Within a few weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine over 6,000 refugees had fled to Switzerland’s canton of Vaud. In response, three English speaking churches in Lausanne grouped together with other concerned local residents to set up the Ukraine Day Centre to help the refugees.
“The canton was doing its utmost to provide vital services including accommodation and meals, but it was clear that the refugees would need significant help in the short-term with everything from clothes and personal items to language classes and social interaction.” Jeremy McTeague, a member of the Scots Kirk and a co-founder told Le News. “We had people turning up exhausted with just a carrier bag – there was no room on the trains for suitcases. They needed advice and reassurance and to be able to talk to other Ukrainians in a safe and welcoming space.”
To start things off, The Scots Kirk offered the space, volunteers and a donation. Our Lady of Faith and Christ Church immediately provided a group of volunteers and generous donations. Seed funding was received from Oak Foundation, and with the crucial help of several Russian and Ukrainian speakers living locally, the Centre was launched within a week. Gillean MacLean, the president recalls: “The first day was very disappointing – nobody came! But things changed dramatically and by the end of the month over 50 people a day were coming to the Centre. We now have up to 130 people coming at a time.”
Co-founder Rosemary Raedler explained: “the thing that impresses me most is the ability and willingness of the refugees to take responsibility for running activities at the centre. We are extremely fortunate that a core team under the leadership of Ludmila Bakhmut, who fled Kiev during the first attacks, grasped the importance of organising themselves, informing their compatriots about the Centre and advising us on the services most vital to new arrivals and to those who have been here for months alike.”
The Ukrainians maintain a group on Telegram that now numbers over 600 members – and its reach is much wider. They organise social counselling for adults and children, art classes, and social events. A further boost to the Centre has been its partnership with Ukraine Reborn, a group of Ukrainians already living in the region, who have provided a plethora of services ranging from counselling and language teaching. The advice they give the Centre’s management team is invaluable.
The Centre celebrates its first anniversary at the Scots Kirk in Lausanne next week. During the year it has been visited over 4,000 times (over 10% of all the refugees in canton Vaud use the centre). It has given tons (literally) of clothes to refugees, served many thousands of cups of tea and coffee and run over 400 hours of French and English lessons. Fundraising has been made easier with the generosity of five local communes, the three churches and the generosity of numerous individuals.
“The war is unlikely to end anytime soon.” says Jeremy “We all need to understand this and to guard against compassion fatigue and complacency. This means continuously adapting the services we offer at the Centre. Our focus now is on increasing employment assistance and language classes to facilitate integration into Swiss life. I wish to thank our dozens of volunteers, teachers, partners and donors for their vital support. The Centre would not be able to exist or to continue its work without them.