People who have settled in Scotland after fleeing the war against Ukraine are using their skills and experience to suggest how refugee communities can be better supported.

The Ukrainian Collective is made up of more than 30 volunteers living across Scotland, from the Highlands to the Borders. Before their lives were turned upside down by the Russian invasion, group members worked as lawyers, accountants, teachers, business owners and artists. Now they are drawing on their professional expertise and personal experiences of seeking safety to advocate on behalf of fellow Ukrainians.

The Collective is split into three working groups, each representing a key challenge for refugees in Scotland: language and culture, housing, and employment. They discuss the difficulties faced by their communities and come up with potential solutions to these problems. Their recommendations are now being shared with the Scottish Government, local authorities and other relevant bodies supporting the resettlement of Ukrainians in Scotland.

We caught up with Oleksandra Novatska, Chair of the Language and Culture Group; Anna Kulish, Chair of the Housing Group; and Alexandr Chernykh, Chair of the Employment Group to find out more about their work and what they hope it will achieve.

Why did you volunteer to be part of the Ukrainian Collective?

Oleksandra: I want to feel that I am being useful to people. I was very active in social and public life in Ukraine. I worked closely with the city council on culture and art projects and outdoor events to involve citizens, attract tourists and bring a new vision of our city.

Alexandr: As a lawyer, I have an understanding of employment law. I wanted to use my management and legal experience to find some solutions for Ukrainians who are having difficulties in the job market.

Anna: I am also a lawyer, in real estate and construction. I wanted to use my expertise and my experience as a recipient of housing services when arriving in Scotland to help represent the views of the Ukrainian community. I like working with other people to come up with ideas and look for ways to improve life.

What does your role as a group chair involve?

Oleksandra: As chair, I’m on the top of a big pyramid of Ukrainians. Lots of highly educated and highly skilled people with a huge background of experience who were leaders in business and culture or played a big part in their community. These skills can really be a benefit here in Scotland.

I try to pull all this experience together and deliver it in the right way so we can help other Ukrainians. We think as a group how to improve and bring better services in the area of language and culture. People who are using these services know best what is needed, so we ask for input from the wider community. We then deliver these ideas and solutions to charities, the Scottish Government, and COSLA.

Anna: My role as chair is to make sure that our lived experience is shared and our voices are heard. I’m trying to foster an environment where everybody can speak up. I wrap together this information and put it in a more strategic narrative. This is where my skills and experience as a lawyer come up.

Alexandr: I’m working to collect information from different parts of Scotland about the situation in the job market and the main problems people looking for work in different fields and professions are facing. I look for examples of what works well in other EU countries and what we can implement from this.

I cannot know everything about engineering, sailors, managers, teachers, medics etc. Our members help me to collect this information. We then work together to brainstorm ideas. We are looking from a practical point of view to see if we can find realistic solutions which we can show to the Scottish Government and local authorities.

How important is it for Ukrainians to have a say about services that affect their lives here in Scotland?

Oleksandra: We are bringing our vision, our backgrounds and our experience here in Scotland to this project. It’s very important that we are directly involved and can share our opinions, visions and thoughts about a process that relates to us.

Anna: We are the recipients of these services. We need to have a voice and input in how these services are being provided.

Alexandr: It is very important to involve Ukrainians. We can use our experience and connections from Ukraine and other EU countries to help the Scottish and UK governments with advice and creative solutions.

What is the best thing about this project?

Oleksandra: The idea to be useful to society really drives me. We don’t only want to ask for help. We would like to use our skills, experience and ideas to help the community at the same time.

I had a perfect life in Ukraine. I was successful. Everything changed in a moment. I came here and there were big frustrations. Then I found this Collective and I found my people. People with the same ideas, who want to be useful and be part of society.

Anna: I imagine the Scottish government has never launched a scheme on this scale before. From the beginning, this was a very unique situation – for there to be the full-scale invasion of one EU country and another EU country to host this many people. There are 25,000 Ukrainians in Scotland. It’s very challenging for everybody, not just the Ukrainians arriving.

To be able to help resolve some of those challenges people are facing is the major motivation for members of the Collective. It’s amazing to have an input and represent our community on a strategic level. Every one of us is guided by our willingness to help and our belief that there is nothing for us without us. We are very thankful for the opportunity to raise our voices and use our lived experience to advocate for the interests, not only for the Ukrainian community, but all others in Scotland.

Alexandr: When a government wants to set up communications with a refugee community, that is a good sign.

What have you found most challenging?

Anna: Ukrainian public services operate very differently to British ones. The school system is very different. The higher education system is different. There are very different qualification requirements for professionals in highly skilled roles. A very direct approach, which is very natural in Ukraine, is not very common here. In the context of housing I think those differences trigger breakdowns in communication.

Alexandr: The biggest challenge is the strong and complex requirements for different professions. It is not just about getting a job. Many Ukrainians – 70% – have a job. But they are often finding minimum wage jobs. For teachers, accountants, medics, business owners, there are many barriers. If we look at the situation for Ukrainians in other EU countries, they don’t have such complex requirements. People don’t have to wait such a long time to requalify or start their own business. They can get involved in society faster.

We try to connect with professional bodies in the UK and understand the rules and requirements for different professions. We collect experience from Ukrainians who have finished getting those requirements and have found interesting jobs. Then we share this information with others and make some recommendations.

Oleksandra: It is a very different mentality here in Scotland. We try to learn how the system works so we can act in the correct way. Sometimes we are too direct and expect a response too quick. Every day we learn how to work with different institutions and local authorities to deliver our ideas and proposals. It takes time, but in the end, it works.

What difference would you like the Ukrainian Collective to make?

Alexandr: I hope my group can help in Scotland and provide a realistic way forward. If it feels that the Scottish Government are valuing our contributions and using some of our ideas. If we see our solutions and suggestions appear in government reports, that will be success.

Anna: I never expected the full-scale invasion to last so long. To still be in foreign country doubting whether it’s safe to go home. Wondering whether I need to think about a long-term future somewhere else.

We’re now shifting from an emergency response to a long-term response and long-term solutions. The Collective is covering this shift. It is a great blessing for us to have some input and for the Scottish Government to welcome a collaborative approach between two nationalities as we look to the future.

This project is a bridge to integration. If it is necessary for the Ukrainian community to settle in Scotland for the long-term, we need to be involved in looking to the future. We have a lot of resources that Scotland can benefit from and we are grateful for the opportunity to share those resources.

Oleksandra: People in Scotland have helped me so much and I would like to give something back. I don’t just want to be part of society here. I want to help build a better society where all people can work, study, volunteer and use their skills to benefit others. When we feel part of society, we can make it better for everyone.

The Ukrainian Collective are presenting their ideas and recommendations to the Scottish Government and other bodies supporting refugee integration. We hope this valuable input from people with lived experience will help to inform, influence and improve support for people seeking safety.

Read more about how we’re supporting people who have settled in Scotland after fleeing the war against Ukraine

Rachel Lamb
Author: Rachel Lamb