Interview: How I welcomed refugees – “Schools should be on the frontline of the full integration” – An interview with a teacher of a secondary school in Lisbon who gave asylum to a family of seven Ukrainian refugees. How easy (or difficult) is it to welcome a family of refugees? What can we do to help Ukrainian refugees? This interview adds perspective on the attitude of Europeans towards the Ukraine crisis, and the subsequent refugee crisis.
Is it possible for you to describe your action (the asylum of seven Ukrainian refugees)?
A friend of a friend of a friend knew I had an empty house and I was willing to receive refugees coming from Ukraine. She got in touch with me, sent me Kateryna’s phone number. I called her, and a few days later, I showed her the house and made plans for cleaning, new furniture, internet connection, and so on…
How did you give shelter to them? Did you cooperate with any institutions?
I did not contact any institution (although I already knew about the platform We Help Ukraine and was considering registering as willing to give help). I am now searching for the proper way to register the aid I’m giving just for security purposes (as I think it is important to know where the refugees are being lodged, who is in charge, what help is being provided, and so on).
What was the origin of your action?
The origins of the action are diverse: I had a free house; a friend (of a friend of a friend) knew a family that had just arrived from Ukraine and needed a place to stay; I consider it a moral obligation to help if one has the chance to do it without any relevant cost associated.
What do you think other people can do for Ukrainians?
I think there is a lot that can be done regarding the thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the war, both as individuals (citizens) and as states. As individuals, we can volunteer for help (with shelter, food, medical supplies and other commodities, help in their integration, with legal assistance or training in education, for instance with the Portuguese, etc.), and as states, we should further sanction Russian interests, help during wartime (mainly with humanitarian help) and in the reconstruction of the country as soon as the war is over (hopefully soon).
Schools should be on the frontline of the full integration of these Ukrainians in our country, and I sincerely hope we will rise to the challenge – students, teachers and the government. In September, we must be ready to welcome all children into our school system, if needed with Ukrainian interpreters, and give them the conditions not to lose yet another indispensable feature of their development. Having, for now, lost the chance to grow in peace where they were born, where their relatives and friends live(d) and where their memories still are, it’s important that they don’t lose the possibility to study, to practice their skills, music, sports, or whatever their interests may be, play, make friends, and so on. of these Ukrainians in our country, and I sincerely hope we will rise to the challenge – students, teachers and the government. In September, we must be ready to welcome all children into our school system, if needed with Ukrainian interpreters, and give them the conditions not to lose yet another indispensable feature of their development. Having, for now, lost the chance to grow in peace where they were born, where their relatives and friends live(d) and where their memories still are, it’s important that they don’t lose the possibility to study, to practice their skills, music, sports, or whatever their interests may be, play, make friends, and so on.
Apart from individual help and the legal framework provided by the government (among other initiatives, we should commend the decision of an expeditious “legalization” of these fellow Europeans), I think that some major companies should also have a role to play. For instance, in order to provide my guests with internet service, I am still subject to a 2 year loyalty period (or an initial fee of 400 euros) and I have not seen any package offered by any telecom company that offers any special conditions to people that must be very dependent on good internet access to keep in touch with those they left behind or to guide and adapt themselves to a new country, a new language, different habits, and so on.
I will add a more personal reflection to what I’ve said, which makes me feel quite uncomfortable: I wonder if there is an element of racism in the abysmal difference between our commitment to the Ukrainian refugees and the previous wave of refugees coming from North Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. And my discomfort rests on the assumption that there is no moral or philosophical background that can justify discrimination on the basis of national borders, the colour of skin, or cultural and religious identity. So the issue isn’t so much that we aren’t doing the right thing–we are!–but rather whether we are consistent and courageous enough to foster an attitude of universal hospitality.
Can you describe the contact that you have with the family?
I’ve been keeping regular contact as we’ve been adapting the house (long closed) to a new large family. I’ve also offered my help with legal issues, job opportunities, and learning Portuguese (they are now having daily classes in a Portuguese school between 6 pm and 10 pm). Although I kept regular contact and visits, I also wanted to give them their space and a sense of autonomy and efficiency (so whatever they could do by themselves, and if they preferred to do it themselves, I chose to “withdraw”).
My main criterion has been: were I in their place (hard to imagine…), what would I prefer? And even though slavs can be very different from Latins, they too love their children, thrive for peace and prosperity, value friendship, honesty and justice, etc. (By the way, I’ve often remembered in these weeks the motto from the sixties “Justice, not charity”, which I think we should all keep in mind in the current scenario).
How do you view your action? What do you think about helping a family going through such a difficult time?
I have no special views on my own actions. I just thought it was the right thing to do. I could easily do it. There is nothing else worth mentioning about it. Those who decided to stay and fight, as well as those who decided to flee and face the dangers of the journey, were brave. My choice was, by comparison, very easy.
My main concern has been to make them feel like guests rather than refugees and to make them feel safe – in a foreign country, with hosts they don’t know (yet!) and a language they can’t speak nor understand (yet!). So far, I think I succeeded in making them feel at ease, and I just hope their welcome is a way to find the peace that, for the time being, they are not able to find at home.