Fri, 19 April 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
By Bishop of Leeds
By Baroness Fox
Home affairs
Press releases

Meet the British MPs who have opened their homes to Ukrainian refugees

Ukrainian student teacher Anna, 34, (second from right) and her six-year-old son, Sviatik, (far right) have come to stay with Baker, his wife and their two daughters aged six and 10 at his constituency home in North Norfolk.

10 min read

MPs are among thousands of Britons offering accommodation to those fleeing war in Ukraine. But providing sanctuary means more than sprucing up the spare room. Three parliamentarians tell Sienna Rodgers about the challenges and rewards of opening their homes to refugees.

Duncan Baker is a rare beast – an MP brave enough to show a journalist his phone while scrolling through its camera roll. “Trust me, there’s nothing dubious,” he says when I point this out. “Right, here we go. This is my little daughter making cakes for them the night before they arrived. Look how tired she was!”

He shows a barbecue, kids playing in the garden, a football match, his feet (oops, that wasn’t supposed to be seen), a happy group posing outside a cathedral at Easter. They could be ordinary family snaps – but there is a difference. Baker’s household has recently grown by two.

Ukrainian student teacher Anna, 34, and her six-year-old son, Sviatik, have come to stay with Baker, his wife and their two daughters aged six and 10 at his constituency home in North Norfolk. The Conservative MP, who was elected in 2019, is one of the first parliamentarians  to welcome refugees under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, having signed up to the programme on the night it launched.

There were some worries, initially. “We don’t see a lot of you, Dad. We will have to share you for the next year, or however long it takes. Will we all get on together?” his 10-year-old asked.

The family recognised it was a “huge commitment”. But with a spare bedroom and bunk beds for the girls, they made the leap. “There are 99 reasons not to do it. There’s only really one reason to do it – you want to help them and care for somebody,” Baker tells The House.

After putting out his offer through a constituent, who was already in touch with the refugee community, the MP swiftly found Ukrainians to match with and soon got chatting with their potential refugee guests. “We set up a WhatsApp group with my wife and myself, because I always felt this lady needed to know that my wife would be there as well,” Baker explains. Otherwise, he points out, it’s “this man who just keeps texting you to say, ‘Come and live with me.’”

“There are 99 reasons not to do it. There’s only really one reason to do it – you want to help them and care for somebody.”

The first time they spoke via video call, Anna was “broken, just hollow”. When the Russians invaded, she had been studying for a teaching qualification in Kyiv while her son was staying with his grandparents in Melitopol. They couldn’t get him out.

“I put the phone down,” Baker recalls, “and I just cried. I thought, ‘I’ve got to help these people.’” As he and his wife did some “very organic” research – basically googling – and quickly filled in all the visas and other paperwork, Anna’s husband made the dangerous trip to Melitopol and succeeded in collecting their son.

Once the pair arrived in the UK, friends and constituents showed “incredible generosity” with donations. Anna lacked toiletries, a hairdryer, trainers (a Kyiv city-dweller, she was unprepared for the countryside); Sviatik had just one toy and needed shoes for school, which he has begun attending, starting with half days.

Walking around the constituency with Anna has been heartwarming, Baker says: “We’ve had people just stop and hug her. She’s been emotional, seeing all the Ukraine flags flying in the houses as you drive past.” Meanwhile, Baker’s two girls “squabble” over who gets to play with Sviatik next.

Do they discuss politics over the dinner table? “They think Boris Johnson’s a hero in Ukraine. It’s as simple as that,” Baker replies. But mostly their focus is on family – and food.

“Fish and chips. That was the first thing we did.” The two families connect through cultural swaps. “I’ve been fed borscht; we’ve given them Yorkshire puddings.”

They feel spoilt, which they should do. They need some love and attention.

There is, however, the nagging anxiety over the safety of Anna’s husband, Vitali. Men of conscription age may not leave Ukraine; for the moment Vitali is still at his job at the University of Kyiv, where he works as a botanist, but that may change at any time.

At least mother and son are safe. Sviatik has played cricket for the first time and “eaten his own body weight in chocolate over the last couple of weeks” thanks to gifted Easter eggs.

Baker says warmly: “They feel spoilt, which they should do. They need some love and attention.”

Andy McDonald, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough, faced practical impediments to opening his doors to a Ukrainian refugee family. “Signing up to the scheme was really straightforward,” he says of Homes for Ukraine. “The portal works well, so you can be registered and accepted as a potential host. But then it comes to a shuddering halt. Because there’s nothing after that, which makes it all a bit meaningless.”

After registering his interest, a chance conversation with a friend led McDonald to connect with Maria Tribe, a management consultant from Cambridge. This “incredible” woman, as he describes her, plays no official role in the process but has taken it upon herself to become a matchmaker for United Kingdom and Ukrainian families. That is how McDonald found Tatiana, her husband Alexey and their two-year-old son Vladislav, known as Vladik.

“Their home in Luhansk was destroyed by Russian bombs,” McDonald begins their story. The family fled and took refuge in Cherkasy, a city south of Kyiv on the bank of the river Dnipro, which flows through the centre of Ukraine. There, they were given a flat to stay in for a month. Alexey is an award-winning physicist and professional photographer, but they had no money or income.

I just think, why can’t we extend this generosity of spirit to others?

McDonald submitted the visa application to be Tatiana’s host in April. “Oh, what a stressful, anxious process that is,” he says. “I made a couple of errors. I missed a letter out of her email address, which gave me a sleepless night because she pointed it out to me. I thought, ‘Oh, no, what have I done?’. And then you need to upload a great deal of evidence… It really was stretching my IT skills.”

Once young Vladik gained a passport, McDonald made another application and linked the two. On 27 April, permission to travel for the boy came through. “Not really much good to a two-year-old who, dare I suggest, might need a parent,” the MP remarks.

He established through a visit to the Ukraine casework hub on the parliamentary estate – where dozens of staffers queue daily in search of updates – that Tatiana’s application had been approved but further checks were needed. Finally, after raising their case in the Chamber, all permissions were granted.

In the days before their arrival, McDonald sent Tatiana his family tree and a photo of Middlesbrough centre square illuminated in the Ukrainian colours, and took practical steps such as asking Alexey for their food preferences.

His wife Sally began learning Ukrainian and the whole family tried to pick up at least a “smattering of words,” enough to say hello and welcome.

McDonald has a grand piano at home, which he plays – and it just so happens that Tatiana is a concert pianist. The MP says he is excited about the prospect of building a “little Ukrainian community of musicians,” as friends of his are hosting a Ukrainian music teacher.

Meanwhile little Vladik is getting on well with McDonald’s granddaughter. “The international language of children’s toys disputes,” the MP says.

McDonald is full of praise for how Doncaster airport is welcoming Ukrainian refugees to the UK, with a dedicated reception area set up. “All of the hosts were there, so we’re all exchanging our stories,” he recalls. “It tended to be people of a certain vintage who were receiving people.”

You can only deal with what’s in front of you and do what you can.

“Some of the scenes of family reunification were really touching,” McDonald says. “One little girl came up to – I think he was her father. The squeal of delight and the drop of her little case and running to him was just gorgeous. The remarkable thing was to see the police officers and Border Force helping the passengers with their luggage… Perhaps not the image people have of Border Force staff, but they were absolutely wonderful.”

As with Baker, the heartache of their Ukrainian mother and child is never far from their thoughts. Alexey is “not yet taking up arms” but “will fully expect” to do so. While Tatiana and Vladik are now safe, “it leaves husband and dad in mortal danger – and that’s just terrifying”.

McDonald is pleased to be helping, yet does have one regret. “I just think, why can’t we extend this generosity of spirit to others? If you’ve lost your home, you’ve lost your home. It doesn’t matter whether that’s in Ukraine or Syria, Palestine or Yemen. It doesn’t sit well with me that we’re not being as generous with people fleeing all sorts of atrocities. But there we are.

“You can only deal with what’s in front of you and do what you can.”

While the other parliamentarians interviewed by The House are new to the experience of welcoming a refugee into their home, Lord Bassam went through the process in 2016 when a Syrian asylum seeker came to live with him and his wife in Brighton. Rian was a student who stayed for “six or seven months” before securing her right to remain in the UK, which allowed her to find a job and move into private accommodation.

We feel quite privileged to have met somebody we wouldn’t otherwise have come across.

Asked for his tips for other hosts, Bassam highlights privacy: “think about people’s private spaces, try to provide them with sufficient distance”; sensitivity: “understand they’ve had a traumatic time and take the conversation easily and slowly”; and finding common interests: they bonded mostly over their love of travel and family.

They still get on well with Rian, who no longer lives in the area but “knows that anytime she wants to come down to Brighton she can come and pay us a visit”. She dropped in for coffee only recently, the Labour peer says. “Her parents are still in Syria. They’ve moved away from most of the conflict. But I think she’s probably resigned to not being able to see them again, other than through Zoom... That’s probably the most disturbing side of it.”

How does he feel, reflecting on that time? “We feel quite privileged to have met somebody we wouldn’t otherwise have come across,” Bassam replies. “I’d recommend it to anybody. It’s important we try to reach out to people. It helps enrich our lives and hopefully theirs.” He has signed up to Homes for Ukraine and hopes to join Baker and McDonald by becoming a host once again.

PoliticsHome Newsletters

Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.

Read the most recent article written by Sienna Rodgers - Jamie Driscoll predicts 'big upset' for Labour in North East mayoral race