by Richard Pooley
Our Ukrainians, Tanya and her 15-year old son, Daniel, have been in our house in Bath, UK, since 13 June. I was told during a Zoom call with officers from our local council that it is patronising to call them “our Ukrainians”. I should say “Our Ukrainian guests”. “So”, Tanya asked me, “can I not say ‘Our British’ to Dmitri (her husband, back in Kyiv)?” Our Tanya has no time for such political correctness.
Tanya is a teacher of English, born and brought up in Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine. She teaches online, something she can do as well from our house in the UK as she could from her flat in Kyiv (though she was quick to tell me that our internet speed was woefully slow by comparison; we got it upgraded to her and Daniel’s satisfaction within two weeks of her arrival). Her students are mostly Ukrainians, Arabs and Iranians who wish to become teachers of English themselves. Next week she will be teaching Russians, some based in Turkey, some probably based in Russia. "It will be interesting," she says. She likes understatement.
Russian is her mother tongue but she is fluent in Ukrainian and English (and pretty good in Bulgarian, she says). Her sister, an accountant in Mykolaiv’s shipyard, is much older than her and thus took a typical Soviet era view of her little sister’s study of English at Kyiv University: “It’s not practical. It won’t help you get a job.” Tanya has told me this story twice, once in our introductory Zoom call before she and Daniel left Ukraine and again when we were driving them from Bristol airport to Bath. She relishes having proved her sister wrong but remains close to her and their mother, both of whom are still in Mykolaiv and hence subject to daily missile attacks from the Russians (they came in the night on Tuesday morning, "the heaviest night of shelling residents can remember", according to the BBC's Sarah Rainsford). Her mother suffered a stroke shortly after Putin’s forces invaded, as did so many other elderly Ukrainians, according to Tanya.
I signed up for the UK’s Homes for Ukraine Scheme on the first day of its launch, over two weeks after Putin had ordered his troops to invade. It soon became clear that the UK’s Home Office under Priti Patel, herself the daughter of economic migrants from Uganda, was making it as difficult as possible for refugees from Ukraine to get visas quickly, even those with relatives already in the UK. Patel must have been astonished when by April over 200,000 people in the UK had said they were prepared to host Ukrainians fleeing Putin’s war. It took longer for me to realise that Patel and her officials were not going to do anything to help potential hosts find their “guests”. So, in April I posted what we could offer on www.hostukraine.eu, a site set up by a bunch of youngsters, mostly from the Ukrainian diaspora and Italy. But it was not until 16 May that I first got a credible request to take up that offer. It was from Tanya. We had a Zoom call with her two days later at the rented flat in Chernivisti she, Daniel and Dmitri had fled to from Kyiv. I’ll let Tanya take up their story:
“We spent Feb 24 and 25 in Kyiv hiding either in the basement of our block of flats or at the metro station. Luckily, they are deep enough. Remember, we have the deepest station in the world (Arsenalna; about 100 metres deep).
Then we moved to the western part [of Ukraine]. On our way to Chernivisti we spent two days with a family we had never met before but they were eager to help people. Because of fuel shortage we spent 6 hours in a queue at the gas station (by the way, there were cars with people stranded on the road because they simply ran out of gas). So, we go to Chernivisti. A beautiful city. Little Vienna some people call it. We returned to Kyiv after 3 months.”
I warned Tanya that it might be months between applying for her UK visa and it being granted. She didn’t need telling. Ukrainian media were full of stories of would-be refugees to the UK failing to get their visas or of mothers getting them but their children not. Meanwhile the same media (and Tanya) were calling UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson the saviour of Ukraine by leading the West’s attempts to help Ukraine defeat Putin.
So, Tanya did not seem too surprised when she and Daniel, within a week of their application, got an email from the UK Government giving them permission to go to the UK. This didn’t look like a visa to me but Tanya ignored my scepticism. She and Daniel booked to fly to Bristol from Rzeszow in Poland on 13 June. Back to Tanya:
Kyiv to Premysl by train took 12 hours. Spent about 2 hours on the border [Not only to negotiate Polish border control. The railway gauge is different between Poland and Ukraine] Nearly missed our next train to Rzeszow. Still can’t believe we managed to jump onto the train in the last minute.
Arrived in Rzeszow. Had to catch a bus to the airport. It turned out there was only one bus running every hour, and it had left exactly 10 minutes before our arrival. So it meant we could miss our flight to Bristol! We got a bit lost trying to make it to the bus stop. Asking locals wasn’t helpful as even speaking Russian, Ukrainian and English couldn’t make up for the lack of Polish language knowledge. Google maps were useful. Eventually, we caught our bus to the airport.
Rzeszow airport. There was a long conversation with airline workers as we didn’t have any visa stamps in our passport. We had to prove our permission emails we had received before were our ‘visas’. I knew some examples of people not allowed to board their flight despite having all the documents.
Our flight was okay.”
It would have been crass to have told her that anybody who has tried to travel around Europe recently wouldn’t have thought such a trip too arduous. But such an anybody was not fleeing murder, rape and mutilation.
And Daniel? He will be 16 in September but is already a professional chess player. His school is a ‘Mathematics Lyceum’ in Kyiv. Covid-19 and now Putin have forced him to attend online for much of the past two years. Not that he seems to mind. He has spent nearly all his time at our house in his room playing chess or other games online, often with his father. “Typical teenager”, you may say, and you would be right. But it’s not the online bit that has excited him. It’s those words “his room”. His parents’ flat in central Kyiv is in an old Soviet era block. It has just one bedroom. Daniel has never had his own room before; he’s always slept in the sitting room. Privacy is a delightful new concept.
Helping Tanya find a school in Bath appropriate for Daniel has not been easy. The best independent school in the city, after much hesitation, said they could not accept him: they already had too many home-grown applicants for the coming school year. However, thanks to the forceful intervention of one of our neighbours, one of the best state schools in the city has agreed to take him instead. They invited him to join his fellow pupils in an activity week at the end of this term and are taking on a Ukrainian interpreter from the start of next term to help him and other Ukrainian children. Good thinking: the school claims to specialise in teaching Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). Having a Maths whizz like Daniel will surely be a boon. The Ukrainian Ministry of Education has more than once changed its own policy on what to do with the millions of Ukrainian children now abroad whose education has been disrupted. A fortnight ago Daniel was told he would be able to carry on learning online at his specialist school in Kyiv. Last week Tanya cast doubt on this: “All schools are busy collecting money from parents and inviting them to dig out basements. Weird.” The implication is that Ukrainian children will need to attend school in person by day and sleep in basements during the night.
By 21 June 82,100 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in the UK, of whom 55,500, like Tanya and Daniel, were on the Homes for Ukraine (H4U) Sponsorship Scheme. The rest were on the Family Visa Scheme. These latter had generally been the first arrivals: those who had family to come to in the UK. But Patel and her officials decided only to provide financial and local government support to the H4U ones - £350 per month for hosts for up to 12 months, £200 to be given to each refugee on a pre-paid card shortly after arrival, £10,500 to each council to provide assistance in applying for benefits, finding schools for children, learning English etc. And those 26,600 staying with their Ukrainian families already here in the UK? НІЧОГО! Nothing! Why such discrimination? I have not been able to find any explanation. But the consequences of such short-sighted meanness are already being seen: not enough money to pay for all these new mouths to feed, family rows, homelessness. Another successful immigration policy, Patel.
By 21 June a total of 135,900 UK visas had been granted to Ukrainians; 92,700 under the H4U Scheme. The Home Office (or is it the Foreign Office?) has at last made the visa-granting process smoother and faster. Even so the heroes here are not the Whitehall mandarins but the officials and volunteers working all hours in under-funded local councils across the country* doing their utmost to help these new arrivals survive and, in many cases, thrive.
You may think we hosts should be praised too. In some cases this is warranted, for example where people have taken in refugees out of the kindness of their hearts and ignored the smallness of their bank accounts,. Also those who live in the British countryside where hosting a refugee of any nationality is so much harder and where few Ukrainians wish to go (a recent survey revealed that 69% want to live in an urban area; 36% in London, where, in fact, a third of them are). I started writing this article in a village in a remote corner of France which has successfully welcomed several refugees into their midst, helped by the fact that the villagers and their new guests have access to the world via superfast broadband and to the nearest big town by bus. British countryfolk can only dream of such services. Many other hosts I have met online or read about seem to be like us: highly-privileged and relatively wealthy people who feel relieved to be able to do something more than just give money to the big charities (much of which is still not getting through to the people on the ground in Ukraine five months after the invasion). We are also being enriched in a non-monetary sense by the experience, and so is the country (almost certainly the subject of a future article for the cynics among you).
Yes, there will be problems ahead for hosts, not least as we go into an autumn and winter of UK-wide discontent when only the richest will not have to worry about covering their costs. And when the biggest underlying reason for the rising cost of staying warm, getting about and feeding ourselves – Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine – is forgotten or conveniently ignored.
We have yet to have that discussion with Tanya: what happens when the six months are up in mid-December and we no longer have to guarantee that she and Daniel can stay with us? We will need to have it. But we have already decided. They can stay if they want. Putin’s war is not going to end this year, nor probably next. Yet he must not be allowed to win it, however winning is defined. You can help stop him winning by hosting a Ukrainian refugee. Why not?
* including my Russian-speaking niece in Aberdeenshire. Thanks for your insights and stories, Natasha.