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Changing the world around her: Connie Nolan’s dedication to supporting Ukrainian refugees

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Credit: Charlie Burgio

Connie Nolan, who represents Canterbury City Council’s Barton ward in Kent, discusses her work to support local Ukrainian refugees, which earned her the title of Resilience Champion in the LGIU & CCLA Cllr Awards 2023.

Two years on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, examples of related data make for harrowing reading. This February, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that over 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed amid the full-scale invasion, while in December 2023, a source familiar with a US report said that it assessed that over 300,000 Russian troops had been killed or injured during the war. An update published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (a United Nations, or UN, entity) put the number of total civilian casualties since February 24 2022, at more than 30,000. In addition, the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR said that over 6 million refugees from Ukraine had been recorded globally as of March 2024.

In the UK alone, there are over 250,000 Ukrainian refugees, according to UNHCR data for March 12 this year. Statistics for the Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme — a scheme which enables Ukrainian nationals and their immediate family members to live in the UK through sponsor assistance — show that of the UK arrivals as of December 31 last year, the South East was the area of England with the highest number of arrivals (23,698). Here, one of the individuals who has done significant work to support Ukrainian refugees is Canterbury City Council’s Connie Nolan — winner of the Resilience Champion accolade in the LGIU & CCLA Cllr Awards for 2023.

Connie, who represents the Kent council’s Barton ward as a Labour councillor, was nominated for the prize by displaced Ukrainian people and their hosts in Canterbury. A trustee of the charity Canterbury for Ukraine (C4U), she has been recognised for her work in helping Ukrainian individuals settle well into Canterbury — a city home to many wounded communities). She’s also got a reputation as a super-friendly and dedicated public servant, dedicated to engaging with all people and groups, despite language barriers and her busy schedule. “I was delighted to receive the Resilience Champion award,” she reflects. “I was completely taken aback by it, but it’s absolutely lovely.”

Connie Nolan
Credit: Charlie Burgio

Gathering momentum

C4U was formed in March 2022, soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of that year. It began as an initiative of charitable organisations, local businesses and volunteers that work in collaboration to help Ukrainian families coming to the Canterbury district (including Canterbury, the towns of Herne Bay and Whitstable and the surrounding villages), with over 300 displaced people and their sponsors having benefitted from C4U activities. Connie, who was first elected to Canterbury City Council in 2019 and is Cabinet Member for Community, Culture, Safety and Engagement, has contributed to the work of C4U by providing support services for visas, aiding refugees and helping host families. “[Ukrainian people are] people who are dispossessed,” she stresses. “They’ve moved from their homes, their jobs and their families to get to places of safety. I can’t change the world, but I can change the world that’s around me.”

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Connie had been involved with Afghan individuals who had arrived in the Barton ward having been airlifted out of Afghanistan. Soon after the invasion of Ukraine, she invited C4U founders Dr Olena Nizalova and Dr Denys Nizalov to her home, where they discussed how best to support Ukrainian people fleeing the war and started to plan a sustainable support network and services for families arriving under Homes for Ukraine. Connie — who has a business background and spent 21 years as a senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University’s business school — connected C4U with Canterbury City Council, Kent County Council and other regional networks, garnering practical and monetary support. And as a result of her hard work, the activities of C4U developed at pace.

Connie Nolan
Credit: Charlie Burgio

If Connie’s story has reminded you of someone,  nominate them for a Cllr Award and celebrate their achievements with us!

Today, C4U is an established charity, acting as a one-stop shop in the Canterbury district for facilitating support to the Ukrainian community and its host families. It provides a welcome hub and cultural activities, as well as advice services and concrete support. For Connie, work to help Ukrainian individuals is ongoing.

“This is one of those wars that people thought would be all over by Christmas,” she notes, highlighting problems relating to compassion fatigue in the community. “Two of the great things about working with Ukrainian people in the Canterbury district [however] are their resilience and their enthusiasm.”

“As an example of this, yesterday morning, I had a meeting with some young Ukrainian individuals, and we were talking about ways to re-engage with the Canterbury community so that people who are still coming over from Ukraine can get short-term accommodation so that they can find their feet and move on,” she shares at the time of speaking to the LGIU. “We’ve come up with the idea of a film festival, and it was inspired by the fact that 20 Days in Mariupol won an Oscar. We’re putting together a programme of films, along with the testimony of people who’ve come from Ukraine. It’s a terrible situation, but it’s incredibly uplifting to work with people who say: ‘What can we do about it?’”

Another instance of Connie’s work with Ukrainian people in the Canterbury area relates to her facilitation of the C4U Ladies Choir to be invited to perform in London to mark the naming of train operating company Southeastern’s Spirit of Ukraine train. The choir had been established by Ukrainian women in the C4U community as a cultural space to celebrate Ukrainian identity. Connie accompanied the group to the naming event at Cannon Street station in the City of London (which took place a year on from the start of the invasion of Ukraine) and helped to secure train tickets, as well as returning with the choir to Canterbury afterwards to attend an event commemorating the invasion’s first anniversary.

Connie Nolan
Credit: Charlie Burgio

The power of positivity

Connie’s motivation for helping local Ukrainian refugees goes back to her youth. She remembers: “My mum was a good northern woman, and she used to say to us: ‘You’re complaining about this, you’re complaining about that. If not you, who?’ That’s always stayed with me, so that’s why I get involved.”

The representative admits that the attitudes of other people can prove difficult in her work as a councillor. “Everybody seems to think that they know better than you how to do things,” she says. “You have to have humility to listen and to think: ‘Fine, I’ll take that on board.’”

However, Cllr Nolan notes that the most rewarding thing about her post is “being with people who are positive about things”. “Yesterday, I was in Herne Bay talking with a community project that started by helping dispossessed Ukrainian individuals, but has branched out into helping anybody,” she shares. “It’s the warmth and the can-do attitude that actually are the reward for me — working with people who say: ‘Yes, we can make a difference.’”

The positive impact that Connie has had on her local area cannot be doubted. Hence, it is easy to see why she was nominated and chosen as the LGIU and CCLA’s 2023 Resilience Champion.

If Connie’s story has reminded you of someone,  nominate them for a Cllr Award and celebrate their achievements with us!



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