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What we learned opening our doors to families fleeing war

Monday 05 December, 2022

by Mary Meaney

Mary Meaney

Watching war unfold in Ukraine, Mary Meaney (Texas & Merton 93) felt compelled to help. Here she recounts how her community in Northern France opened their doors and lays out the lessons from her months helping people whose lives have been turned upside down.

I want to share a story of collisions…  a story initiated by the most unwelcome of collisions…  The collisions of tanks and fighting forces invading Ukraine. 

It is a story of positive collisions, constructive collisions that embody the best of the human spirit and show what is possible when passion and capabilities collide.

As I sat and watched the collisions in Ukraine from the safety of my sofa—speechless, dumb-founded, dispirited, disgusted… I decided I needed to shift gear from doing well to doing good.

So, I started with something very simple, very humble.  I asked my husband what he thought about the idea of hosting a few Ukrainian refugees.  His response was immediate and generous: ‘of course, dear.’  I then talked to our children and asked if they were up for it… they too would need to share their toys, their bikes, their playground, their home, their mother.  Without hesitation, they all enthusiastically said yes.

Nine months and many constructive collisions later, our little grass roots effort in a little village in northern France has now hosted almost 500 Ukrainians with more than 50,000 nights and 150,000 meals…  Thanks to Imperial College Business School, we codified our playbook and thanks to the Ukrainian consul and Ukrainian embassy we’ve shared that playbook with countless community organizers across Europe, helping tens of thousands more.

It started with a family effort which quickly snowballed as our barn filled with supplies from generous neighbours and friends and frustrated emails from me to local officials asking when the first arrivals from Ukraine were due.

As news spread that something was afoot, I received an email asking me to a meeting with a set of local mayors and officials. After each official had finished speaking, I dove in.  I introduced myself and spoke of the extraordinary generosity of our community; of our leadership on many critical issues in the past and the opportunity for us to lead again … I laid it on a bit thick. 

A few minutes into my spiel, one of the mayors said, ‘I’ve just received a text.  We have a family of 14 Ukrainians arriving; they don’t want to be separated, what do we do?’

There was silence.  Complete silence.… and then I broke the silence ‘I’ll take them.’

Everyone turned and looked at me; ‘You can take all of them?’

“Yes, I can take all of them.”

“All 14?”

“All 14”

“When can you take them?”

“Give me 10 minutes to get back to the farm.”

And so we started by welcoming that first family … Galina, the grand-mother with her daughter and grand-daughter and the 11 orphans. 

A few days later 108 Ukrainian women and children arrived in the first set of buses and cars.  Some had left Ukraine in a convoy of 12 cars... where only five had made it out alive.  Many of the children were deeply traumatized.  One six-year-old girl woke up every night screaming for the first two months.  It took three months before I saw her first smile.  And 4 months before I got a first hug.

As the Ukrainians arrived, so too did French, British, and American people of all ages and backgrounds; and all walks of life - all colliding together with a common purpose: to show solidarity for people whose lives and livelihoods had been turned upside down.  The kindest, most generous, most giving people I have ever met.

But there were many challenges: seemingly overnight, I found myself running an NGO. I had no authority; no title; no official role; no formal position, no real power of any kind.  I had no paid staff and no meaningful budget.  I knew two of the local mayors and a handful of other people. 

So how did we succeed?

The first factor was a compelling vision that appealed to the head and the heart.  Our vision was incredibly simple and unbelievably powerful: we wanted to help as many people as we could.  Over and over, I told stories of the women and children; I put names and human faces on the unfolding tragedy.  And supporters came—first by the dozens, then by the hundreds.

The second factor was leading by example. At one point, I had 29 Ukrainians, 2 Polish bus drivers, a Polish translator, and a handful of volunteers living in our home and farm.  My family welcomed the very first Ukrainian family; we hosted more Ukrainian families than anyone else; and will probably continue to host the last Ukrainian family. We never asked anyone to do anything we weren’t already doing ourselves.

The third success factor was building a great team.  That team changed over time, as some volunteers became sick or exhausted, and others stepped in and stepped up. 

People came forward for very different reasons, and it was critical to understand their motivations: Some had connections to Ukraine; others came forward because they were mothers – and empathised with the Ukrainian women and children; some had memories of their French parents or grandparents who themselves had been refugees during WWII. Still others were seeking purpose, a cause, something bigger than themselves, while for others still, it was a need to find friendship and community and human connection.

And that leads me to the 4th success factor - gratitude and celebrating heroes:.  Over the last six months, I have said thank you to more people more frequently than in the rest of my life combined. 

So many people pitched in.  So many people contributed.  And it was essential to find ways of thanking them, of recognizing their contributions and celebrating our heroes—people like Stephane, our neighbor who sent me a text saying: “Mary, my house isn’t very big so I can’t take in a Ukrainian family, but I have cows.  I can bring you milk.” 

The more grateful I was; the more I celebrated our heroes, the more there was to be grateful for; and the more heroes surfaced.  It was the right thing to do, and it ensured our success.  The more I talked about the amazing generosity of the local farmers who donated vegetables, the more people brought vegetables. The more grateful I was for the donated furniture, the more furniture arrived. 

Success breeds success.  Everyone wants to be on a winning team.  Everyone wants to be part of something special.

The fifth factor: Persistence, Resilience, Grit.

This was hardest of all.  Because it was tough, without question the toughest thing I have ever done... 

It was hard intellectually: when we started there were no answers to even the most basic questions: where would we get the money?  Would there be enough housing?  How do they receive protected status?  Who is vaccinated?  Who is not?  How do we deal with the trauma? 

It was hard physically: the first 2 or 3 months, I worked 18-20 hours a day.  Every day.  The first 2 or 3 months, there wasn’t a day that went by without an emergency. 

And it was hard emotionally.  As we got to know the Ukrainian men, women and children, their tragedies became our tragedies.  Lucy arrived on a Sunday; on the Monday she learned her fiancé had been killed on the front.  She refused to believe that he was dead so her friends sent her pictures of his decomposing corpse. 

Their tragedies became our tragedies.

And it was especially hard because the centre of gravity is my home.  Not an office or an NGO headquarters that I could leave.  But my home, my living room, my kitchen, my garden. 

The 6th success factor was a learning mindset coupled with an agile way of working.  From the beginning, we were operating in conditions of extreme uncertainty, and that meant that we had to be constantly learning, experimenting, innovating, discovering what worked and what didn’t. 

I remember the flood of questions in early March that I didn’t have answers to; I remember saying over and over again: ‘I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out,’ and then orchestrating the set of conversations and experiments that would help us discover—or create—the solutions.

And I remember telling everyone not to be discouraged when they found that every solution led to a new set of problems.  Because it meant that we were making progress.  But it required a learning mindset with an incredibly agile operating model.

I was thrilled when we found work for the first Ukrainians… only to discover their jobs started at 7am before the buses started running, and most didn’t know how to drive a car.  Which meant starting not just an employment agency but a driving school. 

Six months on, I can honestly say that we—all of us; the hundreds of volunteers from northern France and many different countries—we have changed the lives of thousands of men, women and children. 

And they have changed our lives too. 

They’ve certainly changed my life.  I’ve learned; I’ve grown; I’ve lost 10 pounds; but much more importantly I’ve gained in compassion and generosity.  And I’ve gained hundreds—literally hundreds—of new French, Ukrainian, and Polish friends… And while there were tragedies, there were also triumphs: many moments of joy, pride, laughter and love.

What messages would I share?

First, never under-estimate the power of an individual with skill and will.  Gandhi was right: you can change the world.  But you need skills in strategy and organisation; in how to engage and influence … and in how to lead. 

I want to urge you to be bold.  Really bold.  Because Michelangelo was right too: the challenge for most of us is not that we aim too high and miss our targets, but that we aim too low and hit them.  Aim high.  Be bold.  Change this beautiful, broken world.

To do that, I’d add a few more recommendations:

Don’t be afraid to face the most brutal facts of our current reality—whether that is covid or climate change or conflict in Ukraine.  Engage with the facts and the data.  Learn and explore… but then engage.  As Edmund Burke once said: the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men—and women—to do nothing.  Engage.  Act.  Make a difference.  Don’t sit on the sidelines. 

And don’t be afraid to fail.  We learn more from our failures than our successes.  Take the moonshots.  Don’t worry about failure; you should only be terrified of regret.

Be open to creative collisions.  Embrace them.  Orchestrate them.  Seek them out.  And be open to the collisions that you haven’t orchestrated – the unexpected, the unpredicted, maybe even the unwelcome … you can learn from them too.

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