Guissona: welcome to Catalonia's ‘Little Ukraine’

Volunteer interpreters key for refugees to cope with initial mistrust in a small town with 15% of its population being Ukrainian

A volunteer carries a bed frame to prepare accommodation for refugees in Guissona (by Anna Berga)
A volunteer carries a bed frame to prepare accommodation for refugees in Guissona (by Anna Berga) / Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | Guissona

March 26, 2022 11:16 AM

Fleeing Ukraine and its sound of war, and suddenly landing over 3,000 kilometers west where the chirping of birds is the loudest noise you can hear. This is the situation around 200 refugees from the Eastern European nation are experiencing these days upon their arrival in Guissona. 

Its enormous meat manufacturing company BonÀrea has shaped this little western Catalan town for decades, with thousands of migrants living there due to the work on offer. In the 90s, Guissona had 3,000 residents, and 30 years later it has more than doubled to 7,500, of 43 different nationalities. 

Around 1,000 people living there are Ukrainians, around 15% of the town’s population. It has the second-highest Ukrainian population of all towns in Catalonia, just behind Barcelona, with 5,000 out of 1.6 million inhabitants overall. 

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Those who have been living in the little town are now accommodating family and friends escaping bombs, but they are not the only ones helping newcomers. 

Associations collect food and clothes and others raise funds for refugees, locals offer places where they can stay, and the local council has eased paperwork and is preparing social activities to help the new arrivals adapt. These are just some of the solidarity efforts organized in the past weeks.

Shock upon arrival and urgent housing needs

Ignasi Ribera is a volunteer focused on housing. He told Catalan News that the refugees "are in total shock upon arrival."

Refugees have been arriving at Guissona by road, train and plane thanks to a flight charted by entities and businesses. 

Each family is allocated a volunteer, who helps them take their first steps. According to Ignasi, "after the first moments, that's it, because children play with volunteers after two days," and the mothers "end up waving at you in the street and smiling, recognizing you are helping them."

Newcomers either live with relatives, in local council buildings, or with locals that provide flats, rooms or premises for free. 

According to Ignasi, everyone wants to go back home now, obviously, but if this drags on, they will have to start thinking about work in order to have their own home.

Volunteer interpreters and initial mistrust

Romaniya Dzhus is a Ukrainian who’s been living in Guissona for 16 years and is volunteering as an interpreter. 

They help refugees communicate with the locals who are accommodating them and also explain to them how to deal with the everyday issues in the town, such as queuing at the doctor’s and doing the shopping

These volunteers are especially key because they are the first ones to break a layer of initial mistrust some have with local authorities and entities. 

"The other day a woman with four kids wanted to go to the toilet, we told her to leave them with us in the meantime, but I realized she was afraid of doing so," Dzhus said.

The mayor of Guissona, Jaume Ars, has also experienced that initial mistrust. "When we register them as residents, they were telling us through interpreters: 'Does this document mean I have to stay here? I don't want to stay here, before signing it I have to know'," he explained to this media outlet. 

Ribera also emphasizes how key it is to have volunteers able to speak Ukrainian or Russian: "They open up through the language volunteer little by little."

Registering as residents, a stepping stone for a new life

Besides housing and providing the basics in terms of food and hygiene, one of the most urgent steps in Guissona is providing them with the town hall registration, the ‘padró’, the stepping stone of their new life in Catalonia.

Public healthcare and education will be much easier to obtain with this basic paperwork, given that both Catalan and Spanish authorities are easing procedures for them

Indeed, Catalonia already allows them to register in the jobseekers' office, but the mayor raises some doubts on whether granting them work is the best option at this stage. 

According to Ars, the Ukrainian community representatives attending a recent local meeting evaluating this humanitarian crisis urged caution because, in some of the hosting Ukrainian families, only one person is currently working. "We may have to ensure employment for those permanently living here and who are accommodating refugees," said the mayor. 

Schooling children and offering social activities

Guissona has already schooled 19 refugees in their schools. Five of them are in secondary school, and they are going straight into a welcoming classroom which fits up to 20, a cap that will for sure be reached, Jordi Ticó, a social sciences teacher in the school, said. 

When the war broke out, "classes were interrupted, we held a big event in the playground with speeches and the school was decorated with Ukrainian flags."

The school is used to accepting students new in the country at all times, given the ongoing job opportunities at BonÀrea all year round.

Yet, unlike normally, teachers may have to deal with emotionally complex situations for children, and one of the techniques they will use is laughter therapy.

"Imagine a student in your classroom and their father dies at war. How should a death in these circumstances be handled?" he wondered.

Mayor Jaume Ars also explained that some children are reluctant to go or spend much time at school right after their arrival, and therefore they are offering them alternative social activities, Catalan and Ukrainian lessons and sports. 

However, the local councillor admits there is a poor attendance so far, as shock, mistrust, and fears for their family remaining in Ukraine converge into an experience that children are going through that most residents in Catalonia will not witness in their entire lives.