The movement of Ukrainians both within their own country and across Europe in recent months has been described as the largest refugee movement since World War II.
That reference has personal resonance for Avril Walters, the 82-year-old Wexford-based volunteer, who has offered her support to Ukrainians arriving in Rosslare port in recent weeks. “I have a lot of empathy for Ukrainians when they come here because I was a war baby,” Avril says.
“I was born in the middle of the Blitz in London and remember being dragged into air raid shelters with my grandparents, sitting on blankets with crowds of people.”
His grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Poland whose name Volker was changed to Walters by immigration officials when they arrived in London. Their terraced house and store were bombed during the war. “They lost everything. The whole East End of London was bombed. My dad was a firefighter and used to pull people out of the rubble, so when I watch the war in Ukraine on TV, I remember the sirens,” she explains.
After the war, Walters moved with his family to the northern suburbs of London, but says his childhood was marred by bullying and harassment. “There was a lot of mistrust after the war. Anyone who was an immigrant suffered because you weren’t seen as part of the team. Because I was Jewish, I was always afraid of being stigmatized when I was a child.
In early adulthood, she found a more inclusive group of people through her work as a secretary and news editor for The Associated Press of America. “It was an international office and I fitted in well. I hope it will be the same for those Ukrainians who arrive in Ireland. ”
Walters, who moved to Ireland more than 40 years ago with her Irish husband, says she feels good helping Ukrainians who come to Ireland. About forty Ukrainians are currently staying in the city of Clonard where she lives. “I find them to be remarkably intelligent. The children are very polite and many of them speak perfect English. It’s so hard for them to come to a foreign country not knowing what’s going to happen to them.
Her role along with other volunteers working with Rosslare Ukraine Rescue has been to provide tea, clothing and friendship. “We’re told not to have too much conversation with them because they’re going through trauma, so I let them lead the conversation for the limited time they’re here waiting for transport.”
She tells stories of young women arriving with babies who left elderly parents reluctant to travel home, children bringing their cats and dogs with them, and a little boy showing her a newly born puppy in transit.
Walters also volunteers with Senior Line, the national confidential telephone service (1800 80 45 91) for the elderly, which operates daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. “Since Covid, we have all worked from home. Our job is to listen. We are trained but we are not therapists. Really, it’s about being there for someone to talk too. I feel good if I made a difference at the end of our conversation.
Senior Line, which is run by Third Age, has over 3,000 trained older volunteers who work three-hour shifts on the Senior Line number. The service received more than 18,000 calls in 2021. Third Age, which promotes the contribution of older people in communities, also offers conversational English lessons for immigrants whose first language is not English through its Failte Isteach program.
National Volunteer Week May 16-22. This year’s theme is “Celebrate and Reconnect”.