Housing is the biggest challenge for Ukrainian refugees in Portugal


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Housing is the biggest challenge for Ukrainian people who have taken refuge in Portugal since the beginning of the Russian offensive, says the coordinator of a space in Lisbon that directly supports more than two thousand beneficiaries.

The movement has been much more intense in the “VSI TUT – Todos Aqui” space, but there are always some people, especially women, who stop by to choose some clothes or take food baskets, and to clear up bureaucratic or legal doubts. “We still need a lot of help to fill out paperwork,” says the space’s coordinator, Afonso Nogueira.

Created in the scope of the emergency municipal program for the integration of refugees from Ukraine, resulting from a protocol between the Association of Ukrainians in Portugal and the Lisbon City Hall, the space has been operating since May last year and provides those arriving with a number of services (accommodation, access to employment, access to education and training, health, mobility, culture, sports, and social support).

The VSI TUT is a “community space” that intends to “give a push in welcoming and now in integration”, summarizes the coordinator.

“Housing is, without a doubt, the biggest challenge. Decent housing”, he recognizes, mentioning that, through the Entry Door program, “around 120” answers have already been obtained for families looking for a house.

The problem – he explains – is that the candidates need to have a lease contract, in the free market, “made in Portuguese and with all that this entails”, and only then can they submit the process to the Institute of Housing and Urban Rehabilitation (IHRU).

“But to get to that… the rents are exorbitant in Portugal, in Lisbon specifically, and with the language barrier, these contracts are lost due to lack of openness of the landlords,” who choose to “make the contract to whoever quickly makes the payment and all the arrangements,” he notes.

It is necessary to support refugees “to make contacts with landlords and reach an agreement,” he stresses.

The housing response “is complex” and “is not always effective […] in official terms,” which “is a huge concern of the Association of Ukrainians in Portugal,” admits Afonso Nogueira.

“We have made an effort to guarantee that people don’t stay on the streets,” he says, giving as an example the partnerships with hotel chains or the recourse to the Social Emergency Fund, within the scope of the protocol with the Lisbon city hall.

“The Portuguese population was absolutely fantastic […] in the first phase reception. But, the families that welcomed people at home, […] after ten, eleven months […], it is normal that they need the houses. […] And the refugee people themselves need to move on with their lives in a structured way and housing is the hinge to achieve this full and concrete integration”, emphasizes the coordinator, noting that “finding solutions” is “absolutely essential”.

Besides housing, one of the biggest barriers is the integration of Ukrainian children in schools. “Right now, there are 4,500 children enrolled in the Portuguese education system, which means that there are about ten thousand who are not in the Portuguese education system,” he accounts.

“It’s not a huge problem, because […] the overwhelming majority of them are in the distance learning system in Ukraine, but in psychosocial terms, it is very important that these children […] are physically present in Portuguese schools,” he considers.

Ukrainian children can attend the remote education system from Portuguese schools. “Children need to be with their peers,” he emphasizes, calling on parents to enroll their children and stressing the impact on the mental health of minors.

As of September 2022, the Foreigners and Borders Service had granted 51,716 temporary protections, 13,632 of them to minors, since the start of the war in Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

Diana and Serhii’s four school-age children are enrolled in Portuguese education.

The family entered Portugal through Porto and then on to Lisbon, where they live, in a house in the Entrecampos area, paying 500 euros in rent, which will rise to 200 more next month.

“We are very happy to be in Portugal, we don’t want to move to another country,” assures Diana. “The city of Mariopol is all destroyed, our house too. For now, we have no plans to return to Ukraine,” says Serhii.

He, at 39, works in a medical accessory company and says he is “very satisfied,” thanking his boss, who has “helped him a lot” since he arrived. She, at 33, is at home with her youngest child, but looking for part-time work.

The couple, with five children, from one to thirteen years old, uses the VSI TUT baskets, where what is left over in clothes is lacking in food, despite individual and company donations.

“We still need to give support to a lot of people,” points out Yuri Kondra, a member since 2007 of the Association of Ukrainians in Portugal, where he has lived for 23 years.

A volunteer at VSI TUT, he pauses in the distribution of food baskets to talk to Lusa and recall that the Association of Ukrainians in Portugal got together “right on the 25th” of February, one day after the war started, and loaded “trucks with food, medicine and other goods” for the Ukraine.

In May, refugees began to arrive and efforts were concentrated on the reception.

“Now they don’t come as many. Of the people who arrived, some have already returned, but others are trying to integrate into Portuguese society,” he describes, confirming that “the big difficulty is with the rent, with housing,” but also “with the job and not being able to speak Portuguese.

The flow of refugees from Ukraine has seen a “sharp decrease” since June. Still, the Lisbon municipality decided to keep active the emergency reception center installed in a sports pavilion of the Lisbon Municipal Police in the parish of Campolide, which received 2,430 people between March and August, but now welcomes mainly Timorese citizens.

The VSI TUT has evolved “according to the needs” and if “initially, the response was emergency”, namely social (food and clothing), it has now moved on to the “phase of refugee integration and consolidation of ties in the territory”, describes Afonso Nogueira.

The main requests now are for Portuguese classes (which have the support of Speak Social, a Portuguese organization that provides support to refugees from Ukraine) and legal support – both for work contracts and for cases of violence against refugee women. “They are a very vulnerable population. […] They came [to Portugal] mostly women. The typical household is a woman with her children and her mother or mother-in-law,” reports the coordinator.

On March 09, 2022, the Lisbon City Council unanimously approved the creation of the emergency municipal program VSI TUT – Todos Aqui (All Here), following the proposal presented by councilmen from PS, PCP, BE, Livre and independents (Paula Marques, from the political movement Citizens for Lisbon), which was later subscribed by the remaining members of the executive, including the president, Carlos Moedas (PSD).

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