Oksana and 11-year-old Sasha are among more than 100,000 Ukrainians who have been welcomed into homes across the United Kingdom after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Jane Howard and Laurens Jolles, who met them upon their arrival in the UK, said it “seemed the natural thing to do”.
Oksana and Sasha had lived in a suburb of Kyiv that came under fire during the first few weeks of the war. Upon arrival in the UK, they did not speak a word of English, and had barely travelled outside of Ukraine.
“I was very afraid to go,” Oksana said. “I was worried because I did not know the language and customs of this country. I did not know how I would be able to find a common language with complete strangers.”
But, it turned out to be “quite simple”, she said.
“Jane and Laurens met us at the airport and from the first minute we met I knew I was among very kind people,” she said.
Laurens, who had worked at the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, for 35 years, said he and Jane had a self-contained space to offer.
While Laurens’ work at UNHCR entailed trying to convince governments to open their doors to refugees and to ensure populations were supportive, he said “being on the other side now and showing that it is possible was something I was very happy to do.”
Upon arrival, Oksana and Sasha faced bureaucratic hurdles, including opening a bank account, finding a school, and registering with a doctor.
“Jane and Laurens spent their personal time helping us with everything,” Oksana said. “Their support, moral and material, is simply invaluable.”
One of the biggest difficulties was finding a job for Oksana, who had previously worked as a teacher and as a human resources executive.
The local job centre could offer agricultural work where English was not required, but instead advised Oksana to study English to try and secure an office job.
“Oksana has come from zero to being able to chat really quite well,” Jane said, adding that she has since found work as a kitchen assistant.
Given the limited public transport in their rural location, Jane and Laurens have provided their guests with bikes, and taught Oksana to drive a manual car. Meanwhile, Sasha has been thriving at the local village school.
“The school has pulled out all the stops by providing extra help through a teaching assistant,” Jane said. “They have paid for his school uniforms. He gets free school meals. But, more than that, the children are very welcoming.”
Local support has also been invaluable, they all agreed. The library purchased children’s books in Ukrainian, packages of toiletries were offered when refugees arrived, and the local food bank also provided help.
Jane and Laurens receive a stipend from the UK government and the local authority, who performed initial background checks on the hosts, check in on everyone’s well-being.
The experience of living together has allowed each of them to learn more about their respective cultures.
Oksana has introduced her hosts to Ukrainian food, from borshch to pelmeni alongside what Jane described as “amazing desserts”. Laurens has observed among their Ukrainian guests “the fact that family is so important”, as is “respect for elderly people”.
Oksana also does traditional embroidery to make jewellery such as earrings and necklaces out of thread.
“For refugees, it is very important to hang on to their culture,” Jane said. “When they arrived, they did not have any luggage except two little backpacks with a sopilka, a Ukrainian folk instrument a bit like a flute. That really makes you think. If you have only got a rucksack to pack, you still bring something that reminds you of home.”
As former UN staff, Jane and Laurens’ professional experience influenced their decision to host refugees.
“You do not lose that desire to change things or help people,” said Jane.
“I saw how difficult it was, and I saw how incredibly resilient people could be and how a little help coming from other people could be useful,” Laurens said.
Oksana now faces a difficult choice over whether to return to Kyiv to care for her elderly mother, or to remain in the UK. Whatever her decision, Jane said “she is always welcome back.”
The experience for them has been “overwhelmingly positive”, she said, adding that “we do not regret one minute.”
For Oksana, she says she is “infinitely grateful to fate” for meeting Jane and Laurens, praising their “self-sacrifice, kindness, decency, and sensitivity.”
“They gave us shelter, a cozy home, confidence in the near future, protection, and most importantly, a feeling of a big family in which you will be understood, supported, and helped.”
Jane urged people to remember refugees “need your help all year round”.
Laurens warned against listening to “negative rhetoric”.
“We should never forget that we one day could be refugees,” he said. “So, treat people as you would like to be treated.”
Learn more about how the UN is helping Ukrainian refugees here.