends in Britain, a house in London with a garden for a refugee family that I picked up from the main train station in Prague and that I stayed with me for a week. Initially, they wanted to go to Canada, but Canada had not yet opened its visa program. So, after asking the Canadian Embassy in vain, we then understood that Great Britain was opening its visa program for Ukrainian refugees at the same time. I helped them get to Britain and then realized maybe we could do this for more people, especially since Prague was overrun with refugees.
“The timing was good because Prague was really reaching its capacity – I was really sorry to see that in mid-June the city had stopped accepting refugees, and they dismantled the reception center for refugees at the main station where I had helped two months before. . So that was kind of sad for me – I was upset about that. But Prague can’t be blamed, the city was really full.
“I actually started by picking up my courage and going to help at the main train station for a few nights in a row to help people get off the night trains from Warsaw and Košice. It was so emotional that I didn’t couldn’t sleep after that. And on the third night I brought this family home. And I know that Prague did their best – there was so much help offered at the main station, all the organizations that started helping and finding ways to do things. So I thought, ‘OK, I know a way to help.’
“We need to keep moving these people further west – also for geopolitical reasons it is important that we share the burden in Europe. We cannot let the former communist countries be overwhelmed by the refugee crisis because there are old feelings, there are still old communist structures, pro-Russian structures, and that would only help them if there was a crisis or if there was too much pressure on the population – it would only help people who support Putin.”
And what were the next steps?
“I wrote up a draft and started looking for who would be interested, so I spoke to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I spoke to the city of Prague, and the city of Prague was very quick to respond They gave me the OK, they gave me the budget and an office and computers and phones, and I was able to hire two Ukrainian refugee women with English, and we’ve been working since the second fortnight. april.
And how does it work – does the city of Prague refer refugees who want to go to the UK to you, or do the refugees contact you directly?
“They contact us directly. We advertise on the website of the city of Prague, we have a Facebook page, we have leaflets which we distributed at the main train station, at the registration center for refugees, there is now a Ukrainian center for young people, there is a self-service -help center for Ukrainians on Wenceslas Square, there is the Embassy of Ukraine – so everyone got a pile of our leaflets and from there, we haven’t had to advertise anymore, it’s just word of mouth, and we have more refugees than we can handle.
“The current situation is that we have a lot of refugees and very few hosts available. We spend a lot of our working hours looking for hosts in different ways. If anyone in Britain is reading this and would like to host Ukrainian refugees with a full service from the premises of the Municipality of Prague, please contact us – we would really appreciate more UK sponsors.