"We instantly felt safe - for the first time in months, I was finally calm"
Karyna and her family's journey from Ukraine to the UK took six months. Here, she and their family's sponsor, Tony, tell their story
Last updated 16 June 2023
Karyna left her hometown of Mariupol in Ukraine in March 2022. Since then, the city has been devastated by the conflict.
Karyna, who left along with her children Mylana (eight), Makar (18 months), and her mother-in-law Polina, has not returned since.
“I didn’t want to leave my husband but it was not safe to stay,” says Karyna. “First, we travelled to Dnipro, then to Vinnytsia – we stayed there with a family until July, until it became too dangerous and we knew we had to move again. None of us wanted to leave our home but we just didn’t feel like we had a choice anymore.”
Millions have fled Ukraine since February 2022
When the conflict in Ukraine escalated in February 2022, it sparked the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War Two. As they crossed the border into Poland, Karyna and her family joined millions of other people who had been forced to flee their homes in the search for safety.
After a short stay in Poland, they took an evacuation train to Germany where they stayed in a refugee camp while trying to sort out visas and paperwork.
“I cried every day and just wanted to go back home,” recalls Karyna. “The children were scared and missing their father.”
It was in the camp that Karyna met a young volunteer who was helping Ukrainians with visa applications for onward travel. With his help, they used social media to try to find a sponsor willing to take the family of four in the UK.
The Homes for Ukraine scheme UK
The British government set up the Homes for Ukraine scheme to allow Ukrainians with no family ties to the UK to be sponsored by individuals or organisations who could offer them a place to stay for a minimum of six months.
Tony, from Derbyshire, registered his interest soon after the scheme was launched, offering his five-bedroom home in which he was living alone. In September, he was contacted about Karyna and her family.
“My dad was born a year before the outbreak of World War Two and he lived in London,” says Tony. “He often spoke about the time he was evacuated – he couldn’t remember the specifics but he did remember that he was looked after, safe, warm and fed. I thought this was an opportunity for me to pay back the kindness that was shown for him.”
When Karyna learned her family had been matched to a home in the UK, she was in disbelief.
“A complete stranger was willing to open his home to us,” she says. “Not only that but Tony had volunteered to pay for our flights from Germany to Stansted.”
As promised, Tony was waiting at the airport to greet Karyna and her family when they arrived on 18 September 2022.
“He immediately put us at ease, friendly and smiling,” says Karyna. “Everything was clean and tidy, we instantly felt safe. We had privacy – for the first time in months, I was finally calm.”
Red Cross support for Ukrainians in the UK
Tony was introduced to the British Red Cross’s support for Ukrainians from a British Red Cross representative at a Ukrainian Centre he had come into contact with after helping another Ukrainian family.
“The Red Cross were the easiest and the quickest to deal with,” says Tony. “I remember the look on Karyna’s face when she received the money – she has lost so much, her house is gone, all of her stuff is gone.”
Within a week of arriving in the UK, Karyna and her family were able to register and receive support from the Red Cross.
THE RED CROSS WERE THE EASIEST AND QUICKEST TO DEAL WITH.Tony
“Tony said that the Red Cross was giving us £50 cash each, and a SIM card for my phone,” says Karyna. “I couldn’t believe it – just to have something of our own after so long felt like such a kindness.”
It took Karyna 13 weeks to open a bank account and successfully apply for Universal Credit, and says she would have struggled without Tony’s support in that time.
“We had some small savings but I worried that would run out quickly, especially as we had to replace so many things we had to leave behind,” says Karyna.
Since their arrival in September, Karyna says her daughter Mylana has formed a close bond with Tony.
“My daughter has found a kindred spirit in Tony,” says Karyna. “The children play games with him every night which is a great distraction for them and it also helps my daughter with her English.”
Polina, Karyna’s mother-in-law, has managed to find a job near their new home doing what she loves best.
“She is a baker in Ukraine and was really missing being able to bake,” says Karyna. “Even though she doesn’t speak English, she has been given a part-time job in a bakery in the village – everyone seems to be going out of their way to make us feel welcome.”
Polina refers to her granddaughter Mylana as her ‘expert helper’ and their favourite dish to cook together is chebureki, a popular regional delicacy which is a pastry filled with a thin layer of mincemeat and onions and then deep-fried.
“I love what I do, whether it is baking bread, cupcakes or sweet rolls,” says Polina. “Maybe I will be able to introduce some of my Ukrainian recipes in the future.”
Making friends in a new country
Mylana is also finding her feet and has enrolled in the local school where she has made friends with twins from Kharkiv.
“Being at school is a good distraction for her and although she finds it hard, I am pleased that she is getting some level of education,” says Karyna.
Sadly Maxim, Karyna’s husband, has had to remain in Ukraine and has been injured in the conflict. “I worry about him all the time,” says Karyna. “He is in danger every day – it is difficult for me to talk about this because it is the pain of the whole family.”
Karyna is desperate to see her husband again, and often calls him to let him know how the family is doing.
THERE ARE NO WORDS TO DESCRIBE HOW HAPPY WE ARE THAT WE FOUND SUCH A WONDERFUL, CARING SPONSOR IN TONY.Karyna
“I miss my city and I miss my old life,” says Karyna. “But for now I am grateful that we have been welcomed by the UK. There are no words to say how happy we are that we found such a wonderful, caring and generous sponsor in Tony. He treats us like we are members of his family and he has become a member of ours.”
Tony, who sometimes joins the family on phone calls to their loved ones in Ukraine, says he has loved having them stay with him.
"They are fiercely patriotic and they want to go home as soon as possible to reunite with their families and rebuild the country," he says. "They can stay with me for as long as it takes."
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