In the courtyard of one student accommodation village in Cork, the grass is battered and trampled to a crisp. Not by tank tracks or any kind of war machine that plagues Ukraine today, but by children.
There is no war at the student village, and the distant shelling of their homes seems light years away, as children race about on bikes and little tractors and kick footballs on the grass — or what is left of it after some serious playtime was had this summer.
Parents sit on steps watching their children enjoy the summer weather. They have come a long way to find this small community on the Carrigrohane Rd, just west of the city centre. And though mothers can be seen beaming with joy as their children live free, there is worry behind the smiles.
On August 21, the student village, which has been rented by the Government for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion of their homeland, must be cleared out for students to begin the college term. The contracts have long been signed and must be fulfilled.
More than 4,200 refugees who fled the war in Ukraine are housed in student accommodation around the country and must be rehoused in the coming weeks.
After fleeing their homes and meandering across Europe in the hope of finding temporary homes, the families found shelter in Ireland. Many spent weeks between Dublin Airport and Citywest, Co Dublin, as well as other hotels and B&Bs, before finding this small slice of paradise in Cork.
However, they once again face uncertainty.
They will be matched up with Irish families who have pledged to take in Ukrainians fleeing war, if both parties agree. But for those with large families, it's more difficult to find them a home that will take them. Amid delays in the Garda vetting system, it’s a race to get as many families housed as possible in the coming weeks, as those left behind will likely be bound for emergency accommodation.
Liam O’Dwyer, secretary general at the Irish Red Cross, warned that the accommodation situation is in a “grave crisis” and there will be a “significant problem” if the number of refugees arriving in Ireland continues to increase.
The Red Cross is now urging families who pledged to take in refugees to complete their Garda vetting to speed up the matching process and is encouraging others to come forward and accept Ukrainians into their homes. As an incentive, the Government is paying €400 per month for every property that hosts Ukrainians “in recognition of this contribution to the effort”.
More than 3,000 vacant houses and 6,800 shared houses have been pledged by the public to house Ukrainians; however, around 35% of these have been filled so far.
More than 6,000 Ukrainians currently work in Ireland, and all receive EU benefits and protections as they are under the temporary protection directive activated by the EU earlier this year. More than 7,000 children are also enrolled in schools across the country.
“Busloads came from all across Ireland at the end of May and start of June,” says Gavin O’Driscoll, who is part of the team managing the student village, which his father and uncle own.
He says Blarney GAA donated clothes, toys, bikes, and cots for the families when they arrived at the student village. After they dispersed the donated goods, he asked each family what they needed and then went back to Blarney GAA which had everything within a week.
Cork educational board has also worked with the YMCA to organise activities for the children, such as digital workshops, art and music classes, and boat trips, creating a community feel for families who have lost everything.
As we approach six months since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the stories of mothers and their children who have travelled so far are all too familiar. More than 12m have left their homes and 5m have left for other countries such as Ireland.
“It’s like life stopped on February 24,” said Yuliia Maltseva, who left Sumy with a two-month-old baby after bomb shrapnel damaged her home. Her husband, who is a surgeon, stayed behind like most men between the ages of 18 and 60. After driving a van through Europe with her sister and their two young children, she arrived in Ireland on St Patrick’s Day.
Many are worried about where they will go on August 21 and say that they need time to organise jobs and childcare before the move. But as the date fast approaches, they grow weary of being resettled outside of Cork and starting again.
“We just want to be a useful part of society, get jobs, pay taxes, open businesses, and get childcare,” she says.
A Russian missile hit Liudmyla Anzubor’s home in Kharkiv, leaving her nowhere to return. She stayed in the eastern city for two weeks while enemy soldiers fought on streets in her neighbourhood, before making a break for it with her family. After some time in Romania, amid difficulties in obtaining a job and childcare, she came to Ireland. An accountant, she hopes to continue her English classes and get a job in Cork soon.
Polina Movchan left Kyiv the day after the invasion began. She travelled west to Lviv while two months’ pregnant and waited in lines for 18 hours to get out of the country. After living in Poland for a short time, she came to Ireland at the end of April, spending time in Citywest and in a house with 10 people while sleeping on the floor. She then spent time near Kanturk, Co Cork, before moving to the student village.
Since leaving Kyiv, Polina’s life has been plagued with uncertainties, and she worries about moving to rural Ireland where she might not get to a hospital in time for the birth of her first child.
“We are very worried and anxious,” says Yuliia Kudinova.
“Most of us have children, and children have to go to school. We have to plan where to go, what uniform to buy, what to do next. It’s very important to stay in the city to find a proper school and job.”
She contacted the Taoiseach, ministers Simon Coveney and Roderic O’Gorman, and the Ukrainian Embassy, but none could give them clarity on where and when they would move.
“The members of the group lack the basic English language skills to manage their affairs were they to be moved out of the accommodation, presumably to some distant, rural location, where transport will be a much greater issue than it is compared to living in a city, and where food shopping, access to medical facilities, etc, for mothers and our children will be much more difficult than it is now,” she says.
She said families have already made arrangements to send their children to schools in Cork City and “as mothers, we are desperate” to ensure after two years of pandemic-related interruptions that their education goes ahead as soon as possible.
“If we are obliged to leave our accommodation in late August, literally days before the schools are due to return, it is impossible to imagine that, in the short time available, similar preparations could be put in place to assist them in schools elsewhere,” she says.
Many who have already obtained jobs would not be able to maintain them if moved out of the city, she says.
Viktoria Tymoshchuk says they need a permanent address in order to hold down jobs and keep their children’s lives structured.
“Staying with families won’t solve the problem,” she says.
“People should know that there isn’t enough space for Ukrainians, close the border if they can’t accommodate us.”
She said the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is collecting information about each family to pair them with pledges made by families to the Red Cross, is not asking Ukrainians what they want and where they would like to be. IOM said that it undertakes “a detailed vulnerability and needs assessment on every family/individual that we match and transfer”. It said it offers suitable pledges for Ukrainian families to consider.
As the clock ticks down, when will these families learn of their next destination? A spokesperson for IOM said it has contacted pledgers to “ascertain their availability to support this cohort” and based on their availabilities and criteria will be matching families from the student village “before the deadline” but could not give a firm date to the families.
“Notice will be provided to those impacted on where they are moving to when this is known,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.
The Department would not comment on individual cases, but said it is “not possible to provide accommodation in response to individual requests for specific locations”.
The spokesperson said it is “challenging” trying to source accommodation as many continue to arrive.
The State is providing accommodation for 33,000 people who have fled to Ireland, the vast majority in hotels. More than 3,000 have entered pledged accommodation with Irish families.
The Government has also approved the construction of 500 modular units to house up to 2,000 Ukrainians in locations in Kildare, Dublin, Cork, Cavan, and Tipperary, with a hope to be ready for November. Tented emergency accommodation is also set to expand further at a Defence Forces site in Gormanston, Co Meath, a type of accommodation many Ukrainians in the student village in Cork fear returning to.
“It’s going to be a difficult day when they all move out,” says Mr O’Driscoll.
“We know all of them and have a very strong personal relationship with each family. We would love to keep them but have to honour the contracts with students. I think it’s just now we see how much they appreciated it all because they all really don’t want to leave.”
A brief sanctuary during their time in Ireland, this place is their closest thing to home, for now. Mothers watch on at the student village as their children play in the sunshine. Goals are scored, hair is braided, and little ones take their first steps, unaware of the stress their mothers endure as they fight for their futures — whatever may come of it.
- For information on hosting Ukrainians in your home, visit helpingirishhosts.com