How Ukrainian Refugees Are Celebrating Christmas In The UK – From Strictly To Orthodox Christmas Potluck
UK hosts are preparing for their first Christmas with their Ukrainian guests
Two Saturdays before Christmas, millions of families gathered around the TV to watch the final of this year's Strictly Come Dancing competition.
It’s become a festive tradition for Robert and Jane from Henley, but this year has one significant difference – they were joined by five Ukrainian refugees who they have been hosting through the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme since late July, and one of them has an especially unique connection to the show.
Igor, his wife and young daughter, his sister Tanya, and her one month old baby were granted permission to enter the UK after what Robert described as a “ghastly” visa application process.
They are among 140,000 Ukrainians taking part in the landmark scheme, offering British people the opportunity to host Ukrainian refugees fleeing the terror of Vladimir Putin's invasion of their homeland.
After hearing about the scheme when it was launched in March, Robert and Jane turned to charities and social media to try and find a family to whom they could offer shelter. Progress was slow, but eventually a family connection led them to a potential match.
“My son-in-law works with a lady who has a best friend who has a son who's got a girlfriend from Ukraine who is working in London,” Robert said.
“She knew another Ukrainian who brought her family over under the family visa scheme and they know some people. We said: ‘We're up for that.’”
For Robert and Jane, who describe their age as “positively wrinkly”, sharing their home again with a young family has been a big change in lifestyle, given their own children are in their 40’s with families of their own.
Robert said his “eternal shame” for his Strictly obsession was eased when he discovered that Igor, a professional dancer, had won Ukraine’s own version of the programme several years ago, a few series after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – then a TV comedian – emerged victorious in the show’s inaugural season.
The families have since become firm friends, working on DIY and gardening projects around their shared home, while their Ukrainian guests have started running their own dance lessons in local studios and online for Ukrainians who have remained in the country.
“As well as the regular "Strictly", they will often pop in for a coffee, and the now four-year-old regularly demands of her parents that she go over to play with Jane and ‘Rowboat’,” Robert said.
With the threat of war in their home country looming earlier this year, the family had made the decision to leave Ukraine before Russia’s invasion was launched and before men were subject to a mandatory draft. Tanya’s husband remained in their hometown of Odesa, which was subject to heavy Russian bombing early in the war, alongside their grandparents and other relatives, before he was eventually drafted into the Ukrainian military.
“With the world of the internet they've got very good video connections with their family, which obviously helps a lot, but they're missing them hugely and they are missing critical periods of the kids’ lives,” he added.
“They have their family offices outside Odesa and the army took over one of the dance studios at one stage which I think was very, very nerve wracking because it was sufficiently close to their home, so there could have been all sorts of mayhem going on.
“It's not been getting the sort of obscene blanket bombardment, but Russia does continue to send shells and missiles.”
As part of the government scheme, Robert, like other hosts committed to providing accommodation to Igor and his family for a minimum period of six months, but with thousands of households coming towards the end of the agreement, and no end to Russia’s aggression in sight, there are growing concerns that ministers have failed to prepare for a potential wave of refugees facing homelessness.
“It's still an issue. The longer term issue on housing is so hard because there's already problems with social housing,” Robert said. “That's a long-term screw-up for Brits and it's a massively bigger screw-up for asylum seekers coming through traditional routes, and then you have another layer on top with Ukrainians. If this drags on bloodily, or god forbid, escalates, we need to be able to accommodate people for longer periods in decent conditions."
Julia, a host from the Midlands, agrees that both the government and local authorities need to “step up” their support during winter, but she struggles to keep a straight face as she tries to explain the other “massive problem” she’s encountered since a young family from Eastern Ukraine arrived at her home in June.
“She’s called Yulia and I’m called Julia,” she laughs. “She’s a teacher, and I was a teacher. She arrived here with her mother-in-law who lived with her in Ukraine, and my mother has lived with us since the beginning of Covid. My husband has taken to calling me nicknames to try and help the confusion in the house, it’s dreadful.”
Having faced significant problems in securing visas for the family, Julia says there have been “bumps in the road” since their arrival, including delays to benefit payments and getting school places sorted for Yulia’s two young children, but is quick to add that many have been overcome with help from the local community.
As Christmas approaches, the two families have already started planning their day, with letters to Santa written in both English and Ukrainian by Julia’s grandchildren and Yulia’s two daughters.
“It’s bittersweet,” she says. “We are all excited to spend the day together because we have grown so close, but we had also hoped this war would be over. Yulia’s husband is still in Ukraine, and I know that’s going to be terribly hard for her.”
Reflecting on her own experience, Julia says she hopes the scheme will become a model for other refugee groups, saying that the scheme has proven the generosity and willingness of British people to do their bit, even if she continues to be frustrated by what she sees as “indifference” of the government.
Looking ahead, she’s hopeful that new hosts will step up to offer their homes to Ukrainian refugees displaced by the ongoing conflict, but insists there’s “plenty to look forward to” with the prospect of the additional celebration Orthodox Christmas, widely celebrated by Ukrainians in early January.
“We've got this little group of hosts and guests that we've met in the community and one of them has kindly offered for us to all meet at their house that weekend to celebrate,” she said.
“Everyone is going to prepare some Ukrainian food and we will all have a meal together there. We can’t wait.”
“That has been another unexpected benefit of this all, because we've met all these other people in the community that we never knew before, and I know that when all our Ukrainian friends go home, once this dreadful war is over, we will all stay firm friends, and we'll all be bound together by this experience.
“It's like I've found another family, really. We have already spoken about the trips we are going to take to Ukraine, and all the places we are going to visit once our guests are able to settle back into their homes. We are incredibly fortunate to have been a part of this."
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