26 Sep 2022
When you feel hopeless and powerless, even the smallest effort to help others (especially those in need) can empower and bring you hope as well. In the face of catastrophe, that’s exponentially so – undoubtedly it’s why many donate to disaster relief regularly, and why so many have donated to the war in Ukraine. This horrific tragedy is one close to home, and the scale of it – nearly 10 million displaced by early summer – has been an impetus for many British people to do go out of their way to help, even to the point of opening their homes.
Since the UK’s launch of Homes for Ukraine, a housing scheme for refugees that relies on volunteers and public funding via councils, thousands of Ukrainians have come to the UK seeking refuge and respite. They are given the right to live, work and study, and access schooling, healthcare and basic funding, in the hopes that they can try to get on their feet, even whilst depending on the goodwill of hosts to provide them with a roof over their heads. Most are desperate to return home, to the lives they built, or to rebuild again in their home country when they can. In the meantime, they are immensely grateful for the assistance they have received. And it’s been a powerful bonding experience for those of us who have become hosts.
It didn’t take long for my husband and I to decide to do host, as I have Ukrainian roots and the story of displacement by war is sadly familiar. All of my grandparents were WWII refugees – one grandmother was pregnant and my mother born safely in a basement, thanks to the generosity of an Austrian family who took them in as bombs flew overheard. On my father’s side, my grandmother fled across war-torn Europe with two small boys, knowing her husband was unlikely to be seen alive again. To see this happening again in Ukraine is incredibly painful. What if no one had taken in my family? Would I be safe and sound in a free Western country now?
In March we signed up for Homes for Ukraine, and through personal contacts we quickly heard of a mother and two daughters in desperate straits. Russians had already taken their hometown of Berdyansk on the Black Sea coast, not far from Mariupol, which began to endure unimaginable shelling. Further north, atrocities were being committed, even to women and children, in the towns of Irpin and Bucha, outside Kyiv. We reached out and urged this mother to flee with her children. All of us were fighting fear, powerlessness and hopelessness. For us, it felt far from a ‘small thing’ to do. Collectively, we all realised this act was nothing less than stretching a lifeline across Europe, helping save lives.
Alona Shevchenko, age 33, and her 3-year old Maria and 12-year-old Anastasiia, bravely left home in early April before Easter and crossed several hostile Russian checkpoints to make it to Zaporizhia, a city north and then still in Ukrainian hands (where the safety of one of Europe’s largest nuclear facilities is now threatened). From there, our refugee family boarded a train to Lviv, in western Ukraine, where they stayed a week with our relatives. They were then driven across the Ukraine-Poland border to Przemysl, a crossing point which at the height of crisis saw nearly 35,000 people a day traversing – equal to the existing population of the town. But the indefatigable spirit of the Poles – taking people in, putting them on trains and driving great distances – was inspiring. Like many other British citizens who joined Homes for Ukraine, we felt part of a global effort for human kindness to triumph over evil.
After a month and a half at our friend’s house in Poland awaiting UK visas, the family finally received approval. On June 11 at Stansted, their harrowing and exhausting journey was over, an emotional meeting all around. Over the next few weeks, we helped them with administrative tasks (getting BRP residency and work cards, access to universal credit and GPs) as well as helping find school places and settling them into the community. ElmbridgeCAN (ECAN), a local refugee charity that has simply been astounding, had already wasted no time in signing me up to help and getting weekly coffee morning hubs running in many local towns – Weybridge, Walton, Cobham and Claygate – so I too became part of that continuous effort. Ukrainian refugees found it invaluable to be able to come to hubs for support – from technical to relationship-building – and ECAN has grown to several hundred volunteers assisting not only recently arrived Ukrainians but also the Afghans and Syrians they started out serving.
In a time of crisis, no one can afford to do nothing. Crisis takes its toll on all of us, and helping really does help everyone involved. Hosting a family has been so rewarding – from the joyous sight of Peppa Pig on my staircase when our own family ‘baby’ is at A-Levels, to sharing experiences, food and culture and helping them learn English. There are incredible resources in our community – from Brooklands College, where many newcomers take lessons, to our local job centre, which helps process them – so widespread support is available for anyone who hosts. Elmbridge Borough Council and Surrey County Council have also been quick to support, advise and facilitate.
As this war continues to take its toll, many more Ukrainians are still in need, and the uncertainty of how the conflict will end means many more who are already here don’t know when it will be safe to return. For the foreseeable future, we’ll need as many homes as possible to host those who have fled war. On the six-month anniversary of Homes for Ukraine, please consider hosting if you have the space and means. You will be saving lives, and you will feel very good about it.
Interested in hosting a family already here? Get in touch with ECAN, as we have a list of people waiting to be rehoused once their current six-month hosting is up
Image: Host Lesia with guest daughter Anastasiia at her new school in June
Image: The Shevchenko-Androsov family together in better times in Berdyansk