Updated: Mar 15
It has been one year since Russian forces invaded neighbouring Ukraine, violating the nation's sovereignty and wreaking havoc on the world economy, international relations, and the lives of the Ukrainian people. The ripple effects of the conflict abound. With no clear end in sight, Europe is facing its highest refugee crisis since the Second World War. As of 2023, approximately eight million Ukrainians have fled their homes as the war persists. Joseph Ehrlich, who completed his Masters in Strategic Studies at the University last year and worked in the IT recruitment industry before quitting his job to help refugees full-time, is among those who have gone the extra mile to help refugees. In the final year of his studies last spring, he was struck by how slim the options to help out were. Pressed on time and financially strained, Ehrlich couldn’t provide aid in the way he hoped to.
That bothered him immensely. A year on, he is the director of Blue Sky Career Aid, a help centre that provides free services to Ukrainian refugees to help individuals gain employment and build a future in the United Kingdom. The social enterprise’s
services include advising on CVs, cover letters, and interview preparation. To lead its operations, Ehrlich has been joined by a team of St Andrews alumni with diverse backgrounds — and areas of expertise ranging from artificial intelligence to activism, writing, and finance — that have likewise sought to make an impact in this time of international crisis. Having helped over fifty individuals since its launch in January, the organisation has been nothing short of a success.
I spoke to Ehrlich about his inspiration to start the social enterprise, its operations, and inner workings, and where he hopes it will go next, while also gleaning insights from a Ukrainian refugee who has benefited from Blue Sky Career Aid’s services in her job search. These conversations and the organisation's larger mission and efforts show the continued need for assistance as Ukrainians are forced to integrate into new cultures and environments in a time of unprecedented crisis.
The impact of the war in Ukraine is close to home for Ehrlich. He has family members that have become refugees from both the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the ongoing invasion. When he was in Georgia in September, Ehrlich had close contact with many Ukrainian and Russian refugees. That experience, along with his personal ties to those displaced by Russian aggression, inspired him to take more decisive action back in the UK by providing aid to those in the region that have been similarly displaced. “I wanted to start an organisation where I could make a direct impact on people’s lives for the better”, he said. “After I came back to the UK, I got a job to get some experience in helping people get jobs in a professional setting, then I quit that job, and now I’m doing this full time”.
The social enterprise has already undergone substantial growth since its launch. Its team, which is about twenty strong, operates largely remotely with members in St Andrews, London, and elsewhere. Consisting solely of volunteers, Blue Sky Career Aid relies on assistance from people who are passionate about aiding those whose lives have been disrupted by the war.
Ukraine has staunchly defended itself in the past year, surpassing the pessimistic expectations of a quick defeat that many held when Russian forces first crossed the border last February. Hope has thus been a key factor in Ukrainian resilience. Through Blue Sky Career Aid, the adjustment to living in a foreign country becomes much easier for those who have been forced to leave their homes behind. Ehrlich highlights that the norms of CV writing and job hunting are very different in Ukraine than in other countries like the UK. With the added challenge of a language barrier, employment is one of the first hurdles for many who have sought refuge in the UK. “Those factors can create a really high barrier for otherwise really qualified people”, he said.
Whilst some refugees who came to the UK have had housing covered through the support of family living in the region, many have had to rely on the ‘Homes for Ukraine Scheme’, which encourages UK homeowners to open their doors to Ukrainians in exchange for payment of £350 per month. Whilst thousands of families across the nation have nobly taken up that offer, the scheme only requires hosts to house refugees for a minimum of six months. A year on — with the cost of living and housing crisis in full swing throughout the nation — there could be an impending homelessness epidemic among refugees. With that context risking exacerbating the already dire nature of the refugee crisis, the service that Blue Sky Career Aid offers is vital in aiding refugees and providing them with promising futures through employment assistance.
Ehrlich notes that the most rewarding aspect of running the enterprise is knowing the difference he and the team are making in people’s lives. “It’s incredible to have the opportunity to make such a direct and meaningful impact in somebody else’s life”, he said. “After we’re done writing a lot of these resumés, cover letters, and providing advice, we get a lot of really nice messages. For me and a lot of my team members that is one of the main reasons why we dedicate our time to this”.
Blue Sky Career Aid has already advised over fifty people within a month of its launch. Its success only indicates the dire need for such services has clearly not been adequately fulfilled over the past year. Charities filling in where the government lacks is of course nothing new, but this is perhaps an indication that the ‘Home for Ukraine’ scheme falls short in the assistance that should be universally available for those who have had no choice but to flee their home, jobs and live, having been forced to navigate a new familiarity and overcome language barriers.
To understand more about how Blue Sky Career Aid helps those who use their services, I reached out to Leas Gordinets, a Ukrainian soon to come to the UK and who recently had her visa approved. Gordinets said she wanted to come to the UK prepared for the job market by searching for employment in advance. In anticipation of her move, she posted on a Facebook group that she was looking for advice regarding local IT-search job resources. After seeing the post, Ehrlich reached out to her to offer the organisation's help. She has since benefited from Blue Sky Career Aid’s services, which have propelled her job search. “I might say that my CV looks way better now, much more professional and, I suppose, adapted to the UK market,” Gordinets said.
Whilst Gordinets does not have much to say about whether the experience has boosted her job prospects just yet — having only recently been in contact with the organisation — she highlights the relief Blue Sky Career Aid provides for people emigrating to the UK looking to navigate a foreign employment sector. “I [and others like me are] looking for job opportunities in advance, to come prepared and to get accustomed to new culture faster, also to not be, you know, a burden to a welcoming country,” she said.
Even after leaving a war zone, Gordinets’ comments about wanting to be a burden to the UK are particularly striking. They demonstrate the determination of Ukrainians seeking to build new lives. In the United Kingdom — a nation that has a tumultuous history in how it has treated its refugees, particularly after taking in only a small number of asylum seekers compared to its European counterparts like Germany and Sweden in the 2015 Syrian Refugee Crisis — this insight perhaps infuses the need to accept and welcome those who are pursuing futures far from home.
Only requiring a couple of hours a week in commitment, positions within the organisation are ideal for those who want to make a difference but cannot sacrifice a lot of time in their busy schedules. Having been established by St Andrews alumni, the organisation's foundation and base is on the three streets. Ehrlich is interested in welcoming St Andrews students into the organisation who are perhaps in a position to the one he was in last year — watching the conflict helplessly and wanting to help more than the available avenues of support render possible. For those interested in the chance to make a greater impact on the crisis, applications are available through the Blue Sky Career Aid website (https://blueskycareeraid.com/). The future looks bright for Ehrlich and his team as they continue to expand their network and provide services to more and more displaced Ukrainians seeking employment in the UK. That ST Andrews students and alumni have established such an organisation demonstrates the innovation and solicitude that runs within the university community.
I asked Ehrlich what the long-term goal of the organisation was as the conflict continues to persist and aid continues to become increasingly necessary. With the option of a safe and immediate return to Ukraine a continued impossibility — and as organisations like “Save the Children”, among others — calling for governments and individuals to levy out additional energy and resources to help ease the costs of burden sharing in this time of crisis, he has his sights on making the organisation and its impact more robust. He is focused on expanding the team to reach more people and seeking to promote “really exponential growth [within the organisation] in terms of expanding the number of volunteers we have and expanding the number of people we help", he says. “ I want to help as many people as possible and produce really high-quality material in short time frames to help people get on with their lives.”