Opinion – Ora Pois: Ukrainians in Portugal organize humanitarian aid operation

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Tons of clothing and groceries for donation, on-call lawyers for legal aid and call center bilingual to answer questions about the migration process from Ukraine to Portugal.

Four days after the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian community in Portugal – with the help of Portuguese and other nationals volunteers – managed to start a humanitarian mega-operation to help the victims of the war.

At the headquarters of the “Ukrainian Refugees UAPT” project in Lisbon, more than 60 volunteers take turns at a frenetic pace in the tasks.

“The Portuguese have been more than fantastic. They are people with a huge heart, eager to help”, says the group’s spokesman, Ukrainian Maksym Tarkivskyy, 34, who has lived in Portugal for 20 years.

This week, the Portuguese government announced the automatic regularization of all Ukrainian refugees arriving in the Iberian country. They will have immediate access to health and social security services and will be able to start working immediately.

To enter Portugal, Ukrainians can present any identification document, including a driver’s license. More than 1,400 people had already applied for asylum in the country until last Friday (4), but the expectation is that this number will have a significant increase in the coming weeks.

Long before the war, Portugal already had a well-integrated community of Ukrainian people. According to official data, in 2020 there were about 28,600 Ukrainians legally residing in Portuguese territory.

The actual number of Ukrainians, however, was already much higher. In addition to not counting who was in the country irregularly, the SEF (Foreigners and Borders Service) statistics also exclude those who have dual Portuguese nationality, which can be requested after 5 years of legal residence in the country.

With experience working at the UN (United Nations) in conflict regions, the Portuguese Diogo Guerreiro is one of those responsible for the project’s logistics. He reports that, at the moment, the great challenge is to get people out of the country safely.

“We have several people on the ground who provide us with information. So we try to take care of everything, arrange all the reception, from transport to integration in our country”, he explains.

A resident of Portugal for a decade, Ukrainian lawyer Kateryna Ilechko has spent part of the last few days clearing legal doubts from her compatriots.

“I get support requests in many ways. By messenger, by email and even a few calls. The questions are always more or less the same. I try to answer as many as possible and also forward them to the correct place to deal with the legalization and the first steps”, he details.

“I announced right away on my social networks that I would provide free legal support, as did several colleagues. Fortunately, there is a very large wave of solidarity, with a lot of offer of help”, he adds.

A few steps away from the legal aid office is the call center of the association: a room that houses about 15 young people who type and talk on the phone at a frantic pace.

In addition to formal channels, the group also receives thousands of messages via social networks and groups in messaging apps.

The more than 3,000 kilometers that separate Portugal from Ukraine mean that the pace of refugee arrivals in Lisbon and other Portuguese cities is still slow.

The migratory flow is expected to intensify from the middle of next week, when the first buses bringing refugees should arrive.

Many Portuguese families are volunteering to welcome Ukrainian citizens into their homes. Official welcoming initiatives have also been announced.

The Lisbon City Council (equivalent to the City Hall), inaugurated an emergency accommodation center with capacity for one hundred people.

In Maksym Tarkivskyy’s assessment, Portugal’s facilities and security should end up attracting the attention of many compatriots.

“Ukrainians are interested, first and foremost, in having security and in being in a country that will welcome them. And they recognize that Portugal is one of the countries that will do that. Despite not being the maximum power in Europe, Portugal is a country that welcomes foreigners”, he adds.

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