‘I feel more alive than I have in years’ 

Hosting has been life changing for superhost Alban. He has been through some rough patches himself over the past few years, and is grateful from the support he received from friends during those difficult times.  Now he feels ready to give back – to ‘pay it forward’, as he explains.

Alban first became interested in the idea of hosting refugees during the summer of 2021 following the fall of Kabul, but unfortunately it didn’t come through. Then in late February 2022, soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Alban decided “It’s time to stop talking and take some bloody action!”  Through Refugees at Home Alban soon became host to his first Ukrainian refugee guest, Dmytro, who stayed with him for eight months before moving on and establishing his independence in the UK (read more about Dymtro’s story here).

As Dmytro was preparing to leave Alban’s home he put him in touch with two Ukrainian friends, Alex and Sofiya, who had fled to Bremen, Germany. In January 2023 the pair arrived to live with Alban under the Homes for Ukraine programme, with support from Refugees at Home.

Alex and Sofiya’s journey

Alex, an entrepreneur and his girlfriend Sofiya, a university student, had been separated by the war for most of 2022.  Just a few days after the invasion on 27 February they fled their homes in Kharkiv along with Sofiya’s parents and some friends. The group quickly gathered their most important belongings, queued for food and petrol for the journey, and headed west toward Lviv and the Polish border.  “The journey took 7-8 days. It’s usually 12 hours, but it was like rush hour throughout the country – one big traffic jam the entire way.”

The decision to leave Kharkiv was not an easy one. As Sofiya and Alex said, “it was hard to decide what to do. We don’t have experience in this! We don’t get training in war preparation.”  Fear prevailed. Sofiya recalled thinking “I don’t want to die. I have my whole life in front of me. I will leave. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Will it get worse?” They set off in shock and disbelief at how their lives had changed in an instant.

But in Western Ukraine Alex and Sofiya had to part ways. Men who are eligible for the military weren’t allowed to cross the border. Alex and Sofiya’s father went to Alex’s parents’ house in Podilsk in Southern Ukraine. Sofiya and her mother first went to Poland and then on to Bremen, Germany to stay with friends. Over the next six months, Sofiya became very depressed. “I didn’t know when Alex and I would see each other again. Would he have to go to war and potentially die?’  She found it difficult to integrate into life in Germany due to language and cultural barriers.

The couple would talk for hours each day and Sofiya was able to visit Alex in Podilsk a few times. During one of her visits over the summer, a rocket exploded nearby. It was as they were sheltering in Alex’s parent’s basement for a week that they decided that Alex also needed to leave the country. “Each city was now dangerous.” Alex was able to get a medical release from the military for health reasons and joined Sofiya in Germany in August.

It was at that point that Dmytro called. Sofiya in particular was scared to move yet again, but the couple did not want to stay in Germany – they felt that they would be able to establish a more normal life in the UK. They didn’t know how long the war would go on and as Alex said, “We wanted to think we could have a future.”  In late January 2023, Alban greeted Alex and Sofiya with open arms, to begin their life in the UK.

“Life is a mosh pit”

“Relax and follow your instincts. Relish the change. Life is a mosh pit. Bounce around in the mosh pit.”

As Alex and Sofiya approach their 2-year anniversary as a couple at the end of February, they are hopeful. Alex feels that “the UK is a good opportunity. I speak English. I understand the people.” They feel incredibly fortunate to be living with Alban with whom they can learn about one another’s culture and languages. “We now have a UK grandfather and friend. He is cool and supportive. It has been a great experience.” They eat together each evening and talk about everything from politics to movies to music.

The trio laughed about cultural communication idiosyncrasies. With his Ukrainian candour, early on Alex said to Alban, “please be direct with me. I won’t understand you otherwise.” Other than that, there are few ‘house rules’. Alban said that “I’m not a rules guy. I negotiate life through humour” which seems to be serving them well. “As long as each of us live as if it’s our own home, it’s not hard.”

Speaking of her future plans, Sofiya says: “We want to say thank you – to Alban and to Refugees at Home. We now have the ability to think about the future.  Up until now, we were just trying to think about the next day, the next hour. And now, step by step, we can think into the future.”

“I feel more alive than I have in years” says Alban. His advice to anyone thinking of hosting is “Relax and follow your instincts. Relish the change. Life is a mosh pit. Bounce around in the mosh pit.”