Newry Leisure Centre (NLC) has become the headquarters for Ukraine refugee assistance in the wake of the Eastern European war.
Families escaping the horrors of the Russian invasion will be greeted each week (Tuesday) by an umbrella group of agencies as well as the UK Home Office.
Those who arrive, even without visas will be accommodated by 10 charitable and government agencies with interpreters to be re-homed in the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council (NMDDC) area.
Newry councillor, Michael Savage (SDLP) lauded the council for its refugee initiative and proposed that more facilities in the district could do similar work on a more regular basis with Ballymote and Ballynahinch also identified.
“Some families are arriving here in Newry from very horrendous backgrounds in Ukraine and in deep distress,” said Cllr Savage.
“Some have had significant difficulty in obtaining visas.
“A number of people have approached me, some arriving up from Dublin airport to Newry.
“However, trying to deal with the Home Office which is the most antiquated slow moving organisation I have ever dealt with.
“We need more flexibility from the Home Office.
“I would also suggest that there needs to be more than just one point of contact in the district… perhaps a seven day basis.
“I would like to thank the local families in the district who have volunteered to take Ukrainian families in.
“The generosity of our own people has come to the fore,” added the councillor.
The sentiments of praise in the Ukrainian effort were echoed by Crotlieve councillor Jarlath Tinnelly (Ind) who highlighted the difference in approach of the Dublin government compared to Westminster.
“I saw myself on the news, a Ukraine family being taken off a plane and left on the concrete because one of them didn’t have their original passport, but a photocopy,” said Cllr Tinnelly.
“The visa application into the UK is some 50 pages, that is required for these people who are running for their lives with literally only the clothes on their backs.
“This is nothing short of disgraceful,” he added.
The demands already on the new Newry service has been recognised by NMDDC director of active health and communities, Michael Lipsett who stated that 20 Ukrainians were supported on the first day of NLC operation.
The director stated that they were playing catch up as he expected the numbers of refugees to sharply rise in the coming weeks.
“This has been a very emotional time, there have been lots of tears and lots of smiles at the same time,” said Mr Lipsett.
“There have been families arriving in stress of being separated from other family members, only to be relived when they find out that they have been housed nearby.
“We are taking up the space from the NLC cafe, soft play, meeting room and it was still nowhere near big enough.
“We will have to look to open up the full hall as well as the rest as the Home Office will need its own room due to data protection.
“There could be a problem with accommodating NLC members and users.
“At the moment it is one day a week, but this might change.
“Downpatrick is looking likely as there are families there as well as Ballynahinch.
“Though it is the Executive office that is running the show,” added the director.