“The care of this family fills my soul. I have my power back”
Maryna and Julia describe the long journey from Ukraine to the UK and their relief at finding home with Sarah and Paul.
Hosts Sarah and Paul didn’t realise how traumatised their Ukrainian guests Yulia and Maryna were until about eight weeks into their stay.
The two women in their mid-thirties had made an arduous journey from their homes in Chernihiv in northern Ukraine, a city besieged by Russian forces during the first six weeks of the war. They arrived at Luton Airport in October 2022 exhausted and shell-shocked from the experience of living in a city under siege.
Maryna feels that it was only after being in the safety of Sarah and Paul’s home in Harpenden for a few months that “I could start to see the future”. Sarah agrees: “if you live with that level of anxiety for an extended amount of time, part of you shuts down. Fortunately, we are giving them space to recover.” Sarah noticed changes in her guests as they started to relax. They started talking more. And they were able to share more about their experiences over the past year. “Maryna in particular was like a coiled spring,” says Sarah, “and then she blossomed like a flower.”
Maryna and Yulia are successful professionals and entrepreneurs. Maryna is a self-employed business coach and continues to work with clients when possible. Yulia ran a drama studio in Chernihiv but that business no longer exists – it was bombed during the initial Russian invasion. She now teaches drama on Zoom and has written a play about her experience of war. Unbelievably, the two women met only five years ago when Maryna participated in one of Yulia’s drama workshops. Little did they know where their friendship would take them.
In the first 40 days of the invasion, it was too risky to leave. “They killed everyone – families with children….,” Maryna’s voice trails off. Maryna and Yulia stayed in Chernihiv, helping their parents and the people they knew and loved. “There was a lot to do,” says Yulia. They were anxious about leaving their homes, husbands, and families but knew how dangerous it was to stay. Not only was the shelling relentless – Sarah explains that “young women are vulnerable when the Russian troops are about. It is a very frightening place to be.”
It was Yulia’s idea to ask Maryna to go to Britain with her. “We are similar and I knew that I could rely on her. It was a very stressful situation and I knew we could lean on each other.” Yulia researched which countries to go to and which charities could be helpful and felt moved by the level of support Britain was providing to Ukraine and Ukrainians. She applied to multiple charities and waited – and waited – and was thrilled when she heard from Refugees at Home. She recalls R@H reaching out and asking “do you still need help?” to which she responded with an emphatic “yes!”
Yulia and Maryna started their long journey to Hertfordshire from the war-torn city of Chernihiv on yet another day of shelling. They boarded a bus for a harrowing eight hour ride to Kyiv and then onto a train for fifteen hours which took them to Krakow, Poland. From Krakow, they were finally on a plane for the last leg of their journey to Luton Airport. Sarah and Paul were very worried about the safety of their soon-to-be guests and texted them throughout the journey. Fortunately, the two exhausted women arrived safely and into the arms and home of Sarah and Paul who enthusiastically and nervously greeted them, waving a Ukrainian flag and a welcome sign.
“It could happen to us”
Sarah, a retired solicitor and Paul, a semi-retired finance executive, were initially inspired to become hosts to refugees during the Syrian crisis. But they were both working full time then and didn’t have the flexibility to accommodate many of the prospective guests. A few years later, when the Homes for Ukraine scheme was announced, Sarah and Paul immediately signed up.
“When you see something so devastating happening to people just like you, you want to do something positive,” explains Sarah. “One day everything is normal and the next day you are bombed by an aggressive neighbor. It could be us. There are so few times you can do something practical to help. Hosting refugees felt like a practical thing to do.” .
The couple heard about Refugees at Home in the news and felt the charity seemed credible and trustworthy. Their impression was confirmed by a rigorous assessment and matching process. “We wanted to make sure we were helping people who really needed it,” the couple say. They appreciated that an R@H team member came to their house and explained the whole process.
Yulia and Maryna feel so lucky to have been matched with Sarah, Paul and their dog Flo. “It’s beautiful. We are with the gold family.” The duo are full of gratitude that they now “feel safe and secure in this world.” For Sarah and Paul, the experience has been delightful. “Yulia and Maryna are similar in age to our children. They are professionally oriented and it feels very familiar.”
The four eat together most evenings and they all like to cook. They laugh that initially they all gained weight as they were introducing each other to their respective country’s traditional – and mostly oily, fried, and sweet -foods. They now enjoy healthier meals as they talk about culture and films and learn about one another while their guests practice their English. They have traveled into St. Albans and London together and explored museums. Sarah and Paul’s friends and family have also been very supportive and have welcomed Yulia and Maryna into their homes. “The care of this family fills my soul. I have my power back,” says Maryna.
Facing an uncertain future
“None of us can see into the future. We can’t say when the war will be over. We can only look at tomorrow and the day after and the day after that,” Sarah believes. For now, Yulia and Maryna are both working in the UK – Yulia has a job at a local store while remotely teaching drama and Maryna is working remotely as a business coach. They have each been back to Ukraine to help and support family, friends, and neighbors. For the foreseeable future, they plan to split their time between the UK and Chernihiv.
None of us can see into the future … We can only look at tomorrow and the day after, and the day after that
“We signed up to host for six months but they are welcome to stay longer,” says Sarah. “Hosting has been easy. What they are doing is not.”
Sarah and Paul have some sound advice for anyone considering hosting: “Do it. You may only have one chance in life. You will learn a lot. But make sure you and your partner are on the same page. Talk it through carefully with one another and then be clear with your guests about some basic house rules.”
“Refugees are traumatized. The last thing they need is to feel your stress. Be able to trust people. People are happy to fit into your routine…they just need to know what it is. They need to feel comfortable – and safe!”