AnastasiaPosted on: 25/03/2022
We are hoping and praying that Anastasia will arrive with our family in the next week or so, over the Easter holidays. She is from Lviv, Ukraine and, aged 18, she is travelling by herself to seek refuge from the war. Her family (grandmother, father and 12 year old brother) are trapped in Kherson, the city where Anastasia grew up and was educated. Kherson has been under Russian occupation since 3rd March, one week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, and its citizens are unable to leave. The humanitarian crisis is deepening daily there; citizens are running out of basic supplies and this week, it was reported that Russian soldiers opened fire on peaceful protests in the city.
Anastasia had left Kherson and was living and working in Lviv when the Russian invasion began. She was a lead generation manager for a marketing company and was renting a flat with friends. She hoped to work, save money and then travel, having left Ukraine only once during her childhood. But she did not plan to travel as she is now: alone, with no home to go back to and with constant fear over her family’s safety.
Exactly two weeks after the war began, Anastasia decided to leave her flat and job in Lviv. Lviv is in the west of Ukraine and, although it was not under attack when she left, it was already flooded with citizens from other parts of Ukraine who were taking refuge there or travelling through towards other European countries. As an 18 year old with no family in Lviv and no way to reconnect with her besieged family in Kherson, Anastasia would have been very vulnerable if/when the Russians reached Lviv. The friends with whom she was living met the requirements for the Ukraine army and so could not leave. She says, anyway, that they wanted to stay. But I am so glad that she was able to leave when she did. She travelled first to Poland. A kind Polish family helped her to find a place to stay in Barcelona. She made a bus journey alone all the way from Poland to Madrid and then got a train to Barcelona. That is where she was when we made contact with her.
My husband and I knew, as soon as the UK government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme was launched, that we had to register as hosts. Our two sons (aged 20 and 19) live away at university, coming back to us now in the holidays and for the odd weekend. We talked to them about the scheme and they wholeheartedly support our family taking part. They both offered their bedrooms for Ukrainians fleeing the war but, as parents, we felt determined that their safe havens should still exist at home for them. Luckily we had a spare room that we could offer.
We registered with the scheme on Monday 14th March, the day it was launched. Registering was quick and easy - it just involved completing an online form with a few details. We had an acknowledgement email from the government immediately but then came the trickier part. It was up to us to name the Ukrainian(s) we would like to sponsor and then make a visa application with/for them. We did not know any Ukrainians.
But as it turned out, it didn’t take long to get to know some. I registered with a charity group who aim to match UK sponsors with Ukrainian refugees and I joined a Facebook group on which UK sponsors were offering accommodation. For the first day or two, there were hundreds of offers of UK accommodation on the group but hardly any Ukrainians seeking refuge; this changed on perhaps Wednesday 16th March, and suddenly I was seeing a series of frankly heartbreaking posts from Ukrainians looking for UK sponsorship.
The Ukrainians looking for refuge through the Homes for Ukraine scheme are either still in Ukraine, hoping to get away from imminent danger, or already displaced. Men aged 18-60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine if they were there when the war began, so the vast majority looking for asylum are women, children and the elderly. I made contact with a Ukrainian family in Prague and it looked like we might be able to sponsor them, but then they told me that they were determined to travel and live with another Ukrainian family and we simply did not have room for them all. We agreed that we were not a match, wishing each other luck, and we are still in touch. On Thursday 17th, I had contact with a 59 year old Ukrainian lady who was then in Warsaw. She had been a lecturer at the university in Kiev and her husband had stayed behind in Ukraine. We talked online for an hour or two, sharing information about ourselves and photographs, but in the end she let me know that she had been contacted by a former colleague in the UK with an offer of sponsorship, and she was going to go to live there. It turns out that she will be living fairly close to us, so we hope to meet up once she is settled in the UK.
On Saturday morning, 19th March, I saw a post from Anastasia. I contacted her, told her about us and our family and sent her photographs of our home, our family and our dog. She replied immediately with lots of details about herself; her English is pretty good which is helpful. We became friends on Facebook so that we could look back through profiles/timelines to learn a little more about each other. I asked her to send me proof of her identity and she sent me her passport photo page; we then had a video call in which we chatted for 20 minutes or more about her situation and how we could help. I told her that I thought she was very brave for travelling alone and she became tearful when we spoke about her family still in Kherson. She told me about her love for music and singing and that she was very proud of the Beatles vinyl that she had had to leave behind in Ukraine. I let her know that our house is filled with Beatles and other vinyl and that we have The Beatles’ Abbey Road artwork framed in our kitchen. She told me that she loved the musical Hamilton and had watched it three times already that week. My family and I love it too. We both said that we would like to watch it together if things worked out.
I asked Anastasia what she had with her. She said she had a backpack and a bag with a few clothes, some cosmetics, a phone and a laptop. She did not have enough money left for a plane ticket to the UK but hoped that the kind people who were hosting her in Barcelona would be able to lend her the money for it or that she would be able to take advantage of the free flights being offered by WizzAir to displaced Ukrainians. She loved it in Barcelona but felt it would be difficult to find work there as she cannot speak Spanish. She told me that she wanted to come to the UK so that she could find a job and send money to support her family in Kherson.
We agreed that we would apply together for her UK visa with me as her sponsor. I was nervous about sharing all of our family’s personal details, but swallowed the nerves and went for it. We did the visa application together, with Anastasia inputting the details and sharing screenshots of each screen with me over Facebook Messenger so that I could double check that she was doing it right. I was so proud of her - to be 18, in a foreign country, completing a government visa application in your second language in the hopes of going to live with strangers because it’s your only hope of safety and opportunity - she had such courage, such resilience and determination.
We do not know how long it will be before we will have a decision on the visa application: there is, of course, a backlog. But we have heard just today that others who applied just before us have begun receiving visas and permits to travel, so we are hopeful. We are using the days of waiting to continue our conversations, exchanging messages about our daily lives, our values, our friends and family, our hobbies and interests. Every day, I reassure Anastasia that we are here, that we remain committed to her, that we are preparing her room. I asked her at one point what foods she liked. She said, apologetically, that she loves junk food and doesn’t know how to make herself like healthy food. I told her how much I love to cook. I couldn’t help it: I began planning the dinners I would make for her when she arrives with us.
It is hard, waiting. I hope that Anastasia will soon get her visa decision, that her journey to the UK will be safe and that she will settle well with us. I hope that we can support her with the emotional and practical aspects of adjusting to life in the UK and of coping with the awful realities of the ongoing war in her home country. I hope so much that her family will remain safe; the humanitarian crisis in Kherson is bleak with no medicines and very little food now available for the citizens there. We will be hosting Anastasia at our house for a minimum of six months and as long as necessary. Our hope is that during this time she will find a job, make friends, become a part of our family. I think there will be plenty of time to help her expand her food repertoire, but I’m also planning to take her out for junk food just as soon as she is ready!
I would not have felt able to sponsor while my children were living full time at home so I know that there may not be many sponsors in the SHC community, for good reason. But if you, or anyone you know, is hoping to take part in the Homes for Ukraine scheme please contact me if you would like more information about how it has worked for us so far: firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find out more and register for the scheme here: https://homesforukraine.campaign.gov.uk/
Over the coming weeks, the UK government hopes to match UK sponsors with Ukrainians so that you will no longer need to find guests to sponsor yourself. In the meantime, we registered with this charity to find a match:
but in the end we matched with Anastasia through a Facebook group called: Accommodation, Help & Shelter for Ukraine.
If you do take part in the scheme, please be mindful. The UK press are reporting that, sadly and unbelievably, there are ‘scammers’ out there posing as Ukrainian refugees. If you make contact with a possible match, please do what we did: see their photo ID first, check their social media profiles/content, and have a video call with them before sharing any of your personal information.