‘We helped terrified families escape the war’ – One year on since Ukraine

On 24 February 2022, the world watched in horror as Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Missiles were soon raining down on major urban conurbations, including the capital Kuiv, destroying homes, and communities and forcing millions to flee in search of safety.

Within weeks, the UK Government launched the Homes for Ukraine programme, encouraging Brits to welcome refugees into their homes.

Some celebrities have used their wealth and resources to help. Sir Rod Stewart rents a home and pays the bills for a family of seven. The 78 year old rockstar told The Mirror: "They are all very grateful and it just makes me want to do more. I am thinking of getting another house now and getting a lot more people over."

While Dr Alex George offered a Welsh cottage to one family. Speaking at the time he said: "With all of the current devastation in Ukraine, I have decided I would love one of the cottages to be home to a Ukrainian family for as long as they need."

Chris Tarrant welcomed a mother, her baby and elderly mother into his Berkshire home. "They keep talking about going home some time, but I say, ‘You don’t even know what your home’s like. Is it a pile of bricks? You don’t know what’s there waiting for you.’ so they are very welcome to stay," he told The Sun.

A year on from the start of the current conflict, we meet three Ukrainian families and their British hosts, whose experiences speak volumes about the capacity for compassion in a time of fear and hostility…

'At first they were nervous wrecks'

Flea market owner Rosalind Wilkinson, 66, lives in Lewes, East Sussex, with her husband Alan. They are hosting Alina, her mum Natasha and Alina’s two-year-old son Dan.

Rosalind says:

“Last year, seeing pictures of the troops on the Ukrainian border and then watching on TV as everything from a maternity hospital to a residential block of flats was bombed, I was left with the strong feeling that I wanted to do something. I was willing to help in any way I could.

We signed up with a charity in May explaining how we could help. We have an independent at attached to our property with its own entry and front door, containing a kitchen, bathroom and a bedroom with both a double and single bed. We’re less than a mile away from our village, where there’s a school, church, pub and shops.

We were told about a grandmother, Natasha, who was hiding from the missile attacks in a cellar in Kyiv with her daughter Alina and grandson Dan. I picked them up from Luton Airport in June.

We didn’t write a set of ground rules, but we soon discovered the family are very respectful – they don’t impose. At the start we had a few meals together, but ultimately, they want to look after themselves and have their own dignity in their private space.

At first the three of them were nervous wrecks. When a plane flew over the house they patted their hearts, worried a bomb would drop. Another time, a tractor with a trailer passed by which to them sounded like machine gunfire and upset them.

While their English was non-existent to start with, Alina got a job in the kitchen of a nursing home just across from the school where her son Dan attends nursery. It means when Dan finishes she can pick him up during her break, take him home to her mum and return to work. Last week, Alina was named employee of the month and was given wine and a certificate. Dan is in a good routine in nursery school and very happy. He loves playing in the garden – he’s very sociable and a good kid.

The dark country roads meant that, back in September, it wasn’t safe for them to walk to and from the village. So my husband bought a second-hand car at auction which they rent from us.

They’re really nice, decent people and we’re blessed to have them here. People tell me I’m brave, but it’s not like we’re illegally hiding someone in the attic. We do occasionally talk about the war, but I try not to impose too much. Sometimes I see Alina in tears.

If you can open your home to a family in need, it’s incredibly rewarding, not least because innocent human beings like you and me are being killed.”

Alina says:

“With the first explosions of Russian rockets in our city, our life was divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’. Before the war, we had a great life. After the start of the war, that was taken away. We were forced to leave our own home and move to a safer part of Ukraine, hoping it would end as quickly as it started. The most difficult thing was comforting a child. It is difficult for him to understand why we are in the basement, why rockets and planes are flying and why we need to hide.

Only three months into the war, we realised that it was not going to end quickly and made the most difficult decision of our lives – to leave. We turned to volunteers who introduced us to our sponsors, who changed our lives. Rosalind and Alan are an extraordinary family. They surrounded us with support and help. Their sincere smiles inspire calmness and balance. But most importantly, they gave us the opportunity to live under a peaceful sky and a peaceful sleep for our child.

We live in a wonderful little village, where all the people are friendly, smiling and sincere. Every day we miss my father, who remained in Ukraine, but we are happy that our child is safe. England is a beautiful country with beautiful nature and a good climate, although sometimes too much rain! But we love the sea and the beautiful people.

We are endlessly grateful to Alan and Rosalind for opening their peaceful home to us.”

'Iryna has fallen in love with our rescue dog Ava'

Nurse Molli Benson, 24, lives with her partner Jamie Cowley, 25, a recruitment consultant in Tonbridge, Kent. They’re hosting Iryna Sashyna, 26, who is single and previously worked as a cheese and wine specialist in Lviv.

Molli says:

“We’d talked about opening our home last April and made the decision to go ahead in July, after having some home renovations completed. In September, we finally got the green light. The process was quite quick – we attended a seminar where you could ask questions and there were the council and police checks.

Within two weeks of putting our pro le on a charity website, we received a message from Iryna in Lviv. We picked her up from Gatwick Airport mid-December and she soon got settled. She has her own room but we share everything else, such as the kitchen and bathroom. We invited Iryna to spend Christmas in Suffolk with our families so she wouldn’t be on her own. I was keen to show her all our English traditions including the Christmas pudding – but, unfortunately, after lighting the brandy on the pudding, we managed to set the table alight!

We made a book for Iryna that explained all about our daily routine, so she knew a bit about us when she arrived and how we live our lives. That said, we don’t have a set schedule. Everything is very ad hoc between us. It’s like we’re flatmates.

Iryna wasn’t used to having pets, but she’s fallen in love with our rescue dog Ava. Our families weren’t surprised when we announced our plans to host someone from Ukraine. They support our values of giving back and helping others.

Jamie has tried Iryna’s borscht stew – I’m vegan so I declined – and Iryna has enjoyed roast dinners and fish and chips. I gave Duolingo a go for eight months, but we now talk in English. And if we need to discuss something with complicated vocabulary we send texts to one another and translate them. My advice to anyone thinking of hosting is that it’s a big decision and one to think about.

While I don’t want to downplay it, our life hasn’t changed too much. We did it because we can’t control what’s happening in the world, but we could help someone like Iryna.”

Iryna says:

“My family have remained in Ukraine, where I’d been working for a company specialising in cheese and wine for eight years. But I found it hard to stay positive while living in such a dangerous place.

Here in the UK, while there’s lots of rain, I feel safe. I’ve recently got a job picking and packing for a food company, but my goal is to work in the cheese and wine industry again.

Right now, what I do isn’t hard work but it’s work, so that’s good. I don’t know what the future holds. I’ll just have to see how the situation unfolds because in Ukraine it really isn’t great right now.”

‘We introduced them to uniquely British events’

Tracey Hemmerdinger, 56, manager of a young people’s mental health charity, is married to Peter, 56, a charity CEO. They have two daughters, aged 23 and 21, and live in Sheffield. They are hosting Alina Klymovych, 35, control manager of an irrigation channel company, and her son Mark, nine. Alina’s husband Evgen, 38, a company director, is now based in Germany. Alina is currently doing flexi working in the domestic industry.

Tracey says:

“We moved to Sheffield 18 months ago. Our girls had left for university, but we’d bought a four-bedroom property with the intention of supporting young people leaving care.

Last year, while watching Germany open its borders to the Ukrainian people, we knew we needed to do the same. We only had one bedroom to offer because we needed rooms for when the girls came home. After registering our interest, we got chatting in early April with Alina. She was in Kakhovka in the Kherson region of occupied Ukraine and was understandably very frightened.

It took Alina and Mark a while to get out of the country due to red tape, but on 20 May they finally arrived with us.

I wasn’t nervous – I wanted it to be a positive experience – but I still wondered, would we get it right? When you open up your home to strangers, you want it to be the best for them. We decided not to have a rule book about who uses the washing machine when and I cleared out shelves in the fridge and the cupboards so they’d feel they had their own space. Nowadays, we tend to share things like milk and eggs and, in fact, there’s never been a “this is mine” situation. I think it’s why we get on so well together.

I did try to learn some Ukrainian, but it’s a complicated language. As it is, Alina needed to speak English for work, so it was better for us to work on that with her.

We’ve introduced them to some uniquely British events, such as Bonfire night, when we held a house party and attended a display at the pub next door. Mark has fitted right into school – he has a Ukrainian cousin in the same class. It helps that Alina has a sister-in-law who arrived in Sheffield at the same time. I also discovered that in Ukraine, when it’s your birthday you organise everything, so it was lovely for Alina to spoil us all on her big day.

The advice I’d give to anyone thinking of doing this is not to have any expectations. Alina is a real asset in our home. She cooked for us when we were ill and regularly walks our dog Jaffa, a lively Brittany spaniel. Our life has been enhanced by the experience.”

Alina says:

“When Peter picked us up from the airport I was nervous, but he had such a kind face. That first night my son and I were just happy to be safe. It was nerve-wracking walking into Tracey and Peter’s home. I was shy and it was initially hard to find common ground. But they both gave us space to settle in and started to invite us out with them.

It’s very different here compared to Ukraine and we really like it here. I speak a few times a day to my mum, who’s now in Latvia, and to my husband, who’s now in Germany. Mark misses his friends. Everyone here is so smiley though. I’ve been really happy with the support we’ve been given by Tracey and Peter and the lovely, ordinary individuals who help us daily too.”

Reset is still urgently looking for hosts for the Homes For Ukraine scheme and offers a regular, free 40-minute webinar where you can get information about exactly what’s involved. Register at homesforukraine.org.uk

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