Ukrainians’ struggles resonate with ‘war baby’ volunteer in Wexford

Avril Walters’ work with refugees triggered personal memories of the Blitz in London

The displacement of Ukrainian people both within their own country and across Europe in the last few months has been described as the largest movement of refugees since the second World War.

This reference has a personal resonance for Avril Walters, the 82-year-old Wexford-based volunteer, who has offered her support to Ukrainians arriving into Rosslare Harbour in recent weeks. "I have great empathy with the Ukrainians as they arrive here because I was a war baby," says Avril.

“I was born in the middle of the Blitz in London and I can remember being dragged down into air-raid shelters with my grandparents, sitting on blankets with crowds of people.”

Her grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Poland whose name Volker was changed to Walters by immigration officials when they arrived in London. Their terraced home and shop was bombed during the war. "They lost everything. The whole East End of London was bombed out. My father was a fire fighter who used to dig people out of the rubble so when I watch the war in Ukraine on the television, I remember the sirens," she explains.

After the war, Walters moved with her family to the northern suburbs of London but says that her childhood was marred by bullying and harassment. “There was a lot of mistrust after the war. Anybody who was an immigrant did suffer because you weren’t seen to be part of the team. Because I was Jewish, I was always frightened of being singled out as a child.”

In early adulthood, she found a more inclusive group of people through her work as a secretary and copywriter of wire news for the Associated Press of America. "It was an international office and I integrated well. I hope it will be the same for these Ukrainian people arriving in Ireland. "

‘Very polite’

Walters, who settled in Ireland more than 40 years ago with her Irish husband, says that she feels good helping Ukrainian people who come to Ireland. About 40 Ukrainians are currently staying in the town of Clonard where she lives. "I find that they are outstandingly intelligent. The children are very polite and many of them speak perfect English. It's so difficult for them coming to a strange country with no idea of what will happen to them."

Her role with other volunteers working with Rosslare Ukraine Rescue has been to provide tea, clothes and friendship. “We are told not to have too much conversation with them as they are going through a trauma, so I let them lead the conversation for the limited time that they are here waiting for onward transport.”

She recounts tales of young women arriving with babies who have left elderly parents unwilling to travel at home, children bringing their cats and dogs with them and one little boy showing her a puppy which had just been born in transit.

Walters also volunteers with Senior Line, the national confidential telephone service (1800 80 45 91) for older people, which operates daily from 10am-10pm. "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 have made a difference at the end of our conversation."

Senior Line, which is run by Third Age, has more than 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 runs conversational English classes for immigrants whose first language isn’t English through its Fáilte Isteach programme.

National Volunteering Week runs from May 16th-22th. This year's theme is "Celebrate and Reconnect".

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