News National Australians are welcoming Ukraine refugees into their homes

Australians are welcoming Ukraine refugees into their homes

An emotional Olha Lyeskakova wears the Ukrainian flag as mum Olena, sister Iryna and little Oksana arrive safely in Sydney.Photo: AAP
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A Melbourne family of five is preparing their home for the arrival of strangers fleeing Ukraine.

Edina Pilcher, of Patterson Lakes, has two daughters aged six and four, and a six-month-old baby boy – and felt powerless seeing images of the conflict in Ukraine on the television news.

“We were not really in a position to host but I didn’t care… It doesn’t matter what happens, we’re going to make it work,’ she told AAP.

She put up an online ad, “Professional young family of five welcomes a Ukrainian family with young children,” and was surprised to hear from a family with a 15-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter.

The family had escaped the Donetsk region in the early days of the invasion and has since heard their neighbourhood was destroyed, according to Ms Pilcher.

They are arriving on Sunday to stay in Ms Pilcher’s home, having spent their life savings on flights to Melbourne.

Ms Pilcher, 38, understands more than most what her new guests have been through – having been born in a part of the former USSR, now Romania, she remembers fighting in the streets. She arrived in Australia in 1996 unable to speak English.

Her family is one of hundreds that have offered their homes on the website, which was launched on March 3 by Harvard students Avi Schiffmann and Marco Burstein in response to the conflict.

It could prove to be a lifeline for hundreds of Ukrainians set to arrive in Australia, amid fears support systems set up by local communities could be overwhelmed.

The Ukrainian peak body in Australia has so far received more than 250 requests for accommodation, with the majority expected to arrive within days.

Federal Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s office told AAP more than 4000 visas have been issued to Ukrainians since the Russian incursion began on February 24, and of those visa holders more than 500 people have travelled to Australia.

‘Work behind the scenes’

Kateryna Argyrou, from the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations, told AAP the Ukrainian community had been able to handle all of the accommodation requests so far, but warned the flow of people out of Ukraine has only just begun.

“We are dealing with tens of people at a time now, if it grows to hundreds or thousands then absolutely the community will be overwhelmed,” she said.

“There’s an immense amount of work that’s being done behind the scenes and that will not be sustainable for a long period of time.”

Ukrainian signage is being erected in the international arrivals terminals at Sydney and Melbourne airports with links to support groups.

While accommodation is the main need, according to Ms Argyrou, requests have also come in for food, clothes, mobile phones and help with childcare and schooling.

She said health care was also an issue, as tourist visa holders can’t access Medicare.

A Home Affairs Department spokesperson said immigration authorities had been focused on facilitating travel for people who needed to leave Ukraine urgently, and broad consideration was being given to visas for people once they have arrived in Australia.

The government said humanitarian support options will be considered in conjunction with international organisations, including the UNHCR.