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Nouse interviews Uni of York Ukraine donation centre

Madeline Cawthorn and Kasia Postlethwaite discus their motivations for opening the centre - and commend the generosity of the University community

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Image Credit: Madeline Cawthorn

On 24 February, after maintaining a malign presence on the border for several months, Russia’s military launched a three pronged invasion of Ukraine. The purpose of this operation was, in the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, to “demilitarise and denazify” Ukraine. The conflict has provoked ruptures felt throughout Europe and the entire world, lending credence to a statement made by President Joe Biden that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would be “the most consequential thing that’s happened in the world in terms of war and peace since World War Two”. The world is comparing the sanctions their respective leaders have introduced to suppress Putin’s ambitions and halt the march of his forces before the conflict spills into neighbouring countries.

Madeline Cawthorn’s decision to volunteer her time and effort in assisting Ukrainian refugees arose from similar feelings: “I had a bit of a crisis one night about what was going on in the world, a bit of a self-pity party”, she tells Nouse. Out of this, however, came Madeline’s realisation that she was profoundly fortunate “to be sleeping with a roof over my head”.

She noticed that – at the time – the University wasn’t offering any ways to support those affected by the crisis. Kasia Postlethwaite, the founder of That English Accent, a new language school in the University, tells me how she was contacted by Madeline “asking if I knew of any drop-off points in York”.

She was also “really eager to do something” to help those in the midst of the crisis. Being half-Polish, Kasia was inspired by how generous Poland has been in providing aid to Ukraine. She described to Nouse how “ridiculously proud [I was] to be Polish in that moment because Polish people got together very quickly”.

Along with Madeline, she wanted to emulate this response within the University. Summarising the pair’s reasons for wanting to help, Madeline recalled to me her thought process as the conflict broke out - “I just thought I have the time, I have the opportunity to help, I’ve read up and understand the situation. So, why not?”

So, on 28 February, just four days into the invasion, Madeline and Kasia decided to set up a stall in Vanbrugh College in which people could donate various items to Ukrainian refugees.

The two rapidly put together the scheme, assigning each other separate roles: “Maddie was in charge of organising everything to emailing the right people, I was more in charge of social media advertising, promotion, and putting posters up around the university”. They tell me that regular social media posts and the influx of posters around campus were indispensable in capturing the attention of people “who wanted to help in some way but didn’t know exactly where to go”.

Another four days passed between the announcement of their appeal and the opening of the donation drop-off point. On the 3 March, the pair set up their stall in Vanbrugh College, near V-Bar (a good location, they explained to me, for claiming the attention of passers-by).

Madeline, a final year music student, told me the response to the stall “was more than we could ever have imagined. We’d booked it from 09:00 until 12:30 and it felt like half an hour, it was just bag after bag after bag”.

Kasia seconded this, saying “we did not expect so many people”. She explained to me how “some people came for seconds, even, they brought stuff three or four times because they couldn’t fit everything into their car”.

The charitable spirit was not contained to the University. The pair recalled to me incidents of “an elderly gentleman [who] came along with two big bin bags of his and his wife’s clothes” and a family who had been collecting donations within their village and dropped them off at the University after noticing the abundance of promotion for the stall.

As our conversation came to an end, Madeline and Kasia outlined to me what they would tell those people who view the situation in Ukraine as ‘none of our business’. Rather than describing the geopolitics of the crisis, they opted to appeal to the basic humanity of people: “Do you have a jumper? Do you have a spare scarf ? You have a wardrobe full of winter clothes that you no longer particularly need, but there are people freezing in Ukraine and that would make their day, make their lives that tiny bit easier. We can very easily do that when it could one day be us in that position’”.

The stall was a success, with Madeline and Kasia telling me “every item was ticked off the list multiple times”. However, do they have any plans for reopening? The two seemed enthusiastic about the prospect, recalling how “we were talking about it on the day because a lot of people were asking us if it would be reopening”. They later confirmed “there are plans to reopen it soon”.

When asked about the response from students in relation to Ukraine, Patrick O’Donnell, President of University of York Students’ Union, said: “Our thoughts are with all those who have been displaced by the Russian military invasion of Ukraine and all those who suffer the injustice of war.

“I am proud that our strong international and inclusive community of staff and students have come together to support all those who have been displaced.

“We have been inundated with donations, thanks to the generosity of our community. York students, like many members of our local community, have been working together to give clothes and toiletries to refugees, as well as making financial contributions to the Red Cross.

“I’m pleased that our University is actively looking at how we can prepare for the arrival of Ukrainian refugees as part of us being both a University and a City of Sanctuary, and I spoke at the city centre vigil on 5 March to reaffirm our commitment as an inclusive and international university city, with a proud record of welcoming refugees.”

Looking at the work from the donation centre, it’s a definite invitation for us all to go looking for that “jumper”, “spare scarf ” or anything we can spare.

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