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Hosting Ukrainians – one year on

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

by Richard Pooley

Odesa. The doctor I went to in London. Remember? I read this morning: her clinic in Odesa was less than a kilometre from where those people were killed.”

I saw the photo of the grandfather in Kyiv. He was sitting by his dead granddaughter. 9 years old. Under foil. She was a martial arts champion. Her mother...his daughter was killed too. What will the grandfather do now?

Nastya in Warsaw. All her family’s house in Kherson is underwater. They have lost everything except their lives. They don’t know what to do now.”

My friend is in Bratislava, with her sister and baby daughter. Her husband couldn’t leave. She fled Kyiv in March. Just after the invasion. She was 8-months pregnant and had the baby in a clinic in Slovakia. Her family live in Luhansk. The Russians are there. Her family are pro-Russian. Her mother rang her while she was driving from Kyiv:

What are you doing? Go back home! This is a special operation. You are not in danger. Go home!’

Mum, there are bombs in Kyiv. Russia is bombing us.’

That is not true. Go back home! It is dangerous to be driving when you are pregnant.’

Her parents only watch Russian TV. Her grandmother is a senior official in Luhansk. Wears a military-style uniform with Russian flags on it. There is a wall between them and my friend. Her parents are brainwashed. They talk almost every day but never about the war only about the health of each other.”

These were some of the stories that Tanya, our Ukrainian lodger, told me one morning last week in response to my daily question “What news today?” There was more information than normal. “News” includes what she has seen and heard online overnight of the war in Ukraine from mainstream media there and online bloggers, and from her friends spread around Europe, her sister and brother-in-law in Mykolayiv, and her son, Daniel, who is now back with his father, Dmitriy, in Kyiv. But “today” does not restrict Tanya’s news to what has occurred in the last 24 hours. We still get accounts of what happened to friends and family during the Russian invasion. She often has to remind me of her friends’ names – Inna, Nastya, Krystina, Sasha, Lilya, and where they are now – Bratislava, Warsaw, Vienna, Tours, Richmond, Oxford, and where they come from in Ukraine – Kyiv, Kryvyi Rih (President Zelesnky’s home town), Cherkasy, Kherson, Odesa, Mykolayiv (Tanya’s home town in southern Ukraine).

Perhaps the extra stories were because the day – 14 June – was a year and a day after I collected Tanya and 15-year old Daniel from Bristol airport ( I had hardly seen her the day before. My wife and I had wanted to celebrate the anniversary with an evening drink but Tanya had been working all day and much of the night. As usual.

She trains people to teach English. The sound of her doing so from her bedroom at the top of our house is a sound backdrop to our days and evenings. Her students can be native English speakers – Brits, Irish – and Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Ukrainians and Russians, as well as many other nationalities. Last September she was training a group for a Turkish agency which, among others, included Russians living inside Russia and Russians living in Turkey and Georgia. How, I wondered, did she and, indeed, the students themselves cope with this? What was said when the students introduced themselves? “The war is not mentioned. Everyone understands. It’s not a problem.” She paused before adding: “They pay me.”

She is a workaholic. When she is not training, she is marking her students’ assignments, preparing lessons, co-ordinating with fellow trainers, and dealing with the administrators in the schools and agencies who hire her. Some of her students appear to think she is ‘always on’, texting or emailing questions in the middle of the night, and demanding that she be their therapist as well as trainer. Her hourly rate seldom covers all this extra work. There have been times when we have told her she is being exploited. She would love to be in the same room as her students; but the London-based school she most frequently works for will not pay any travel or accommodation expenses to enable her to do so.

Conversation with us, when it is not about the news coming out of Ukraine, is increasingly about the English language. I used to teach English as a foreign language and my wife is a linguist. So it’s fun once again to wrestle with English grammar and explain why it’s not okay to say “I’m here since 5 days.” Or wonder why you cut down a tree only to then cut it up. Or why ‘quite’ is so dangerous to use as a degree modifier (Brits, how would a US American interpret your “It was quite good”, especially if written?). Or the derivation and usage of such phrases as ‘It’s all hunky-dory.” (I said it was US American and probably little used nowadays. Wrong. I heard it the next day in a question asked by a BBC reporter. It may well have come from Japanese in the 1860s). Tanya’s explanations are often better than ours.

You may have been asking yourself how Tanya can be training Brits to teach their own language. And perhaps think she is doing a job which should be being done by a Brit. The answers Tanya gives are the same as I would have given you thirty years ago: most Brits are not taught about the mechanics of the English language when at school. My 36-year old daughter went to a highly-regarded school in England and graduated from Edinburgh University with a First in French and English. She says she only learned about English grammar when she spent a year in France improving her French during her four-year course. Tanya finds her British students know what is correct English but have little idea why it is correct.

She has just told me that she will be in Vienna for a fortnight in August. Daniel will take a train direct from Kyiv to the Austrian capital to be with her. This is much less arduous than the journey out of Ukraine that he took with her a year ago and again when they briefly visited Kyiv in October: 12 hours on train or bus to Przemysl on the Polish border, 2 hours at customs/immigration, hurry with heavy luggage across to catch - just – a different train to Rzeszow, then find a bus to the airport...if it’s running.

We tried hard to find a school near us which could provide Daniel with the advanced maths education he was used to at his specialist maths ‘gymnasium’ in Kyiv. The best school in the city, which our own children attended, had filled its self-imposed quota of Ukrainians. They already had a long waiting list of British applicants. Another school went out of its way to take him in. They even hired a Ukrainian interpreter to help him and another Ukrainian teenager during their first lessons. Daniel enjoyed the arts subjects, despite his limited English. The teaching encouraged creativity and curiosity, unlike the fact-based rote-learning of his Ukrainian school. But with the S.T.E.M subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – he found he was two years ahead of his fellow British pupils. He was also surprised (and, unlike his mother, pleased) at how little homework he was required to do. He went back to Ukraine in November to get the science and maths education that he needs if he is to go to the German university that Tanya hopes he will attend.

But will he be able to go to Germany or anywhere else outside Ukraine once he reaches 18 in September next year? He will be eligible to fight and won’t be allowed to leave the country without permission from the Ukrainian government. Tanya avoids answering my tentative questions about this.

It’s hard enough for Tanya to plan her own future, let alone Daniel’s. She lives in the present. As do we: "What news today?"

124,000 Ukrainians have been hosted by British people since March last year. Some have returned to Ukraine. A few are still coming (Tanya and I helped a young woman move to Bath from Odesa in May). We get paid for hosting Tanya. Initially it was £350 a month from central government; then our local council added another £100. Those like us who have hosted someone for 12 months will see that £350 rise to £500 from month 13. We have yet to hear if we’ll carry on getting the £100 top-up. Frankly, £600 a month is more than we need to cover the cost of having Tanya living with us.

The extra monthly money will come out of the additional £150 million the British government has announced it will provide to enable Ukrainian refugees to remain with their current hosts, find new ones, or rent private accommodation. It will also be used to help the 50% of working-age Ukrainian refugees who still need to find a job in the UK.

Tanya can stay with us as long as she wishes. She has enriched our lives. Other Ukrainians we have met in the city are already renting flats. But some need to find new hosts.

If you are in position to take in a Ukrainian refugee (or any other person escaping war and persecution), please do. You will benefit just as much as them.



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