On 28 March 2022, as Ukrainian newcomers started to arrive in Devon, the Devon Ukrainian Association (DUA) was launched in Exeter to provide refugee support. DUA organised donations and bake sales, raised awareness and funds, and organised events to begin coordinating efforts across different districts. According to our data, there are currently over 2,000 displaced Ukrainian people across Devon, and over 800 in the Greater Exeter area.
At our home, the Conversation Cafe, we provide signposting, emotional support, support filling out forms, and SIM card distribution. We’ve also presented many events with Maketank, for the Ukrainian Community to gather and for more people to learn more about Ukrainian Culture.
We believe that there is way more to that word than meeting basic necessities. We also believe the word ‘refugee’ should not simply imply ‘passive recipients’ – instead they are a strong force to bring great changes to our city and communities. They are innately adaptable and innovative, and bring a great spirit of warmth and buoyancy to Exeter. With many of our community members already contributing significantly to various sectors in the city, we hope to see more Ukrainians finding their passion and voices in this country.
With funding from the British Science Festival and support from the Exeter Science Centre, we were able to deliver a 3-day educational programme in response to this vision: ‘Your City Your Future: Reimagine Exeter Future with Placemaking & Computer Science’. From 7-9th September, we’ve invited 11 Ukrainian women across all age groups to learn about science, art, and Exeter, then reimagine a future for this city.
We started the programme with a lecture on behavioural science and placemaking – delivered in Ukrainian language by Anastasiia Kovalenko, a Ukrainian social psychologist and a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter Medical School. The participants then applied their learning in observations of Exeter – in the walking trip to the Roman Wall, they deepened their understanding of the city, its ecology and its history, while ideating what could make the city a better place.
In the 3D modelling and printing session at FabLab Exeter, the participants were invited to take a trip down memory lane in the digital world. Using TinkerCAD & 3D printing, the participants made 3D models of what ‘home’ means to them. Attached to the questions around 3D modelling, are tender and important stories that we cannot forget: ‘I want to make my plant back home, it’s a cactus with a special shape.’ ‘How do I make a house with a blue door, like my house in Ukraine?’ ‘Can you help me put a magic wand in this little girl’s hand? I want to make my grandaughter… I miss her very much. She likes dressing up like a little princess.’
We ended our programme with a day in the Creative Quadrant at the University of Exeter. The day started with Iryna Kuko, a Ukrainian designer, delivering a talk on design thinking and creative problem-solving. With guidance from Iryna, the group then spent their afternoon creating a 3D prototype of the future for the historical ruins of the Exe Bridge. They’ve created a destination for residents and visitors with spaces for food, community, and kids; they’ve built improvements with consideration of safety and care; they made sure that there are opportunities to meet new friends and exchange cultures…
As we see a vibrant future from their perspective, we were also glad to find out that the learning is mutual:
- “This was a very special experience for me, very familiar as I used to create 3d models and lately I became very interested in architecture, archaeology and placemaking. I am very grateful for this opportunity.”
- “This experience has opened up a world of possibilities for me I didn’t know existed before.”
- “A process of making and working together was very new to me, but it was very engaging and I learned a lot from other people”
But our exploration of ‘belonging’ doesn’t end here – this is just a start. The stories and learnings that we’ve received from this experience are incredibly important: whether it’s improving inclusion or making a better place for the future, it’s never enough just to offer things. It’s about asking questions, trusting people with their agency, and actively seeking out radical solutions. Inclusivity is not enough – things only happen when people feel like they belong.
We hope to continue this important work in the future, and we hope that our learnings can inspire more of a sense of belonging in Exeter.