When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, many households around the world opened their hearts and their homes to displaced Ukrainians fleeing the conflict.
Through Nova’s network, we were able to place Anna and Andrii, a young mother and her toddler son, with hosts Amelia, Guy and their teenage son in Winchester. Nine months later, I meet with Anna and Amelia over Zoom to talk about their experience.
it was about being safe… about a mother and child needing a safe haven
I start by asking if they could recall how they felt before they met each other for the first time in Winchester. Amelia, who I quickly clocked as warm and no-nonsense, was more concerned about practicalities: “We only had five days… we spent a lot of time on Amazon. We were a bit apprehensive, worried they wouldn’t like us, which given the situation was a bit daft as it was about being safe… about a mother and child needing a safe haven.” Anna, naturally, was more apprehensive: “I was nervous, I was worried. It was very difficult for me to take a child, alone, without a husband, and leave my home, my former life, not understanding at all when I would return back and whether there would be anywhere to return. But the understanding that now the main thing is safety pushed me. I did not know the people who agreed to host us at all and I was very worried that Andrii and I would bring discomfort into their lives.”
Asked if anything made it easier for them that first day, Anna is emotional as she describes seeing her room for the first time: “Amelia left us flowers and many different foods, many books for Andrii. When I remember, I want to cry.” Tears did flow later that evening when, together with Olha (Anna’s sister-in-law who is an ESOL learner at Nova) and Olha’s husband, Alex, they all shared their first meal together; a ‘delicious lasagne’ as Anna emphatically declares. “Tears and laughter and everything really,” recalls Amelia, “crying and laughing.”
For Anna, as much of a relief as it must have been to have reached safety, there were still concerns, “I’m worried about family, about how I can live in another house… I’m not worried about me, I’m worried about my son, Andrii.”
I’m curious to know if there were any surprises or challenges with the new living arrangements. “From the first day, I felt good in this house and I became more relaxed… I never feel that I disturb (Amelia and Guy) and I feel very comfortable,” Anna says. The hosts had a similarly smooth transition, with the one surprise being a delicious birthday cheesecake whipped up for Amelia’s birthday by Anna. That, and Guy becoming besotted with Andrii.
Amelia chuckles as she talks about the youngest addition to the household, “Anna and I could disappear from the house and they wouldn’t notice,” she says of Guy and Andrii, “except when they want food.” Another special bond has been forged between Andrii and Peggy, the resident wire fox terrier: “Andrii and Peggy have a relationship like brother and sister. They play and they fight,” explains Amelia. This human / canine affinity causes some concern, given the little duo apparently have an abundance of energy. Anna worries about Peggy and Amelia worries about Andrii.
I ask Amelia if it’s been strange having a toddler in the house again. “Andrii plays — he’s very brave. He goes for long walks with Peggy, which is fantastic,” she muses, “It’s meant we’ve done things we haven’t done for ages. We went to the pantomime and the fireworks. It’s been quite good for us, really.”
I’m interested about Anna’s life outside of the house. She tells me that she’s made a couple of friends at the local college where she is studying English; fellow women from Ukraine, one from Kyiv and the other from Lviv. I get the vague sense that friendships with fellow displaced Ukrainians may be tentative, given the uncertainty of what the future holds.
Although new bonds are clearly being forged, those between Anna and her family still in Ukraine remain strong. Anna’s husband, Pavel, her mother and brother are still in the country. Communication attempts happen daily, but given the unreliable connection, this could be a single text message, an audio call, or if they’re lucky, some video time. I ask Anna how her family feels about her and Andrii being here. She tells me that they are all happy that mother and son are in the UK, in a safe and comfortable place. Both Anna’s husband and mother are very grateful to Amelia and Guy for their kindness and care. “If we talk about how they feel now in Ukraine, then Mama is anxious now in Ukraine, but it is especially difficult for Pavel, he is very afraid of air raids, rockets and explosions and began to sleep badly.”
I want to protect myself and I dream about a good future for my family…I’m an optimist.
So, it may seem a little insensitive for me to ask about Anna’s future plans and dreams — but I do so anyway, as I think she’s of a character to address that. She’s clear in her options: she’s applying for social housing as she feels she can’t live with Amelia and Guy forever — against her host’s protestations that, “They can! They can! As far as we’re concerned, they can!” Her dream, of course, is “to return to my house in April. If not, I dream about social housing in Winchester, in England. Maybe my husband can leave Ukraine and we live together here.”
On whether she feels hopeful for the future, she replies, “I feel OK. I always feel all will be very good…I try not to read the news and not think about bad things. I want to protect myself and I dream about a good future for my family. And I hope my dreams come true. I’m an optimist.”
At that point in our conversation, Peggy and Andrii arrive like a multi-limbed tornado. Sensing I have scant seconds left before chaos erupts, I ask Amelia for some final thoughts. “Guy and I really wish that Anna and Andrii didn’t need us,” she states matter-of-factly, “But they have been a total joy in our life, and as far as we’re concerned, this is their home for as long as they need it or want it.”
Later that same evening, and quite by chance, I meet Guy for the first time at an event in London. I mention my earlier conversation, and how Peggy and Andrii clearly had impeccable timing. From his expression at the mention of the mini dynamo, it’s quite clear that his wife’s assessment of their strong bond was spot on.