Why Ukrainians need UK business to step up refugee support

The story and personal history behind the RefuAid Ukraine business consortium.


My father’s side of the family came to the UK from Ukraine. When they arrived in east London more than a century ago, fleeing persecution and pogroms, there were people who helped them in their darkest hour. I’ve heard stories about how neighbours with few means opened their homes and shared meals with new arrivals and it gives me enormous comfort to think that these outsiders to both city and country were not left to fend entirely for themselves. 

My family spoke no English and had no wealth when they set foot on British soil. But today, here I am, the first in our family to go to university and now in charge of a software company. It’s the stuff dreams are made of – and it’s entirely due to the resilience and hard work of my family who made the difficult journey here all those years ago. 

Since the conflict in Ukraine began this year, over 10 million people have been displaced. The news is devastating and we all sincerely want to help. Early in March many of us running businesses wanted to know how we could do that, and provide essential access to employment and other necessities required to overcome barriers that might prevent people fleeing the horrifying crisis from working in the UK.

It was not surprising, and it was also very uplifting to witness. There was – and is – an overwhelming desire to help refugees resettle and have meaningful lives, finding employment commensurate with experience, the latter being vital for dignity and independence when starting a new life. 

Sadly, there is little or no support for refugees to gain employment that corresponds to skills and experience on arrival, and as a result many newly arrived refugees end up in what can be termed as survival jobs. Most skilled professions require intensive English language tuition and UK reaccreditation to practice, which usually involves undertaking exams and/or further training. This process is almost always prohibitively expensive for those who have sought sanctuary in the UK. 

As a result, we have neurosurgeons working as care assistants, marine engineers driving us in the back of their cabs, teachers with no students and lawyers stacking supermarket shelves. There’s nothing wrong with such jobs – I started my own working life in McDonalds – but if you had a career and were forced to lose it through no fault of your own, how devastating it must be to have no prospect of ever gaining that job satisfaction back, especially at a time when employers everywhere need skilled people. 

Without structured, professional English language tuition and employment support, those from around the world who’ve sought sanctuary in the UK are unable to gain meaningful employment and, as such, are unable to rebuild their lives. The UK labour market has a very high level of over-qualification and underemployment among refugees. A 2017 study into Syrian refugees in Europe discovered a third were employed in either skilled work or professional services in Syria, yet 82 percent were unemployed in Europe. That serves no one. 

Creating the consortium

I started receiving emails from people I know wondering if I had ideas of what to do. In particular, a message from the formidable Jacqueline de Rojas, president of techUK and NED at FDM, IFS and Rightmove moved me to take action. I knew I could count on her help (albeit at that point, I had no idea with what!)

There is a slow, bureaucratic process to set up a new life in the UK and I set about learning who was improving this with the support of 25 large employers with the same goal. A few days later we hit the Sunday Times front page and by dinnertime 25 became 45. 

I’ve learned a lot in six weeks about what’s wrong and how we can right some of that quickly. Some of it is just not that hard. Fortunately, Anna Jones, CEO of RefuAid, found me. RefuAid provides an innovative, practical, scalable and sustainable solution to employment for refugees in the UK focussed on jobs commensurate with experience and we immediately decided to collaborate.

I hope through this consortium that we are seeing the beginning of a much needed blueprint for how to help refugees lead dignified independent lives

Over the last three years, they have supported over 800 people with access to language tuition, finance and employment. We want to see that grow – and fast. Lawyers have requalified and secured legal roles within companies such as Credit Suisse, while a mother living in a homeless shelter with her two daughters requalified over three years and joined the NHS as a consultant on a six-figure salary. We want to speed that up, and allow them to help more people, whatever their country of origin.

Two weeks after connecting with Anna, we launched a pilot initiative to do just that with sponsorship and support from FDM,

PageGroup, PwC and Portman Dental Group, sponsoring 50 RefuAid clients to learn English and receive resettlement support. People like Jonathan Young, CIO of FDM, swung into action not just in terms of the employment option but also asking how he could help and deploy resources such as access to training and computers. As he told me days later, “We are set up to welcome our friends from Ukraine with immediate effect.”

PwC chairman and senior partner Kevin Ellis said: “A profession is part of someone’s identity – we want to use our strengths as a training business to support refugees into the right work for them. This is a no-brainer for businesses looking for talented people, and we’re delighted to work with other businesses to get moving on this important pilot which aligns with our existing activities to support refugees.” And boy did we get moving!

We scaled up the recruitment desk with inspiring cross-industry collaboration from CEO of PageGroup Steve Ingham and their sustainability lead Joanna Bonnett, alongside software solutions from Impellam and the Robert Walters Resource Solutions team. Other initiatives were also born such as the AA Drive Confidence Scheme to give free refresher driving lessons to Ukrainian refugees. 

A couple of months later and we have just announced a much larger group of sponsors taking this initiative to the next level, with support from a treasure chest of companies including BP, Kier, Mulberry, TELUS, haysmacintyre and OVO Energy. Smaller companies were also moved to help, such as British meal kit retailer Gousto.

I hope through this consortium that we are seeing the beginning of a much needed blueprint for how to help refugees arriving on our shores to lead dignified independent lives for everyone’s benefit. There are currently 84 million displaced people in the world according to UNHCR. The challenges around displaced people, forced to leave their homes through no fault of their own, are not going away. At the same time, businesses are crying out for skilled employees and breaking down entry barriers to employment for the Ukrainian and other refugees.

By the way – we’re now at over 150 companies voicing support, from Caffè Nero to Capital One, Domino’s to Dunelm, Mitie to Mondelez, Nando’s to Northumbrian Water, Sodexo to Speedy Services to Wincanton and WPP. Readers of ERP Today, can you help make a third cohort to scale this up further in July?