By Eila Keeling
Over the last four months a Ukrainian refugee family of four- the Herzanychs, have been staying in our Gloucestershire home under the UK Govt’s Homes for Ukraine (HFU) Scheme; a mother and father and their two boys, aged 7 and 12. What used to be our annexe listed on Airbnb became a springboard for this family to begin new lives. I, who have moved out of the house and am long gone to University, do not pretend to be behind the inspired idea of getting involved in the Homes for Ukraine scheme, but I have got to know this family that lives next door, and it has been eye-opening to see how these people have overcome very real problems.
After leaving their hometown of Kherson and escaping a war zone, then driving for 3 weeks in a car with their year-old husky puppy, Ajax, their arrival in Gloucestershire in mid-August of this year marked the end to challenges of a physical nature (at least two or three semi-hostile border crossings and over 1700 miles covered) and they were confronted with a deluge of practical problems. All manner of ‘life’ issues had to be sorted out quickly: immediately on disembarking the ferry in Dover, Ajax had to be placed in a veterinary quarantine for 3 weeks. Places had to be found in schools for the boys before the start of the September academic year (including the admin of free school meals, meeting form-teachers, bus passes, and uniforms); and jobs were needed for the parents to earn a living (allowing sensible commutes to work that used minimal petrol). The most looming anxiety over the Ukrainian’s heads was to find accommodation to move into once the 6-month HFU scheme had ended. And the only family member who could speak a slight bit of English was the mother; the rest couldn’t speak a word. Honestly, in my 20 years of existence, I’ve never seen people with such a multitude of steep hurdles to jump.
Gloucestershire County Council, and the local charity UKUATogether, assisted the Herzanychs in slowly ironing these problems out, and in the process, we grew to know them. The mother, Olena, worked as a manicurist in Kherson, so helping her find work was straightforward, and she quickly found herself employment in a beauty parlour in Witney. The father, Vasiliy, is an electrical engineer, but since he doesn’t speak English and his qualifications are Ukrainian, it was more difficult to determine how his career could be transferred to the UK. He agreed that being a Kitchen Porter in a local pub for the meantime would suffice, and on the plus side, it meant Ajax could tuck into all the restaurant leftovers.
Over the next few months, the smell of borscht soup floated into our kitchen from next door, along with the barking of the energetic hound (more of a wolf) and the sound of two boys strumming on the ukulele and on the guitar; and every week or so, we’d have dinner all together and discuss the happenings in Ukraine. I imagined our country village, as opposed to a bigger and more well-connected city like London or Edinburgh, could be a slightly lonely place for a Ukrainian refugee family, but it hasn’t proved so. The parents have found their purpose in work, and the boys have found theirs in school, and over the last few months, those have both proven to be all-consuming, allowing not a moment for boredom. But, in addition, the charity UKUATogether works very hard to soften the intensity of settling into the UK by organising small meetings that allow local Ukrainian refugees to meet each other, converse in Ukrainian, and speak about their home country they know and miss; all of which I suppose must allow them to reconnect to and celebrate their Ukrainian identity; something that is constantly threatened by the war.
At the beginning of December, Olena spotted a house on Rightmove that was perfect for them; not too far from her and her husband’s work, not too far from the boys’ schools, and in the right price bracket. Quite miraculous considering the concerns that many Ukrainians would have approaching the end of the 6-month stay through the HFU scheme around Christmas and coming under pressure to search for new homes. By the 27th, they had signed the lease, been given the keys, and were moving into their new home. Amazingly, in just over four months since escaping a warzone, this Ukrainian family has successfully settled into Gloucestershire and starting a new life.
After the Ukrainians left our annex, my mother found a piece of paper left under a chest of draws that had been written on. It was the eldest boy’s, and on it he had been practising writing in English; it wrote [sic]: “I had a really cool summer. I am writing from the Gloucestershire, UK. Why? You know the answer for it. For until the end of July I was in Kherson. Went to Dnipro and to the country house, but then problems in Kherson got bigger and bigger. Went to another country. Now we’re in the UK. I can’t tell if I enjoy this ‘holiday’, but this holidays be not exactly an ordinary, nor similar for other holidays and I always remember them”.
Although there are plentiful reasons in the news (that go without mentioning) to feel concerned at the moment, it is very encouraging to know that this Ukrainian family have found some solace in the UK through the calculated cooperation of people, charities, and the government.