A 15-day-old baby and a woman 39 weeks pregnant are among the Ukrainian people who have been given sanctuary in Ireland since the starts of the devastating war that has forced them to flee their homes.
The estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people who have arrived here are “overwhelmingly women and children” and the majority “do not require financial assistance at this stage”.
Helping these new arrivals to enter the state system is the top priority at two dedicated hubs that opened yesterday, one in Cork Street, Dublin 8, and the other at Hanover Quay in Cork city. A third centre for Ukrainian refugees will open next week in Limerick.
There, they will be provided with a letter from the Department of Justice allowing them to live here for up to a year, a PPS number to access state services and emergency financial assistance of up to €220 if required.
At the centre in Dublin, Fiona Penollar, assistant secretary at the Department of Social Protection, said the centres have been set up to help those who have not come through Dublin Airport – where there are already existing services – but entered the country at Shannon Airport and seaports.
In the past 10 days they have issued around 6,500 PPS numbers.
“This is about enabling people who have fled and who have left everything behind them to come to a place of sanctuary and to get into the system in a way that we can put our arms around them and in a way that supports them,” Ms Penollar said.
The new arrivals are “shell-shocked”, she added, with many reacting with overwhelming relief when they receive their PPS number and are made aware they are now “in the system”.
Others show no reaction because they are still processing what has happened to them.
“It’s a very, very hard thing for them,” Ms Penollar said.
One of the new arrivals seeking assistance at the hub yesterday was Oksana Ampilogova, who fled Kyiv with her 10-year-old son. Her husband remained to support the Ukrainian army, while her elderly mother, who has suffered a stroke, was too frail to travel.
She told RTÉ news she felt like she was living in “parallel realities”.
“It’s a bit hard to see people here so happy and laughing. It’s just like a parallel reality, which is extremely hard to handle, because I understand that people here should be happy, because they’re at home and they are fine, they should be happy,” she said.
“But you can’t adjust to this because in your mind the reality is different, and all the memories that you have, they are different. I don’t know when and how we will be able to be happy again. We’ll see. We will adjust, we will handle it somehow, but it will definitely take time.”
Until recently, the Dublin hub had been a Jobseekers’ Centre that was under renovation. There are signs on the walls about dockets and warnings that children are not allowed to run. The building is not yet what it should be, Ms Penollar said.
“I have to say when I saw the centre first I was like, ‘Oh God’. It isn’t pretty nice. Joanna, who’s running it, wanted to get the paint brush out on Tuesday night.
“The wrong signs are up and it’s not there yet – but it will be. We will keep improving it and we will have it running better and more efficiently, but actually, what we’re achieving immediately is really big and it is making a difference.”
People are doing their utmost in the department to make sure it works, she said, adding that she had to “send staff home at a quarter-to-three” that morning at Dublin Airport.
“It might sound like it’s just bureaucracy and all we’re doing is issuing letters or whatever, but it’s the knowledge that people can now access the Government that’s the really important thing.
“And we can see that that’s having an impact in a really positive way. So that’s why people are 100pc going above and beyond.”
The experience of providing PUP payments during the pandemic proved to be invaluable as the department had to react immediately, yet again, to respond to another rapidly evolving situation.
“So many positives came of that that we really want to build on to provide the best customer service,” Ms Penollar said. “We say the position is, ‘We will do it. Now, how do we do it?’, whereas the stereotypical impression might be that we say, ‘Can we even do it?’
“Everyone has seen the images coming from Ukraine and it’s the natural human response to want to help and to do the best we can.
“From such a horrific situation it’s a very inspiring outcome that is happening now. It is very much responding on the fly, but it is something that we want to try to refine and improve upon.”