When Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine and millions of the country’s citizens fled for safety, like thousands of people across the UK, Maria and Mike Roe, a retired couple from the market town of Wimborne Minster in Dorset, decided they would open their home to refugees.
“We were really shocked by what we were seeing on television,” says Maria. “And we wanted to help in any way that we could. This felt like the best way forward. We give money to charity but this was more practical – actually helping real people in need.”
Maria, a local councillor, started to coordinate support from others around their community, forming groups on Facebook and WhatsApp to share information and advice.
“We were some of the first to sponsor in this area,” says Maria. “As a community, we got together to try and collectively understand what we could do and to get a good feel for what it would mean to be a sponsor.”
What made them decide they were able to help?
“Just the practicalities, really,” says Mike. “We have a four-bedroom house, there’s only two of us, so it just seemed a no-brainer, really. And if people were in dire need, why not?
However, they admit it was a decision that required some soul-searching.
“Before we became sponsors, we thought pretty deeply about it,” says Mike.
“It’s a responsibility not to be taken lightly” Maria adds. “And so we thought about it before we actually filled out the paperwork.”
Using a matching website, Maria and Mike connected with Olha, 50, and her daughter Olena, 20, from the city of Korosten in northern Ukraine. What was the process of making contact and getting to know one another like?
“In the in the early days, it was it was quite chaotic,” admits Maria. “Olha contacted me and we used to WhatsApp each other. I felt like I knew Olha and Olena before they even travelled to England. I think that’s a good thing to do, to have video contact.”
Of course, the was the question of Olha and Olena receiving a visa before they could make the journey to the UK.
“I understand it’s much faster now but in the early days, the visa process was problematic,” Maria explains. “Olha and Olena had to travel to Warsaw in Poland, which was a long way, to get their biometric passport. I’m really pleased that they had that before they came to the UK because there can be a long waiting list to get that completed here.”
It wasn’t too long before Olha and Olena were on a flight, with Maria and Mike at Heathrow to greet them. But following their arrival, there was a lot to organise to enable them to settle into life in a new country.
“At the start, there’s a lot of bureaucracy,” says Maria. “We had to fill out lots of different forms, register with the doctor, get a bank account, go to the Jobcentre, get a National Insurance number, NHS number and collect the biometric passport. That gives the three-year visa. There was a lot to do in the first couple of weeks. And then, after that, everything was fine.
Both Olha and Olena were able to find jobs relatively quickly, travelling by bus. Olena is working for a cosmetics company in nearby Poole alongside several fellow Ukrainians, while Olha is working nights in a factory while seeking other opportunities.
The four have also been enjoying their time together, including gardening, cooking and days out in Dorset countryside.
“Maria and Olha have planted our little garden with vegetables,” says Mike. “We’ve got sunflowers. Olha and Olena use beetroots to cook. They love beetroot.”
“We’ve been on lots of walks together,” adds Maria. “We’ve visited some of the local places. The National Trust have been very good and given Olha and Olena a six-month free pass. We took them to a country house and garden and Olha went back again with a friend by bus.”
Getting used to living with people from a different country who were until recently complete strangers comes with a number of challenges. Not least the language barrier.
“Obviously, we don’t we don’t speak Ukrainian,” says Mike. “Now Olha and Olena’s English is much improved, so we can converse and understand their needs, and they will understand our needs, and that’s very important.”
“Google Translate!” Maria chips in. “Sometimes, not all the time, but it’s a lifeline!”
What advice would they give to sponsors starting their hosting journey?
“It’s just something you have to work through,” says Maria. “Communication is very important, to talk things through.”
As they approach the end of their 6-month term of hosting, Maria and Mike say they want to continue hosting Olha and Olena, who are also happy to stay on while they look for accommodation of their own. Meanwhile, the four are preparing to face the cost-of-living crisis together.
“We’ve sat down and looked at the possibility of Olha and Olena renting,” says Maria. “But rents are very expensive. And we all know the bills are going up – we don’t know how much anything is going to cost us. So, we’ve said we’ll carry on.”
Having clear, open communication is the key, explains Mike:
“We decided that we would have regular talks, usually about once a month. Just the four of us getting around the table, airing grievances if there’s a problem, and knowing where they are going, what they want to do and how we all feel about it.”
The experience of living with and getting to know these two Ukrainian women has made a lasting impression on Maria, she says:
“For me, I really respect Olha and Olena enormously. And I love how determined they are. They have a focus and a vision. And they’re just to be admired. They’re amazing people and I’m really, really pleased that I’ve met them and they’re in our lives.”