When our two Ukrainian guests first arrived, I was a tad nervous. But, feeling sure I was doing the right thing, my heart was warm and the door to my home open wide.
Now, little more than six weeks later, my door has closed on them for a final time with a sigh of relief, while I have been left feeling emotionally bruised, naïve and foolish. I even feel a bit of a failure, though I’m not sure I have reason to.
I did not ask them to leave, nor would I have, but superior premises — a two-bed flat for the two of them, mother and young daughter — has been secured for free with charitable aid.
Clearly, it was preferable to my double room with en-suite shower and loo. A room I’ve scrubbed clean after washing the sheets and towels they failed to put in the machine prior to their departure.
Tanya Fox tells the story of her experience hosting a Ukrainian refugee: When our two Ukrainian guests first arrived, I was a tad nervous. Picture: file image
There were clues from the start as to the personality of my guest. Delays to their arrival meant we would be on holiday abroad for their first few days in the UK. ‘Don’t worry,’ said the mother, ‘we can stay with friends.’
Friends? That surprised me. She had friends but not ones who would or could host her. Olena, 38, and Katya, 13, arrived with far more luggage than I expected. So much of it — two super-size shiny new suitcases and numerous smaller cases and bags — that in fact there was no room for Olena and Katya in our car, and so an additional Uber had to be called.
My partner carried their cases up to their room and then we sat with them in our little back garden and chatted over drinks and snacks.
They hadn’t arrived shell-shocked straight from danger, but via a three-month sojourn in Berlin, where Olena had acquired temporary work and a chic new wardrobe.
We’d already had the welfare visit from the local council, the day after their arrival we went to the Post Office to pick up the £200 each in cash they were entitled to receive and we spent three hours in the bank trying to get Olena a UK account. I’d also been busy following up school applications for Katya.
According to a recent survey from the Office for National Statistics, while 38 per cent would be prepared to host for a maximum of 12 months, a quarter of British households hosting around 100,000 refugees under the Homes for Ukraine scheme do not want to continue the arrangement beyond six months. Pictured: Ukrainian refugees arriving in Warsaw
Then, about three days in, Olena asked me for help, as a matter of some urgency, in tracking down a particular lip plumping Lancome lip gloss she favoured. She was also in search of some Kiehl’s Avocado Eye Cream that suited her sensitive skin.
The request really threw me. Surely a refugee, newly arrived in the UK with little money, living with me for free and expected to send money home, should have more important things on her mind?
And then a wave of guilt washed over me. Who was I to judge what micro pleasures might help Olena hang on to the person she was? To be a woman and to still have vanity, regardless of circumstances, is something to help us through, not to be dismissed as inappropriate.
When we think of refugees fleeing their homeland, we usually think of the weary columns of people queuing for hours at borders with little more than the clothes on their backs.
We know nothing about their backgrounds, whether they are postmen or philosophers, living in a rural backwater or are sophisticated city dwellers. We reduce them to entities, not individuals.
Olena asked me for help, as a matter of some urgency, in tracking down a particular lip plumping Lancome lip gloss she favoured. She was also in search of some Kiehl’s Avocado Eye Cream (pictured) that suited her sensitive skin
What I did know was that Olena is an academic and an economist, that she has written well-received books on her specialist subject and is in demand to lecture at conferences as far afield as Mexico and Madrid.
I knew, from our brief Zoom introductions as we went through the visa application process, that she loved her life in Ukraine, in her city close to the Donbas, with its beautiful parks and historic buildings, much of which have been destroyed.
That she fled with her daughter, hoping to find some way to earn money and perhaps to ensure her professional place in an unknown future.
At a moment’s notice she had to abandon her husband who, as a man in his late 30s, is forbidden from leaving in case he is called up to fight the Russian enemy.
Olena, with academic contacts in the UK, had managed to land a prestigious fellowship starting this month to teach for a year at a university.
She deserves her lip gloss, I thought, at least as much as I do. If I had to flee, I realised, my moisturiser and mascara would definitely make their way into my bag.
Over the next few days, whenever my benevolence was challenged or I felt taken advantage of because two strangers were taking up space in my beloved home, I castigated myself, not them. You are so petty, I’d tell myself, with your sparkling surfaces and White Company candles, these people have lost so much.
Yet, as the days turned into weeks, my compassion became fatigued.
Olena told me that back home her husband did everything for her — looked after Katya, did all the cooking, and got up early in the morning so she could sleep in.
‘I hate cooking,’ she said, and silly me I told her I loved cooking and would be happy to extend the meals I cooked to her and Katya.
One evening, when they were going to be out until after supper was ready, she smiled and asked if I could cook some extra and leave it for them when they returned. That grated.
She would take her daughter out for lunch every day rather than prepare even a sandwich at home because it all seemed too much effort. But I was not Katya’s mum, and it was not my place to comment.
Another thing I didn’t expect was to have to ask Olena five times to clean her room before she reluctantly gave it a cursory vacuum several weeks in. My house is clean. I like it that way, and she knew that. When I’m a guest in someone’s home I pick up right away how they like things to be and go along with it.
Every morning, the daughter was up at 7am, doing her home schooling and her English classes online. Her mum would appear around 10 or 10.30, looking rested and immaculate and ready for her first Nespresso of the day.
Katya was a quiet girl who I grew to like. A whizz at maths, she started picking up English at an incredible rate, understanding all but barely communicating.
Looking back, most of the big decisions in my life have been more heart than head. It was the same story when it came to taking in refugees. Picture: file image
She was a girl, who wouldn’t look me in the eye at first but who lit up when I bought her a book and it arrived in the post with her own name on the package.
She laughed aloud when I taught her funny, old-fashioned English expressions and explained their meanings, and was thrilled when I took her to an art store where she spent an hour trying out different crayons and paint.
Clearly bright, I persuaded a good independent school to let her sit an entrance exam and apply for a full scholarship. She’s passed the exam and her interview is coming up.
Her mother, though, was harder work. She was certainly an interesting woman, both an intellectual and a fan of glossy magazines like Vogue.
Attractive and charming, she was keen on posting flattering selfies on Instagram and Facebook. She loved to sit and share a glass of wine and boast of her academic achievements. She wasn’t interested in us at all.
What I understand now is that, whatever your personality, it doesn’t change just because your circumstances alter. War, apparently, does not stop you fretting over how you can ship over your favourite aviator jacket from Ukraine before the winter chill sets in
Looking back, most of the big decisions in my life have been more heart than head. It was the same story when it came to taking in refugees.
I did not consider what it would really be like to live in such intimate proximity with strangers. How I would approach questions of house rules and finances and personal space. How much I should do for them. Whether my beloved kitchen would ever be my own again.
As for how long I would be prepared to accommodate them, certainly I was committed to the six months required of hosts by the Government, but then what?
According to a recent survey from the Office for National Statistics, while 38 per cent would be prepared to host for a maximum of 12 months, a quarter of British households hosting around 100,000 refugees under the Homes for Ukraine scheme do not want to continue the arrangement beyond six months.
For the wife of the millionaire ex-Wonga boss Haakon Overli it was a matter of weeks — her husband is reported to have run off with their Ukrainian guest.
In addition to affairs, 21 per cent in the ONS survey reported that the rising cost of living was affecting their ability to support their guests.
Of 17,702 sponsors surveyed, almost all (99 per cent) said they regularly provided some form of support beyond accommodation, such as food, help to find work … and money.
In addition to affairs, 21 per cent in the ONS survey reported that the rising cost of living was affecting their ability to support their guests. Picture: file image of a Ukrainian refugee on a bus to Slovakia in March
The winter energy bills were certainly on our minds when we took Olena and Katya in, but with the £350 the Government offers to all hosts as a thank you, and dipping into our own funds, we agreed that we would manage.
My partner and I had other motivations, too. My partner’s mother survived Auschwitz, just, but most of her siblings as well as her own mother were murdered in the Holocaust; my partner’s father, as a 12-year-old boy, managed to escape Germany shortly after Kristallnacht, the Nazi Party’s pogrom of the Jews in 1938.
My paternal grandparents came to England from Belarus at the end of the 19th century to escape the Russian pogroms. We are well-schooled in refugee history and, of course, as the Brits we are today, we wanted to do something useful.
And, yes, in helping them I would be helping myself — gaining a sense of purpose, which perhaps I’ve lacked for some time. At 70, still working freelance, but from home, I had the time and the spare room.
And then last week, when Olena had decided to go to the seaside for a few days, though goodness knows how she could afford it, I got a message from my contact who had first introduced me to her.
‘In case Olena hasn’t looped you in, the university where she’ll be teaching has come up with a two-bed flat for her and she’s leaving.’
I didn’t want humble gratitude but I did expect respect and consideration. I didn’t expect just to be ‘in the loop’, I expected to be ‘in the know’ beforehand. I felt angry… and hurt.
When I confronted Olena with all of this, she seemed unfazed.
What I was most angry about, I told her, was the fact that she kept her booking with us on hold for the maximum 90 days after the invitation from the Home Office so she could go to Berlin — 90 days when we could have been hosting someone else who would have appreciated what we offered.
In addition, I’d been battling for entry to the UK for her three young cousins, having to go so far as take on a legal-aid solicitor to act on their behalf, meanwhile persuading neighbours to agree to house them so Olena could be close by and share responsibility for them.
Now she was hot-footing it to a whole new location just when they were finally going to make it to the UK. For the first time I described to her all the days it took to make the room as comfortable for her and her daughter as possible, by clearing every single item from it, storing my grown son’s stuff in the garage, buying a desk and chair for Katya, new extra pillows, filling the bathroom with toiletries.
These are things I would never have mentioned if Olena hadn’t behaved as she did.
I suppose that in taking on an educated, middle-class woman with good English, I thought it would be easier for us to get along. So when Olena was presented to me through a mutual contact, I thought some of the hurdles had already been bypassed. Another error of judgment.
‘I’m a good person,’ was all she could reply stonily. When I told Olena how disappointed I felt, and how disrespected for not being told of her plans, she simply said she thought I’d be happy for her to have a lovely big flat for free and had seen no need to inform me until contracts were signed.
The time and effort in hosting have been tremendous, and not just from me. The funds, charitable and otherwise, that are going towards helping these two, is wholly disproportionate given Olena will be earning a more than decent salary.
I thought, perhaps, after she left that Olena would at least thank us. But not a word.
I have wrestled with the idea of sharing my story, because it is not a universal one. I know families where hosting refugees has worked out wonderfully.
Yet there are others where the hosts have been on the receiving end of aggression and behaviour that has caused real hardship. And, of course, there are the bad hosts. But ultimately, perhaps there are lessons to be learned. Lessons for the way the Government scheme is run. And, most importantly, lessons for those who give their home.
I absolutely do not regret having hosted refugees, I only regret having hosted this particular refugee. I’m sad and angry that we were treated without consideration.
As Olena’s luggage once again filled half of my downstairs corridor, ready to be loaded into the car that would ferry her to her new accommodation, I could hardly wait to see the back of her.
All names have been changed to protect identities, including that of writer Tanya Fox.
Published by Associated Newspapers Ltd
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