Ukrainians living in British guest rooms

One day, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, a seventeen-year-old named Tymur Sabri was visiting his grandmother in a village outside Kyiv. Tymur is lanky – he loves to play basketball – with messy hair and a deep voice. Before the war, he lived in Kyiv with his parents and an older brother. Her sister Karina, her husband and their dog, Diamond, lived nearby. At school, he excelled in math and physics, and like his siblings, he played the piano. Her mother, Svitlana, is a professional coach. “I was born in Kyiv, and we had everything there,” he told me recently. That afternoon, however, when rockets landed near her grandmother’s house during their visit, the family decided it was time to leave. “We picked up our things and left,” Tymur said.

It took them three days to get out of the country. The fleeing group included Tymur’s mother and sister, his cousin and two aunts – “all the women in our family,” Tymur’s sister told me. Ukrainian law prohibits men between the ages of eighteen and sixty from leaving the country, so Tymur’s father, who is fifty-three, and his brother Arthur, who is twenty-three, stayed on. square ; Tymur was suddenly the only male in the group. They took a train to Lviv, in western Ukraine, about forty kilometers from the Polish border. They traveled light, each carrying a backpack full of warm clothes; the temperature was at times below zero. In Lviv, they paid a man to drive them to the border and covered the remaining distance on foot. In Poland, they took a series of buses to Warsaw, where, thanks to the work of Karina’s husband, they got free accommodation in a hotel near the airport. The first time they heard the planes take off, they were startled by the noise. “It’s unusual for us that planes can fly during a peaceful time, for a peaceful purpose,” Tymur told me.

They stayed at the hotel near Warsaw airport for more than a month, until they learned that their free accommodation was coming to an end. Tymur’s cousin and aunts decided to stay in Poland, and Karina, a photographer, went to Paris, where she found temporary work. Tymur and his mother considered their options. Unlike some members of his family, Tymur’s English was very good and he wanted to complete his studies in an English-speaking country. Online, he read about a UK visa program called Homes for Ukraine, where UK residents could sponsor individuals or families by agreeing to host them for at least six months in their homes. People offered spare rooms, or sometimes an entire floor, but the process was expensive. Sponsors had to nominate a specific Ukrainian and complete a detailed application.

On Facebook, Tymur posted his family’s story. He wrote that he wanted to be a musician, that he spoke English and that he was looking for a place for him and his mother, who wanted to continue working as an accompanist. He was surprised by the number of people who responded. “It was really good,” he said. Tymur sorted through the many responses, translating them for his mother. “You have to consult a few people to make your choice, so you won’t be disappointed,” he told me. A woman wrote to him that she had a friend in London named Louise Kaye who was interested in providing accommodation for people connected with the arts. Tymur wrote to Kaye, “explaining who I am.” They exchanged notes several times and had a video call. “Then she was like, ‘OK, I think I can do this.’ ”

In “Exit West”, Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 fantasy novel, a series of magical doors leading to other lands suddenly appear. “Rumors had started circulating about doors that might take you somewhere else,” Hamid writes. You go through a dark portal in one place and emerge elsewhere. For some Ukrainians, the effect of the UK’s visa system has not been entirely different. In March, when the government announced the scheme, more than one hundred thousand members of the British public showed interest. Shortly after, the first successful applicants began arriving from Ukraine, settling, amid paperwork and upheaval, into a new life. For many, the experience was surreal and unexpected, like slipping through a dark door.

Louise Kaye lives in a pretty, tree-lined street in Chiswick, West London, one of the city’s wealthiest areas. His house is red brick, with whitewashed windows criss-crossed with vines, surrounded by a picket fence and mature trees. Inside, there are several bedrooms, a paint studio (Kaye is a painter), shelves piled under the stairs, and a spacious dining room with a view of the garden. In the living room, the walls are pale turquoise and adorned with oil paintings. There is an Eames chair, a concert harp and a grand piano. On the top floor, there is a set of independent rooms, often occupied by guests: a bathroom, a lounge area and a tiny but functional kitchenette.

Kaye moved into the house in the 1990s with her husband, David, and their two young daughters. David came from a wealthy family of manufacturers; Kaye had been studying art restoration and was preparing for a job in Italy when they met, at a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Instead of moving to Italy, Kaye married David, who eventually took over the family business. Kaye ran a marketing business for a while, then moved into volunteer work. She worked for a citizens’ advice bureau, taught adult literacy and became a magistrate. She and David created a community center for young people in a housing estate and hosted fundraising dinners and intimate concerts in their home. There were always people staying in the house, usually young friends or musicians who needed a place to stay while they performed. A pianist, specialist in opera, remained without rent for fifteen years.

In 2019, the couple started talking about hosting a Syrian refugee and contacted the nonprofit Refugees at Home. The opera expert was gone and the top floor was free. But, in August of that year, David was admitted to hospital and died five weeks later. Kaye didn’t think she could do it alone, although she felt like she was “walking through an empty house”. She took long walks in the park with her elderly rescue dog, Sadie. She started a new relationship with a woman named Clare, a retired psychotherapist who loved swimming. When the war in Ukraine started, Kaye called Refugees at Home and told them she was ready. She felt a personal connection to Ukraine because her Jewish great-grandfather had been expelled from Odessa during the pogroms of the early 20th century. “There were a lot of Jews at that time who fled that part of the world,” she said.

When Kaye heard about Tymur’s Facebook post, she called Tymur and Svitlana – she wanted to make sure they were comfortable with his relationship with Clare – then filled out the paperwork and referred them to Refugees at Home. She planned to give Tymur the upstairs bedroom – “So he can study and have privacy, which I think a teenager needs” – and his mother the adjoining living room, which has a a trundle bed. She stocked the kitchenette with the basics: “rice and pasta, and a can of tomatoes.” She wanted them to be able to cook whatever they wanted.

Tymur and Svitlana took a train from Warsaw to Paris and stayed with Karina for a few days. Tymur was not a big fan of the city. “I have some experience now, living in Warsaw, living in Paris, and I can tell you for sure that Kyiv is the best option for me,” he told me before leaving Paris. “I haven’t seen London yet,” he added, but “my opinion won’t change.” He and his mother boarded the Eurostar – free for Ukrainians – then took the tube to Chiswick. They arrived with a few bags of luggage and a box of cakes for Kaye. They all went into the garden and had a cup of tea.

Since March, some eighty-six thousand Ukrainians have resettled in the UK under the Homes for Ukraine scheme or a related scheme for Ukrainians whose families already live in the country. When compared to the total number of Ukrainian refugees across Europe – 5.5 million, according to the UN Refugee Agency – that’s a drop in the ocean. Other countries in the European Union are doing much more. Germany received more than eight hundred thousand; Poland, nearly 1.2 million. (The United States, by comparison, has pledged to accept up to 100,000.) Renae Mann, executive director of services for the non-profit British Refugee Council, told me that Ukrainians arriving in the Kingdom United tend to be people with children, mostly women or skilled professionals with some money to travel. The British government won’t pay for the trip out of Ukraine, so there’s a “degree of social capital that people need to be able to get here in the first place,” Mann said.

One day in a pub I met Yana, a twenty-seven-year-old Kyiv girl who had just moved to Hackney, east London. She was living with her parents and working in a bank when the war broke out. One night, lying in bed, she heard the sound of fireworks coming from outside her window and realized it was a bomb attack. She and her parents spent five days in a bomb shelter before returning to their high-rise, where they covered the windows and huddled in the bathroom for safety. She read about the UK visa program online and decided to apply. Her parents didn’t want to leave their house – they decided to stay – but Yana wanted to get as far away as possible. “Immediately I said, ‘OK, what should I do?’ ” she said.

Online, she met Alex Ward, a thirty-four-year-old Briton who worked for a utility company. He wrote that he was gay, had a cat, and lived in a small two-bedroom apartment that he was happy to share. Ward was recently separated from a Ukrainian-born Russian ex-husband. When the war broke out, Ward “was sitting at home feeling bad,” he told me. When he heard about the visa regime, he said to himself, “I have to do this, I have to do something. Yana traveled to Poland on an evening train full of women and children. The lights had been turned off for security reasons, and she sat alone in the dark, thinking of her family. Ward put her in touch with a colleague there and she stayed for several weeks before heading to the UK.

About Wesley Williamson

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