At Christmas we decided we would convert one of our -spare bedrooms into a guest accommodation space and let it out. We bought a very comfy new bed and rearranged the room to provide the necessary comforts for an overnight stay. We were not in a hurry and took it at a leisurely pace.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th 2022 we were as shocked and saddened as everyone else. We followed the news very closely over the next few weeks, horrified by the images and stories coming out of Ukraine. We donated money to charity to help the people of Ukraine, but it seemed like such a small gesture of help and we wondered how we could do more.
When we heard of the Homes for Ukraine Scheme, the government initiative set up to allow and encourage people in the UK to offer a room to a person from Ukraine, it seemed obvious that we should forget about letting the spare room for profit and offer it, under this scheme, to a Ukrainian person or family. Although this was a government organised scheme, the actual matching of a home to a Ukrainian person was left to those concerned. We signed up to the official matching site and also to various other online groups. Immediately, we were inundated with responses from people searching for sponsors. Living in a village was unattractive to many of the Ukrainians we corresponded with. Many were looking for a home in a large town or city, as they believed this would be the best location for finding work. We were in touch with a family consisting of a young
woman and her parents who were not looking for city life. After exchanging several messages things were looking promising for a match, but then the parents decided they could not face leaving their country and their daughter would not leave without them, so they asked us to offer our home to someone else.
We then matched, via Facebook, with our two female guests. We exchanged messages and then had a video call. It was a little awkward and uncomfortable at first for all parties. We were talking to each other and translating it online at the same time, as their English was limited though still vastly superior to our Ukrainian. We ended the call saying we would consider our decision and let them know.
They are two friends who met at university 14 years ago. They have lived together in Kyiv since their days of studying and wanted to stay together. They told us they couldn't believe that they were no longer safe in Ukraine. They had tried to remain in the capital but when rocket attacks and gunfire prevented them from leaving their apartment even for food, they were forced to flee Kyiv and head to the relative safety of the childhood village where one of them had grown up, and her mother still lives. They made their escape in the back of a large van, on the floor, in the dark with strangers. Someone had told them this van was heading in the right direction and would take as many as possible. They had to hurriedly gather essentials and go. They were taken part way and then the mother came to collect them from this point. It was understandably a very emotional reunion.
We spent the weekend considering our decision and speaking to other people in our village who had also reg. istered for the scheme. On Monday we messaged the girls to confirm we would like to sponsor them.
We decided to the language difficulties. The first visa application took five hours to complete, the second only two. It was laborious but when it was finally completed, all parties felt happy and excited that the wheels were in motion.
Over the next week we had a visit from our council to inspect our property to ensure it was safe to receive guests. We also completed the mandatory DBS applications. Over the next twenty-four days the wait was very difficult. There was no way of checking the progress of the applications which was incredibly frustrating. We contacted our MP and the Home Secretary to try to keep pressure on the system to process the applications rapidly. We still don't know if it had any effect, but it seemed the only thing available to us to feel less helpless during the waiting process.
During the waiting time we exchanged daily messages, getting to know more about each other, learning about our families, our likes and dislikes. We exchanged photos of our homes and gardens and we really became invested in each other. We were very keen for the Permission to Travel letters to arrive and I checked my emails every few minutes willing them to be there. After waiting two weeks the girls decided to travel to Poland believing the visas to be imminent. They made an arduous bus journey across Ukraine to the Polish border. They were held up by the queues of thousands of fleeing Ukrainians waiting to have their passports checked in order to enter Poland, they waited for eighteen hours in the bus at the checkpoint. In total, this journey took thirty-six hours. In Poland they stayed in Krakow, in a disused former shopping centre that had been turned into a makeshift refugee camp for Ukrainians. It's hard to imagine how they must have felt. When finally the emails arrived, just after noon, we immediately forwarded them on to the girls. We were all so happy. They were so keen to come straight away that we started to look for flights as soon as possible. I had tickets for a concert that evening and I went out leaving my husband, Andrew, liaising with the girls to find a flight in a few days. When I came out of the theatre at about 11pm, he called me to say he had found a flight and they would be arriving at 7.30 the next morning! Most things were ready in the bedrooms but it was still short notice, and I had no sleep that night.
When we arrived at the airport in the morning, we could see immediately little groups of people sitting on their suitcases in the car park looking tired and bewildered. It was a sobering sight that really hammered home the plight of these poor, innocent people forced from their homes through absolutely no fault of their own. When we finally found our girls inside the airport building there was great relief all round. I will never forget seeing the relief on their faces when they recognised us. I kept thinking how nervous they must have been, wondering if these strangers they had met online would actually turn up to the airport. They had put a huge amount of trust in us.
This feeling has stayed with me and always will.
Initially there was a lot of administration to go through when they arrived. Registering with a GP was very easy and their NHS numbers arrived in a couple of days. Registering with a dentist was only possible privately. They needed bank accounts and mobile phone accounts. We had to go to a visa processing centre to have their biometric details recorded in order to receive the full threeyear visa. We applied for the NI numbers online, which was very straightforward and we received these within 2 weeks. We had three or four visits to the job centre as part of the universal credit application process. All of this was new to us all, the staff at the job centre were extremely helpful and kind, and made the process as straightforward as possible. We made an appointment at a local recruitment agency who were very sympathetic to the plight of
the Ukrainian people and were determined to find them work. With minimal English language, they would not be able to be employed in their previous occupations of marketing manager and accountant. They were very keen to find employment and went for an interview at a local factory. At the interview they felt daunted by the manufacturing task and the company very kindly suggested they start in the packing department. This proved successful and they have been working full time for the last three months.
The first month was extremely busy with so many appointments, form filling, phone calls to made by us on their behalf. It was almost a full-time job for the first few weeks, our lives were put on hold to try to help our new guests. It was very intensive, but also very rewarding to see how pleased they were with the kindness shown to them by various organisations and local people. We live in a rural area with no public transport so we have had to give a lot of lifts. Other people in our village have wanted to help and they have been very kind in offering regular lifts to work and the village has also provided a pop-up shop with free clothes and other items donated by residents. Free English lessons were held in our village facilitated by a villager keen to help. They have been included in parties and village events that we have been invited to and made to feel very welcome. They socialise, without us, with some of the other Ukrainian guests in the village and that is very good to see.
Right from the start, these two girls (as they prefer to be called) have been extremely conscious of being in our home and show the utmost respect for it and everything in it. They keep everything clean and tidy and want to help us with the housework at every opportunity. Before they arrived, we were concerned that our cultures and lifestyles might make the experience very difficult but this has not proven to be the case. We could not have hoped for better people to welcome to our home. We do a lot together, we go to the pub, the supermarket, events held locally for sponsors and guests, visit other towns, and we have had a little weekend break by the sea. We eat together and cook for each other. They are adventurous in the food they like to try and have wanted to try everything we have offered, even if they think it is strange or "interesting". We have discovered the delights of borscht, buckwheat and Napoleon cake to name but a few of the dishes our guests have prepared for us. Household tasks are shared without discussion, we just do it and it works for us all. We have shared each other's joy and sadness and laughed and cried together, but they have always been very discreet and aware of our privacy and personal space. We know that some sponsors have not found things quite as straightforward and a lot depends on the personality mix of both sponsors and guests and we consider that we have been extremely fortunate to have found two very special girls who fit so well with our way of life.