Like hundreds of thousands of British people, we watched in dismay the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the plight of so many refugees. As part-retired empty-nesters we felt we had the time and space to offer to host Ukrainian refugees under the Homes for Ukrainians scheme and do something practical to help in this ghastly situation.
From friends in Taunton, we got details of a Ukrainian family and so did not need to link up to named refugees via a charity or similar organisation. Helped by their and phone app translations, we made contact with our intended family. Some of the family had been outside of Ukraine when the invasion started. They were reunited in Poland where they were able to regroup and start the Byzantine process of getting visas into the UK.
Despite smartphone messages and help from Ukrainian speakers, filling in the first online application form took 4 hours. All four members of the family had to make their own individual application. There followed an embarrassing pause while the applications were processed. Safe but uncomfortable in Poland, the family could only wait while getting no information about any progress. We took advantage of this lull to start online learning the Ukrainian alphabet and a few useful words and phrases, and painting the spare room.
Getting all four visas was like a dreadful, drawn out game of Bingo. Finally the bureaucratic process was complete and the family embarked on the drive from Poland, through Germany and Belgium, to England. The cross-channel ferry to Dover then the 5 hour drive to Somerset and finally a text message “we’re here”!
After having exchanged many texts, the arrival of our guests was like welcoming old friends. It seems that pizza is the favourite international food. We are able to provide them with bedrooms, their own bathroom and their own kitchen. Shared areas – sitting and dining rooms, big kitchen with Aga – are gradually settling into a kind of pattern. The dog is very much shared as they had to leave their dog behind in Kviv with friends.
After hugs and handshakes, the reality of four foreign, virtual strangers moving into our home started to sink in. We had expected every permutation of human physical and psychological damage and the family of four (parents and two children, age 13 and 6) were understandably nervous and subdued, fatigued from the long journey.
They were well-dressed and well-equipped, quite unlike the newsreel image of refugees fleeing the war zone. Because most of the family were trapped outside Ukraine and met up in Poland, it’s likely that the prolonged wait for visas while in Poland had blunted their original emotional reaction. Later, when we got to know them better, we recognised the rather fatalistic acceptance of Ukraine’s history and the coercive controlling influence of Russia.
Hosting refugees was a small humanitarian gesture and our micro-act of defiance toward Putin. So we started to focus our attention towards the welfare of our guests. We made a best guess when filling the fridge for them with staples and comfort food. A quick Google search confirmed that Ukrainians drink tea in a variety of forms.
As they became more settled, and we shared meals and watched the Eurovision Song Contest together our relationship with them gradually developed into real friendship. They are really lovely people who are obviously concerned about family and friends still in Ukraine.
Although smiley most of the time, just occasionally we would get glimpses into their psychological state – hear snippets of emotional phone calls and see the six-year old boy’s drawings of warplanes and tanks; photos of family holidays on idyllic Black Sea beaches, now a minefield and in Russian hands, and their handsome corgi left behind with others in Kviv. Then there was the matter of fact account of 90 year old бабуся (grandmother) being transported to Siberia in 1949.
Day 8: Welfare meeting with council
As well as sight-seeing tours to local landmarks, there was quite a lot of driving the family to the necessary administrative meetings. Various local WhatsApp groups of would-be hosts had prepared us for what needed to happen next and also highlighted the effort and personal costs which some hosts had undertaken in helping their guests get to the UK. There were some inspirational good Samaritans as well as humorous tales of Great British cock-ups and mishaps.
But first the welfare meeting with the County Council. This turned out to be an efficient and friendly meeting, unlike some of the stories which had been circulating. This unlocked the initial £200 payment which resulted in a tangible relaxing of tension for our family.
Our WhatsApp contacts steered us towards local schools which had already enrolled Ukrainian children and had adopted fairly open-door policies. After visiting a few local schools as prospective parents and proxies, it was a remarkably smooth and painless process to fill in the registration form, acquire the minimal uniform requirement and proudly post the children into their new schools (Day 13).
It turns out that Sofia, age 13, is a gifted junior tennis player. She was too good for her peers at our local tennis club and was steered towards a Performance Tennis Programme at the Blackbrook Sports Centre in Taunton. Just over four weeks after arrival in the UK she is participating in her first tournament.
We have received a lot of interest from friends and colleagues about our experience of hosting a Ukrainian family. We have been shameless about blagging favours from all and sundry from use of tennis courts for practice to children’s bicycles. Alas, the All England Tennis Club could not be persuaded to offer a VIP hospitality package for Wimbledon!
Lyudmila, the mother, and Sofia have a reasonable grasp of English. We have been trying to learn some Ukrainian via Duolingo. Even mastering the Cyrillic alphabet is quite an achievement! With the help of their English, Google translate, patience and good humour we have managed to communicate effectively.
House inspection (Day 21)
Two day-glo clad representatives from the Public Health Department visited to check room-sizes, fire alarms and facilities. Luckily, we are able to accommodate them in a way that gives them relative independence. We share meals occasionally and have enjoyed borshch, meatballs and various dumplings.
There is a lot of networking among the other Ukrainians in the locality and their hosts. A get-together at a local cafe ended in much joviality and Ukrainian singing – even before the country’s success in the Eurovision Song Contest.
In spite of being repeatedly DBS~checked during our working lives as GPs, my wife and I both had to undergo another enhanced DBS check for the purpose of hosting a Ukrainian family with children. Despite being arranged at the same time, one DBS check has been completed and returned, while the other is still awaited. It seems somewhat anachronistic that the paper copy of the check has to be presented in person to one or other council office to complete the process. Only when this is done will the ‘thank you payment’ of £350 be released.
A month into hosting the family, we have found it both an interesting and rewarding experience. It has been full-on and quite time-consuming but we are pleased to have got involved and, having bitten it off, are happy to keep on chewing.