Londoners on the joy of hosting Ukrainian refugees for Christmas

‘We’re each other’s family now’: Londoners on the joy of hosting Ukrainian refugees for Christmas
December 22, 2022
Article by: Katie Strick
Published in: Evening Standard


This year, many families across the capital will be joined by some special guests for the festive period. Katie Strick hears their moving stories


22 Dec 2022

These are just some of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees who’ll be spending Christmas with their British hosts as the war rages on in their home country. For some, it’ll be a celebration: a chance to toast to their new adopted families in the UK, share in the festive spirit and experience a new set of traditions. For many others, it’s an emotional reminder of those traditions and loved ones they’re missing back at home. Either way, hosting is far from a one-way street: those who’ve opened up their homes say inviting refugees into their homes has been deeply moving, hugely rewarding and given them friends for life.

From the empty-nester who says her Ukrainian guests have been a Christmas godsend, to the refugee whose wife and sons have arrived just in time for the big day, here are some of their most heartwarming stories.

‘They tell me I’m a godsend – but they’re the real godsends’

Orly Cohen, 60, a special needs teacher living in Finchley

My neighbour and her husband have been hosting Valentyna and Tamara, two Ukrainian sisters in their forties or fifties, since the summer and I’ve been teaching them English since they arrived. Valentyna was an accountant back in Ukraine and Tamara was a nursery school teacher and we quickly became good friends.

My husband is ill with Alzheimer’s and I knew my daughter would be leaving home in September for university, so I asked them if they knew anyone else who needed hosting. Valentyna said yes: her son’s best friend Borys, 26, and his wife Olena, 25 – both maths teachers from a small village near Kyiv – needed sponsorship, so I applied for them to live in the flat I own next to my house.

From our first WhatsApp conversation, I knew it wouldn’t go wrong. I don’t know what it was exactly, but I lived in Israel for many years so I know what it’s like to have bombs falling on your head. They arrived into Luton airport on September 15, five days after my daughter left home, and got the bus to Golders Green. I met them there and there were lots of hugs and kisses. It was love at first sight; like we’d known each other forever.

I lived in Israel for years so I know what it’s like to have bombs falling on your head… it was like we’d known each other forever

We’ve quickly become each other’s family. Living in their own flat means Borys and Olena have total independence but I teach them English along with Valentyna and Tamara and we all go out together at the weekends. This weekend we went to a Ukrainian show in a local church and over the months we’ve done all the big sights. I’ve taken them to Sky Garden, to Big Ben, Covent Garden, Chinatown… It feels like I’m a tourist again in my own city.

Borys and Olena keep telling me I’m a godsend. “You are our family here,” they say. But I tell them it is them who are godsends. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have a family here either. It feels like something good has come out of something bad.

Most Ukrainians normally celebrate Christmas according to the orthodox calendar, on January 7, and I’m Jewish so December 25 isn’t normally relevant for any of us. But this year we’ve decided a party is a party, so we’ll celebrate it together. My husband is Christian and I’d celebrate it with him, so it’s nice to have an excuse to celebrate it again with Borys and Olena. They’ve never seen crackers or turkey before, so it’ll be fun. Christmas is supposed to be a family day and we are family now.

‘It’s been important for our children to realise how lucky we are’

Sam Hope, 44, and Malcolm Devoy, 44, a full-time mother and advertising officer living with their four children in Forest Hill

Our children – Rae, 12, Isla, 10, Louis, eight, and Zebedee, five – are used to having extra people in the house as we’ve had various friends and au pairs staying with us over the years. So when the crisis in Ukraine coincided with our last au pair moving out, we felt like hosting was something small that we could do to help. The children were pretty socially-conscious anyway and just wanted to help — children are quite simplistic in that way, they didn’t really question it.

We initially contacted the charity Refugees at Home as we knew they were experienced with managing the transition of refugees into the home. They told us they had a father, Vasyl Hrynkiv, 43, and his niece, Nadiia Samokushin, 19, who’d had to split from the rest of their family to look for accommodation, so we applied to host them through the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Vasyl and Nadiia moved in with us at the end of August and it’s been lovely. We don’t interact all the time — we want them to have their own space and independence — but we’ve had drinks together in the evenings and the children play card games together. Apparently UNO crosses all languages.

Vasyl was a music teacher back in Ukraine so he’s also started teaching my son Louis to play the violin. He doesn’t speak much English so they comunicate through guestures and it’s so sweet to see them getting on so well. I think it’s been really important for Vasyl to feel like he’s contributing something to our household, too.

Nadiia is relatively quiet but speaks a little more English. She’s currently studying remotely with her college back in Ukraine and I’m amazed by her courage every day. I certainly didn’t have the skills or bravery to live in a new country and navigate my way around a new city when I was that age. It’s sad that she had to split from the rest of her family to find accomodation, but her mother and sister are living down the road in East Dulwich, so her sister comes over a lot and I often see them pointing and laughing at my youngest, Zebedee, who is a complete show-off. They find him funny.

Vasyl has been teaching my son Louis to play the violin – it’s important for him to feel like he’s contributing

Vasyl and I have mostly had to communicate through Google Translate on our phones. He and Nadir have been so incredibly grateful and respectful throughout, to the point where I keep having to tell them they don’t have to keep saying thank you or creep round the house. It was only in his his first week of living with us that we discovered that Vasyl had a wife, Mariia, and two sons, Nazar, 10, and Ostap, two, still living in Ukraine – it turns out they’d had to split up as a family because they couldn’t find accomodation as a group. We were really shocked.

Since then, we’ve spent the last three months chasing Vasyl’s wife and sons’ visas through our local MP. It’s been heartbreaking how long it’s taken for them to get here. Vasyl has been so stressed and frightened for them — until last weekend, they were living in freezing conditions in Ukraine, in a house with no gas, electricity or water. They were having to collect water from a well.

The good news is they’re finally here: they arrived at our house on Saturday, Malcolm’s birthday, three months after we first applied for sponsorship, and it’s obviously early days, but it’s going well. Officially, parents and children aren’t supposed to share a room but they just really want to sleep side-by-side, after being apart for so long and through so much trauma. We’ve given them the option of some bunkbeds next to the double bed in one of the rooms so they can choose.

We don’t want to put any pressure on them when it comes to Christmas. I’ve bought in a tonne of mince pies and crackers so they can dip their toe in, and we’ve bought some little gifts for them all: some mulled wine, biscuits and fleecy bedding for the parents, chocolate father Christmasses, toys and fleecy hoodies for the children. The plan is for them to stay with us for at least six months, but we wanted to give them things they can take with them when they decide to move on.

As for Christmas Day itself, some friends will be coming over to celebrate with us so it’ll be a bit of an open house and we’ve made it clear that our Ukrianian guests can join for whatever bits they want to be part of. There’s no expectation, especially given that Ukrainians traditionally don’t celebrate on December 25 anyway — the orthodox celebration is on January 7.

The whole process has been very easy so far and I believe it’s been really important for all of us, particularly the children. It’s been very sweet to see them interacting with our Ukrainian guests and really important for them to know how lucky we are to be in this country and this situation. If strangers started bombing London, we’d want someone to do the same thing and give us refuge.

‘Cooking for each other has brought us together’

Bohdana Kryviak, 41, and her daughter Anastasia, 24, a medical lecturer and an exam officer from Lviv living with hosts Nikki and Tom in Kentish Town

My daughter Anastasia, 24, and I have been living with a lovely British host family – Nikki and Tom, and their sons Joe, 24, and Zack, 21 – since the summer and we’ll all be spending Christmas together. In many ways, it’ll feel normal: we’ve had supper together every evening since we arrived; we’ve celebrated birthdays together; and we’ve become a big part of each others’ families, going to Ukrainian events and concerts around London, to their sons’ ballet performances, to the local parks and Hampstead Ponds. I was a senior lecturer in Latin medical terminology in Lviv and now have an administrative job at a GP practice in north London, and Nikki is a paediatric physiotherapist and Tom is a clinical neurophysiologist, so we had a medical link, which was nice.

A lovely part of our time in London has been introducing each other to foods and traditions from our two countries. Tom cooked us a delicious lasagne on our first night and has introduced us to a lot of British dishes since, and I’ve been cooking Ukrainian dishes for the family and some of Nikki’s friends.

This will be my first Christmas here in London and I’ve enjoyed all the traditions so far: I recently went to Harrods with some Ukrainian friends, which was amazing; and last weekend we went to a switching-on of some Christmas lights. On Saturday, another British host family and their Ukrainian guests came round to the house and we all cooked Ukrainian dumplings together around the table, wearing traditional Ukrainian shirts. It was really special, but it was also really emotional because we weren’t with my mother and brother who are still back in Ukraine.

We all cooked Ukrainian dumplings together around the table – it was emotional

Fortunately, Nikki and Tom have been very supportive. We’ll spend Christmas Day at home together: they’ll cook me some of the traditional British foods and I’m going to cook a traditional Ukrainian soup called Borscht. There are two types of Borscht: sometimes you have it with meat, but for Christmas you have it without meat.

The Christmas tree isn’t decorated yet but we will do that together, and exchange presents. Boxing Day is a new thing to me – we don’t have that in Ukraine, we have St Nicholas Day on December 19 instead – and most Ukrainians tend to celebrate Christmas on January 7, anyway.

We won’t celebrate that as much this year given everything that’s happened, but we’ll probably make some Ukrainian food as a way of feeling closer to my mother and brother. Their Christmas dinner in Ukraine will be smaller this year, but they’ll still cook a nice dinner and have candles. I miss them terribly, but I’m so grateful to have such a lovely family to celebrate with here in the UK.