They were welcomed into British homes. Celebrating their first Christmas together, Ukrainians wonder if that hospitality will last

Henley-on-Thames, EnglandCNN — 

Last year, Nataliia Doroshko, a 35-year-old lawyer, celebrated St. Nicholas Day with friends and family in her home city of Cherkasy, on the snowy banks of the Dnipro River, downstream from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

During the party, one of the men snuck away and returned dressed as St. Nicholas, a Santa Claus-like figure known as “Sviatyij Mykolai” in Ukraine, she

recalled. He was greeted by wide-eyed children, who lined up eagerly to see what gifts he’d brought for them. It was one of the last joyful evenings Doroshko remembers sharing with loved ones before Russia invaded Ukraine and her world turned upside down.

“We had special food, special music, presents for everybody,” she told CNN from a church hall in Henley-on-Thames, a town upstream from London, in Oxfordshire, where she was marking the holiday on December 19.

More than 100 people – a mix of Ukrainian refugees, host families, local residents and teachers – had gathered at the small hall, decked out in strands of snowflake-shaped lights. The vicar was serving drinks, as others dolled out cookies and cakes. One Ukrainian father had donned a red and gold St. Nicholas costume, while children dressed in Christmas sweaters played musical chairs and laughed.

“We’ve celebrated a festival we don’t usually celebrate,” said Krish Kandiah, the man behind the event, who earlier this year launched the Sanctuary Foundation, an organization that helps match Ukrainian refugees with British host families. “It’s been brilliant that the community has welcomed Ukrainians.”

Doroshko, who was sponsored by Kandiah, came across him by chance. While on a packed train trying to flee the fighting, she was scrolling on her phone searching for refugee schemes. She saw him in a YouTube video announcing the launch of a British program called “Homes for Ukraine,” which would allow Ukrainians to travel to the UK if they could find a sponsor. She immediately reached out, asking for help. Five minutes later, Kandiah gave her a call.

“Unfortunately, we were unable to talk, as my English level was close to zero,” said Doroshko, who is now nearly fluent. Over several weeks, with the help of Google Translate, Kandiah assisted her to secure a visa and travel to the UK. She has been living with him, his wife and their six children since May.

As of mid-December, more than 100,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Britain under the Homes for Ukraine sponsorship scheme, while another 42,600 have come stay with relatives, according to the UK government. When the scheme started in March, families were asked to commit to a minimum of six months of hosting. But that period has now elapsed for many Ukrainians who arrived in the spring.

CNN spoke with eight Ukrainian refugees and nine British hosts, as well as UK charities helping to support the scheme, to get a sense of what’s next as the war stretches on, with Russia’s relentless attacks on Ukraine’s power grid threatening to trigger a fresh wave of refugees this winter. An elderly Ukrainian couple that arrived in the UK on December 1, fleeing the conflict and freezing cold, sat together in the corner of the church hall, speaking quietly and letting the festivities sink in. More are expected to join them in the coming weeks.

For Ukrainians spending their first Christmas in their new homes, it was comforting to celebrate old traditions. But, while the room was brimming with good will for the holidays, there was a palpable sense of uncertainty about the year ahead.

Many are unsure how long they will be welcome in their new homes and whether the six-month “deadline” will cast them out on the street. While many Britons signed up to the scheme are happy to continue hosting for as long as necessary, others are hoping to find a more permanent arrangement for both parties. Some say they’ve “done their bit” and simply want their lives back, but are unclear on an exit strategy.

“Two years is a very long time to have somebody living in your house,” one host told CNN.

Hoping for a home of their own

Currently, the UK government gives host families £350 ($425) a month in “thank you” payments to help cover costs, regardless of the number of people they host. But, for most people CNN spoke with, the major incentive to sign up to the scheme was getting the chance to help – not any sort of monetary gain.

“Frankly, it’s enhanced our lives,” said Robert Aitkin, 76. He and his wife sponsored Oleksandra, who goes by Sasha, and Igor Kuzmenko along with their 2-year-old daughter, Miroslava, and host the young family at their home in Henley-on-Thames. Sasha’s sister has also moved to the Oxfordshire town with her son, who was only a couple of months old when the war broke out.

The families, who came together to the St. Nicholas party, have forged a relationship they say will last a lifetime. And while they initially agreed to the living arrangement for one year, Aitkin said if the Kuzmenkos need more time, “we would definitely do that.”

But not everyone is willing or able to keep their doors open indefinitely. The Aitkins have an apartment attached to their house, so the Kuzmenkos live separately from them. For those with less space, stretching past six months might pose a challenge. “People have made a great gesture at the beginning, but if they’re living in a small space together, it’s got to be difficult for both parties,” Aitkin acknowledged.

With those difficulties in mind, Kandiah’s Sanctuary Foundation started a petition calling on the government to provide more housing support to Ukrainians struggling with accommodation. Kandiah and a group of Ukrainian refugees went to 10 Downing Street on November 29 to hand deliver the petition, signed by more than 4,500 people.

Two weeks later, the government acknowledged the need to support British families who had welcomed Ukrainians into their homes, increasing the monthly stipend to £500 for those who have hosted for over a year. The government also rolled out a £650 million support package, which includes funding for local authorities to help support Ukrainian refugees move into their own homes, acquire additional housing stock and reduce the risk of homelessness.

CNN asked Oxfordshire County Council, which oversees Henley-on-Thames, what help they currently offer Ukrainian refugees who find themselves without a place to stay. “We will do everything we can to continue to provide suitable accommodation for guests, but longer-term housing options may not be possible within the county for everyone who needs it,” a communications officer told CNN.

In the absence of long-term options through local councils, British charities are looking into creative solutions to re-house refugees. One possibility being floated is “re-hosting,” something Kandiah says is akin to “sofa-surfing.” But he worries that if Britons weren’t interested in helping out when the war started, they’re unlikely to do so now.

Part of the problem is that Ukrainian refugees have begun to put down roots in places they can’t necessarily afford, as most of their hosts live in expensive areas. On top of that, Ukrainians have been unable to find comparable work and wages to what they were making before the war, so the steep cost of rent is out of reach.

Many Ukrainians CNN spoke with said they feel frustrated that their qualifications do not translate over. Natasha, who was a lawyer in Cherkasy now she works in a retail store. Another woman, Tania Orlova, 45, was a clinical psychologist in Kyiv and also ran a number of her own businesses; now she works for a local charity in High Wycombe, a town in Buckinghamshire.

Orlova, who speaks several languages, said she could have gone elsewhere in Europe – Spain or Germany, for example – but felt that the UK offered her the best future for her son, Danylo, 8, and her mother, 67, and the chance of becoming “financially independent.” But so far that hasn’t happened, and as a 10-month timeline that she agreed with her hosts approaches, she’s becoming more anxious about where they will go.

When Orlova calls real estate agents, she said that they all start with the same question: “What is your salary?” After a quick calculation, they tell her what she is eligible for. “I couldn’t take anything within that price that would suit three of us – or even two of us,” she said. The median monthly rent for a three-bedroom apartment in Oxfordshire is £1,295, according to the latest figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics.

The UK government started the Homes for Ukraine scheme in the wake of its disastrous Afghan resettlement program. In August, a year after fleeing the Taliban’s takeover of the country, thousands of Afghan asylum seekers and refugees were still living in UK hotels at a cost of more than £5 million a day, according to the government. While the program offered permanent residency, it has only been granted to a few thousand so far.

Ukrainians have received a warmer welcome than other groups of refugees in the UK, but a cloud of impermanence hangs over their stay. The visa for Ukrainians is only valid for three years, with the expectation that they will return home afterward. And though many want to return, for those who can’t or are unable to, their future in the UK is uncertain.

“The people who planned to go back as quickly as possible [to Ukraine] would not have made the quite considerable journey to the UK, gone through the whole rigmarole of the visa process, found a sponsor, gone to the most distant part of Europe – and then only settle there for a short time,” said Stanislav Benes, managing director of Opora – which means “support” in Ukrainian – another charity that helps match Ukrainians with British host families.

“There needs to be much more thought dedicated to, what are the support structures going to be between year one and year three?” he added.

Dreaming of peace

While hosts were aware of the steep costs and cultural differences they might be confronted with when they decided to host Ukrainian refugees, they were less prepared for taking on the mental stress and anguish that their guests were still grappling with.

Orlova told CNN that support is urgently needed for Ukrainians, like herself, who are still wracked with the trauma of the conflict. She said she recently went to a local hospital for an X-ray and the noises from the machine sparked a flashback. Suddenly she was back in Ukraine hearing the wail of the sirens on the morning of the invasion. “I wanted to run from there. I had tears in my eyes,” she said.

Her son Danylo has suffered from night terrors since the war began. At the St. Nicholas celebration, the organizers removed balloons from the church hall after someone pointed out that children might panic if one of them was to pop.

In order to properly recover and regain their sense of self, Kandiah said that Ukrainians will need a space they can truly call their own. “You need to be able to close the front door and say, ‘We’re a family. We can choose what language we’re going to speak, what we’re going to eat.’ That’s part of trauma recovery – having agency, the ability to make decisions.”

But until then, Kandiah said his own family is happy to help with the healing process and make Doroshko feel at home. Bortsch, perogies and holubtsi, a Ukrainian stuffed cabbage dish, are now staple meals in their household. And Kandiah has swapped cough drops for a Ukrainian practice of drinking hot beer to cure a sore throat, just one of many cultural exchanges.

Doroshko said she is relieved to no longer have to travel around with an “emergency suitcase” and worry about being woken by sirens. “I lost my parents when I was 20 years old,” she said. “Now I feel that I have a family again. I was adopted, as it were, only in adulthood.”

Christmas Eve is celebrated on January 6 in Ukraine. Last year, Doroshko said she celebrated with an old tradition: writing a “dream” down on a piece of paper before burning it, pouring the ashes into a glass, and drinking it. “It makes your dreams come true,” said Doroshenko.

What is she wishing for this year? “Peace.”

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