Chantal Geall Sheds a Light on #homesforukraine
To mark World Refugee Day, we sat down with our very own Chief Risk Officer, Chantal Geall, who shares her experience as a sponsor for Homes for Ukraine. Lumon continues its efforts to support the people caught in this conflict #westandwithukraine.
Earlier this year, we held fundraising events to support refugees in Poland. Our colleagues kindly donated food and medical supplies to a Herford charity, supporting Refugee Centres in Ukraine. This week, Chantal captures Svetlana’s story, highlighting the importance of community and connectivity.
Chantal runs the Risk and Compliance team at Lumon. She ensures that the firm has an appropriate risk framework. Although she’s got a “relatively small team”, she adds it is an “important one in terms of giving us a licence to operate” in the UK and Ireland.
Much of Chantal’s role is about finding that “happy medium” in collaboration with the board, determining how much risk the company is willing to take. She adds, “How do you temper that with a risk environment that is also fit for purpose?” This balance is what she finds most interesting.
Sponsoring a Ukrainian family
In April, Chantal decided to sponsor a Ukrainian family after “hearing so much about the tragedy that was unfolding”. She registered with the government website and attended a couple of webinars designed to help prospective hosts understand the potential challenges they might face. She explains, “It became known in my town that I was looking to sponsor a family.”
A local Ukrainian lady and her English husband were put in touch with Chantal. She quickly organised a call with the couple’s friend, Svetlana who was looking to bring her two children to the UK. The call was “daunting”, particularly as Svetlana didn’t speak any English. Chantal introduced herself through Svetlana’s 16-year-old daughter on a WhatsApp video call.
“At the time, the family had travelled from southeast Ukraine by train to Warsaw and were sheltering in Denmark, as Warsaw was overflowing with refugees, but it was always their goal to come to the UK.”
Undoubtedly, Svetlana is a “very brave lady”. Before the war, she had never left Ukraine. She had never been on a plane. Her courage and resilience are a source of inspiration. Her husband remains in Ukraine supporting the army.
Svetlana’s parents live close to the Russian border. When the Russians invaded, her parent’s town was immediately occupied. At first, Svetlana was still able to talk to them. In the last few weeks, she’s lost all connectivity. She doesn’t know whether they are still living there or whether they’ve been taken to Russia. Her aunt and another grandmother are now living in the flat that she vacated because their home was destroyed. Tragically, her 82-year-old grandma has lost a leg as a result of the war.
Previously, Svetlana was a nurse. She hopes to become a carer and is also a “wonderful artist”. Chantal is grateful to the local Art Society along with friends and family for supporting Svetlana’s move to Hertford both financially and through kind gifts. Life in the UK is expensive. The cost of living in Ukraine is around a third of the UK. It’s clear Svetlana has just begun to rebuild her life, though she doesn’t intend to stay in the UK forever.
An emotional time
It took three weeks for the visas to come through. At the time, Svetlana and her children waited in Denmark.
“The visa applications were not straightforward and for anyone who didn’t speak fluent English, they were pretty much mission impossible,’ Chantal explains.
During this 3-week period, Lumon’s Chief Risk Officer lived in a state of limbo, before flying to Portugal for a long weekend. All of a sudden, Chantal looked at her phone and saw that the visas had been approved. She “just burst into tears” from the relief.
Chantal rang Svetlana and told her the news, asking, ‘Would you like to come before Easter?’
To which her guest answered, ‘Yes, please!’
The family arrived on the Thursday before Easter. Chantal notes, “It’s quite weird when you’re going to an airport to meet a family, you’ve never met who are coming to live in your home for an unspecified period of time.” Chantal and Svetlana exchanged photographs of what they were wearing, so they could recognise each other at the airport.
While Chantal is lucky to have space in her house to help people, she advises that sponsors need to be comfortable with sharing their space. They also need to be mindful of not asking Ukrainian guests too many questions. It’s important to let their stories unfold naturally and create a “safe space”.
Ultimately, sponsors and the families they are hosting learn “to take each day as it comes”. They cannot prepare for everything. While the language barrier can be challenging, it’s really important to have conversations, but only when they want to share their experiences in Ukraine or their ambitions for a life in the UK.
Helping build connectivity
After a hectic few days over the Easter break, life gradually started to settle down into more form-filling and getting Svetlana’s children a school place at the local senior school. Chantal helped Svetlana complete further visa applications, so the family could stay longer. There were biometric tests done, a doctor to register with, and the application for universal credit.
There was an “awful lot of bureaucracy,” according to Chantal. However, Hertford has a “really good local network” of people, who have welcomed families from Ukraine. She notes, “We have a weekly meeting in the church hall on a Thursday afternoon, where all our guests can get together with tea and cake.” Additionally, the town offers English lessons three times a week for Ukrainian guests, helping build up connectivity within the community.
Chantal has lived in Hertford for a very long time. Although she’s been involved with the town council locally (she was formally Mayor of Hertford), she is now meeting a whole different group of people through her work with refugees. She adds, “It’s a real blessing actually to have that additional sort of thread, if you like, of Hertford life and connections with different members of the community.” This community has been instrumental in creating new memories to help offset guests’ bad memories. From Jubilee celebrations to punting in Cambridge, Chantal has kept her guests busy, organising enjoyable days out with the whole family.
No two days are the same
While there is “no typical day”, Chantal shares that “Svetlana has kindly been cooking very nice dinners, so that when I get in, we can sit down and have dinner together.” Together, they’ve developed some favourite games. She explains, “We play boules on my lawn at home…We started playing Connect Four and Jenga, all of these are games where you don’t need language, but you can interact.”
Svetlana’s 13-year-old son is really missing home While he appreciates the safe environment that he’s in, all he wants is to be back home with his mates. Fortunately, Svetlana’s sister arrived in Hertford with her niece. She is living with another family and they live within walking distance of each other. They are able to provide support to each other.
Chantal’s Ukrainian guests celebrated the Jubilee weekend. They baked cakes for the street party and genuinely enjoyed the celebrations. Locals created and knitted decorations for the park in Hertford, which included a royal carriage with horses and corgis. Chantal, adds “We also hosted formal Jubilee celebrations in Hertford with beacon lighting, a band playing and photographs of her Majesty projected onto Hertford Castle. So, it was really a special evening.”
From Svetlana’s story, we learn the importance of connectivity both locally and globally. Donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) in support of the Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.