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‘Let the Ukrainian refugees in’ pleads Cambridge mayor at city rally

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The mayor of Cambridge, Russ McPherson, weighed into the controversy surrounding the UK’s visa system for Ukrainian refugees at a pro-Ukraine rally in Cambridge this weekend, decrying the fact that “only 12,400 Ukrainians have been given permission to come to the UK” – to cries of “shame” from the 800-strong crowd.

Pro-Ukraine march on King’s Parade, March 26, 2022. Picture: Keith Heppell
Pro-Ukraine march on King’s Parade, March 26, 2022. Picture: Keith Heppell

The mayor was one of many speakers who spoke on the green outside The Guildhall following a Saturday afternoon march through Cambridge from the Sidgwick site to Castle Hill.

Speaking to the Ukrainian supporters gathered in the city as part of a national day of pro-Ukraine marches, the mayor took to the podium and said: “The city of Cambridge is firmly united with you and we are doing the best we can to support you.

“It is extraordinarily unusual for a mayor to be doing this, but not only is this important for the city, it is also extraordinarily important to me as a citizen living here for 40 years, so I have no hesitation in standing here and offering you whatever support we can.

The Ukrainian flag in Cambridge city centre, March 26, 2022. Picture: Keith Heppell
The Ukrainian flag in Cambridge city centre, March 26, 2022. Picture: Keith Heppell

“Since February 24 [the day the Russians invaded] 10 million of Ukraine’s 41 million citizens have been driven from their homes. We need to think about that for a minute…

“In Germany, 147,000 refugees have been registered so far since the start of the war, yet only 12,400 Ukrainians have been given permission to come to the UK.”

When the shouts of “shame” from those assembled on the green died down, the mayor continued: “We are working as hard as we can with central government to increase that figure”.

Concerns about the government’s track record on visas were voiced by other non-Ukrainian speakers.

Mayor of Cambridge Russ McPherson at the rally
Mayor of Cambridge Russ McPherson at the rally

Dr Rory Finnin, associate professor of Ukrainian Studies at Cambridge University, said to the crowd: “This war is in Ukraine but it’s not about Ukraine alone. This war is a war of values. This is a march but also a metaphor for the kind of support we need, We cannot let up. We need to keep the momentum going.

“We also need to keep in mind that we are all being welcoming and generous with our time, but we also need to open our homes and this is a huge problem – this government and the Home Office keeps not debating so we need to call up our MPs and ask: ‘Why does it take hours to fill out visa applications?’.

“In Ireland, Ukrainian refugees were welcomed without a visa and this is what we need to do.

On Castle Hill, March 26, 2022
On Castle Hill, March 26, 2022

“We also need to keep learning about Ukraine, and show the generosity and hospitality that is so traditional here. We need to go out and find the political representatives that will put our case.”

Ann Galpin, chair of the NUJ Disabled Members’ Council and co-chair of the TUC Disabled Workers’ Committee, then expressed her concern for the 2.7m disabled people in the Ukraine and said: “Michael Gove indicating he has no intention of ringfencing any funding for disabled Ukrainian people in the UK is shaming – this from a government that consistently steps away from its responsibilities. Will the government do anything?”

The Ukrainian speakers focused on their thanks for the support they have received, and implored the crowd to keep thinking about Ukraine for as long as the war continues.

Olenka Dmytryk, vice-president of Cambridge University Ukraine Society and a co-founder of Cambridge4Ukraine, said at the microphone: “This month has been the most horrible in my life and I’m sure in many peoples lives,” she said. “There has been a little ray of lights as some regions have been freed and some Russian forces pushed back, and this is incredible, this is a miracle, and it’s happening because of many countries’ support. And the Ukrainian army is succeeding against the second largest army in the world – 16,000 Russian soldiers and eight generals killed. The whole of Ukraine is united now.

“Next month will be difficult because Putin’s strategy now is a long war, hoping that people [in the West] will forget about it, so our goal now is not to let the world forget about the war in Ukraine.”

Opera singer Anna Starushkevych sings the Ukraine national anthem
Opera singer Anna Starushkevych sings the Ukraine national anthem

Rend Platings described how she had persuaded a friend to leave Ukraine and the friend was still waiting for a visa.

“I know I’m embarrassed,” the Cambridge resident and pro-Ukrainian activist told the rally, “and I hope you’ll join me when I say ‘We are better than this – British people are better than this.’ We want to welcome the refugees, we want to give them a new chance. We want to give them a way out. Let’s keep this in the public eye.”

One of the last speakers was Ukrainian opera singer and Cambridge resident Anna Starushkevych.

“It breaks our hearts to see how many people are losing their lives but we are not victims,” Anna said. “We will fight harder and do all we can to bring those [Russians] to justice in this world and beyond…Meanwhile the world will, I hope soon, witness the victory of the people of Ukraine.”

Outside Shire Hall
Outside Shire Hall

A message was read to the crowd from Andrei Kirilenko, the professor of finance at Cambridge Judge Business School whose mother is thought to have died in the siege of Mariupol. It said: ‘Try to do the best you can. Try to be good people. Try to do what you can, something that will transform the lives of other people.’

Anna Starushkevych led a mass rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem to close.

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