Since 24th February, over two thirds of Ukrainian children have been internally displaced or compelled to seek refuge abroad. The scale of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Eastern Europe is overwhelming and it is easy for all of us to feel frustratingly powerless. Graphic and heartbreaking scenes of disintegrating lives inevitably lead us to despair for the future of humanity. No sentient human being can be impervious to such images. However, in the midst of such a catastrophe, we have witnessed a level of kindness and generosity that gives shape to the enduring hope that compassion will always overcome hatred.
In such situations our capacity to provide support and relief is always limited by factors that appear well beyond our control. The Talmud (book of Jewish religious law) points out that ‘He who saves one life saves the world entire’. Whether or not one believes this to be the case, here at Rossall we believe that it is for individuals and communities to focus positively upon what is achievable rather than simply lamenting that which is beyond our control.
Very quickly, it became clear that our children felt moved to respond to the unfolding crisis in any way possible. Ongoing charitable initiatives organised by our children have raised considerable sums of money for charities working on the ground in eastern Poland and Ukraine. Within the first few weeks of war, a couple of van loads of toys, clothes and sanitary products etc. were donated by Rossall families.
Regular evening vigils were held in the Chapel as we understood the need for members of our community to come together to pray for peace and demonstrate support for our Ukrainian children whose families are directly impacted by the war. To begin with, we worried that events in Ukraine might have caused tensions within our community. By focusing upon humanitarian initiatives and emphasising the ‘togetherness’ which comes with being much valued members of a boarding community, the bonds of friendship between Russian and Ukrainian children have proved incredibly strong. That, in itself, should provide us with a good deal of hope for the future. From the very outset, our Russian and Ukrainian children have met with us regularly – both collectively and individually. Within an environment which is non-judgemental and fundamentally safe, we acknowledge the inevitable fear, pain and anger that our children feel. As the weeks have passed, we have withdrawn from these conversations and our children have demonstrated an incredible maturity as they have learned to live within an entirely new context.
There is much debate in the public sphere about the charitable status of independent schools. Invariably, politically charged rhetoric seeks to diminish the value of the public benefit contributed by the sector. It is the case that there is a thinly-veiled suspicion that our charitable endeavours are little more than a cynical ploy to off-set such criticism. This is unfair but I do believe that, as a sector, there are many occasions when we could and should work more closely. Collectively, we need to adopt a more coherent and ambitious approach to situations such as this. I would argue that the current crisis in Ukraine demands a radical response. Surely, future generations will not forgive us for ignoring this situation or responding in any way which might be considered half-hearted or tokenistic. It requires a bold response – one which stretches the charitable sinews of all independent schools.
In early March, my wife and I signed up for the ‘Homes from Ukraine’ scheme and asked the School Foundation to launch an appeal that would enable us to support a good number of additional Ukrainian children. The response to the Foundation’s appeal has been incredibly encouraging and the generosity of our alumni has enabled us to offer places to no less than nine children who have recently fled Ukraine.
As our commitment to supporting Ukrainians has become more widely known, we have been flooded by requests for help. By default, we fast became a hub around which requests for housing and education have tended to gravitate. Inevitably, it has not been possible to support all those who have approached us but we have liaised with external agencies and local community groups to ensure that such requests do not go unanswered.
We do now have a family from Karkhiv living on site in a house that has been entirely renovated and furnished by members of our community. The publicity that this project generated will hopefully encourage other schools and community groups to come together to provide the sort of level of support that families fleeing war zones so desperately need. The ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme is reliant upon the generosity of individuals but, in reality, independent schools are uniquely positioned to offer the sort of holistic support that families need.
On Monday, we hosted a community event for local Ukrainians and their sponsor families. Over sixty people turned up to this informal gathering and it was the most extraordinary privilege to meet so many wonderful people. I do not think I have ever been in a room overflowing with such compassion and kindness. The strength of those who have come to live here on the Fylde Coast is quite extraordinary. One immaculately attired lady of seventy eight years of age turned up alongside her daughter. It is unfathomable to imagine the pain of leaving one’s country in such terrible circumstances. After all, she was born during the Second World War and, at a time when she should be enjoying life with family and friends, she has been uprooted.
It is worth reflecting upon the fact that some of the children who are joining Rossall School have suffered immense trauma. At least two of our children have been caught up in a missile strike that resulted in multiple fatalities. The sound of aircraft circling overhead brings back memories of the moments before the strike. The sensation of the wind blowing in from the sea is unsettling for our youngest Ukrainian who is just three years old. The sensation reminds him of the blast that blew him and his mother off their feet. Some of our children have been witness to events that will remain with them for a lifetime. They have not fled the risk of war – those coming from eastern Ukraine have fled the most intense aerial bombardment in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
There are various strands to our Ukrainian Project and it has required a huge investment of goodwill, emotional energy and time. We are proud that we have:
- Housed a family on the School site
- Established a community hub for Ukrainians and sponsor families on the Fylde
- Offered a number of places to Ukrainian children. (This has only been made possible by the generosity of alumni).
- Collected two vans full of items that were dispatched to Poland at the end of March
- Committed to a programme of extensive fundraising that includes a number of charity concerts and events.
- Held regular peace vigils within our Chapel.
There is so much more for us to do. This Sunday, we will celebrate Orthodox Easter with our nascent Ukrainian community. Furthermore, we will work with those who are eager to establish a small Ukrainian Saturday school here at Rossall.
The scope of this project, which continues to develop, has given expression to the most extraordinary spirit of generosity that has always existed within the School and our local community.
Our Ukrainian friends have lost so much and are burdened daily by the anxiety caused by loss and separation. I know that we cannot begin to imagine just how dreadful things have been for those who, up until a few months ago, were living lives filled with the normal hopes and dreams that are so recognisable to ourselves.
I hope that, in time, this community will be able to look back on this period with a sense of pride. Moreover, I hope that we have provided some small degree of comfort to those whose lives have been utterly devastated by conflict. The personal and the professional often merge within the context of an independent boarding school. When they do, one often sees the truest expression of community.
Headmaster of Rossall School