Countryfile: Tom emotional as he speaks to Ukrainian refugee
In fairness, all I did was answer an email from my Ukrainian neighbour and friend Archie, who has lived in England for more than a decade. As the Russian tanks poured into Eastern Ukraine, he was trying to find spaces for friends anxious to escape their advance. Did anyone have space, could anyone help?
Noble decided to take in the Bedai family from Ukraine
When we moved to our home in a quiet Surrey village, it came with a small barn. It had a roof, but no doors or windows and, frankly, was in danger of falling down.
We restored it into a guest annexe about three years ago, imagining perhaps that my elderly parents or our boomeranging adult children might use it. We put in a bathroom, and a mini-kitchen with a fridge-freezer, toaster oven and microwave.
We are empty nesters, and we both work from home – my husband David is a semi-retired book publisher and I am a writer. Both our children are adults now, living their lives away from us, and since lockdown, the second bedroom in our annexe had been acting as a gym.
But after a quick cri de coeur to the village, five strapping neighbours pitched in and the kit was relocated between our home office and bedroom, where, since a treadmill is, as everyone knows, a good place to hang your trousers, it fits right in.
So yes, we had space and we could help. Archie quickly linked us up with a family: Vitalii and Inna Bedai and their daughter, Sveta. We cannot claim to have done any of the endless paperwork other host families have been forced to undertake.
Archie was a valuable link between us and our visitors, was their official sponsor initially, and orchestrated their way through all the bureaucracy.
Elizabeth and husband David converted their barn into a guest house
After their arrival was confirmed, we made our barn as homely as we could, asking endless questions about Ukrainian ways. Knowing our guests would be arriving with just a single suitcase each, I bought basic toiletries, cleaning supplies and groceries.
And Archie made a welcoming video to send to the family – waiting for their visas in an Airbnb in Bucharest, Romania – in which we made sure we were smiling and looking friendly.
After everything that has happened in their country since February 24, I wanted them to feel confident they were coming somewhere comfortable and safe. Dave ordered a Ukrainian flag, and we hung it up by the front door.
There is a small terrace outside the barn, and we moved a couple of garden chairs from our patio to sit there. It was cold and grey in the spring and it seemed odd to imagine they would use them come summertime.
The open-endedness of the arrangement is a strange thing: the Homes for Refugees scheme asks for a commitment of six months, while British visas give the right to remain for three years, and the wretched war shows no sign of ending soon.
In the end, we were not home when they arrived. Perhaps it was better that we were not. It must have all felt very strange to them, but they had the chance to look around without us hanging over them. We pulled into the driveway about an hour later… and there they were.
The Bedai Family
Vitalii is in his early sixties (we know from subsequent conversations how much he had wanted to fight for his country, but his age made it impossible), Inna is like me, in her mid-50s, and their beautiful daughter Sveta is in her thirties, a decade or so older than my two girls, Tallulah and Ottilie.
They looked shattered, bewildered and relieved, and it was incredibly moving. I had not expected it to be so emotional, but we all cried and hugged and, because they did not speak good English and my Ukrainian is non-existent, I did my best charades to try to show it was their home now and that they were welcome, and safe.
That was more than three months ago. At first, we gave our visitors space. It seemed important to let them rest and acclimatise. But over time, we have come to know each other better.
We had a fish and chip supper where the sixth guest was a smartphones, set up to translate, and though it was stilted at first, we managed pretty well. Vitalii soon found work with a local business – at home he has his own engineering company, while here he is part of a team of builders.
But I know he is a proud man who wants to work and the regular hours have given shape and meaning to his days.
A few weeks after our guests arrived, some neighbours who also had space opened it up to Inna’s sister, her niece and their elderly father, who is in a wheelchair. They were overjoyed to be reunited, and now both daughters can help care for their dad.
Sveta in an air raid shelter in Ukraine
When I head out to go shopping I offer them a ride and we use the journey to speak English, and to learn about each other’s lives. At home, Inna worked for an estate agent, and Sveta, who is an economics graduate, in an office.
There is, of course, far more that unites than divides us. Inna and I do not understand each other, but with Sveta and Google Translate to assist us, we have found common ground as wives and mothers. We share a fondness for shopping, chocolate and interior design magazines. And rolling eyes, shrugs and giggles are universal.
As war fatigue sets in, and the Ukrainian conflict is pushed off newspaper front pages by the cost-of-living crisis, the Tory leadership battle and the recent heatwave, it remains far more real to us because of the way it impacts on our guests.
I feel tremendous sympathy for their plight, but not pity. Ukrainians are proud and independent, and they are respectful of our space.
David is on a permanent mission to get them to use the garden as if it were theirs, but I somehow doubt we will ever persuade them to come in uninvited. They are dignified and courageous. Assimilating has been an incredibly steep learning curve, I am certain, but they have never complained.
A few weeks ago, when my husband had a double knee replacement, the whole family was eager to help in any way.
The Bedai family were a welcome addition to the local community
I was wrestling our recycling bin towards the front of the house one evening when Inna opened the door and shouted “Net”, swiftly followed by Vitalii, in his slippers, charging out to complete the task for me.
When I collected David from the hospital, they came round with flowers and delicious chocolate and jam cakes they had made. Quite simply, they are wonderful neighbours.
There are several Ukrainian families locally, and more groups further afield: gradually networks are built, and this lovely community of ours is eager to help. There is now a rota of willing local drivers to transport our visitors to and from language lessons and shops.
I recently sat with the two women and Inna, with Sveta translating, told me she had always believed at this stage of her life that things would be quiet and settled.
Now almost every day she had to learn or do or face something new while all the time waiting for news from her homeland. I was incredibly struck by the quiet, pragmatic resilience of those words. There is something we can all learn from them.
They check in with friends and extended family every day, anxious to know how things are. There has been shelling close to their apartment. For now, it is still standing.
When I asked Vitalii, Inna and Sveta whether they were happy for me to write about them, their immediate reaction was that they were keen for Britons to know how grateful they and their countryfolk are for the welcome they have received here.
I think they found British people warmer and more open than they had expected.
We all feel lucky to have been matched up; we are not naïve – the experience of taking in Ukrainian guests has not been as easy or happy for everyone on both sides who has entered into it.
But for all of us, despite the horrifying invasion that is the reason for them being here, it has been a positive and happy experience and David and I have never been anything other than glad we have embarked upon it.
When Inna and Sveta borrowed some terracotta pots and planted roses and busy lizzies on their little terrace, I got a lump in my throat, because to my mind it means that they feel at home here.
- Other People’s Husbands by Elizabeth Noble (Michael Joseph, £14.99) is out now. For free UK delivery and 10 per cent discount, visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832.