Families who opened homes to Ukrainians: ‘We can sometimes feel like we’re on top of each other’

Irish families open their hearts and their homes to offer sanctuary to refugees from war-torn Ukraine

Carron McKinney, her husband Martin Perry and the Babchenko family from Lviv in Ukraine, Zoryana, Viktoriya, Max and their mother Halayna.

Carron McKinney knew she had to do something to help as she watched the horrors of the war in Ukraine unfold on her TV screen.

“I was watching the news and just felt, like most people, completely impotent,” she explains.

And so, like many Irish families around the country, Carron has opened her home and welcomed a Ukrainian family to live with her.

The Babchenko family – mother Halyna, daughters Viktoriya and Zoryana and son Max – are staying with Carron, her husband Martin and two of their four daughters in their four-bedroom house in Cabinteely, Co Dublin. Carron, who works for a global pharmaceutical company, has converted her garden office to a bedroom to create some extra space for her guests.

The Babchenko family, mother Halayna, Viktoriya, Zoryana and Max, abandoned their car and walked the last 50km to the Polish border and from there travelled into Krakow and then got trains to Bratislava and then a flight to Dublin.

“We have an open plan kitchen, living room, diner – we all spend a lot of time there. It’s not easy, I’ll be honest. Sometimes it’s a challenging transition, but we’re definitely getting into more of a mode of living together and getting used to each other and trying to give each other an element of privacy, even who cooks when.

“I would say hand on heart, it’s going a lot better than I could have imagined, because the concept and the reality are very different. The reality is there’s a lot more people in the house. Space is at a premium. We can sometimes feel like we’re all on top of each other, but everyone has a room that they can escape to, and that’s the key. When it gets too much you go to your bedroom, you go for a drive, you go for a walk. And we’re open with each other.”

The families take turns when it comes to practicalities, Carron says.

“I’ll say I’m making the dinner tonight, so then they’ll make the dinner the next night and we take turns with the dishwasher. It’s a new reality for all of us and we’re just trying to get through it as best we can. Nobody’s superheroes.”

But for those not in a position to host a family themselves, Carron says there’s still plenty you can do, explaining how people in her community have offered help with English lessons and laptops, while the local GAA club have welcomed 16-year-old Max into the fold, kitting him out with all he needs to participate.

She encourages those wanting to help, to gift vouchers to the family who’ve arrived, rather than donations of clothes and products if possible “so they can make their own choices. Just to be able to have the comfort of being able to get the shampoo you use normally. To be able to go and buy your own underwear and your own socks”.

There are other ways that people can help too, she explains.

“If you could take their family for dinner for one night a week, it gives the host family a break.”

“Taking the kids for a play date” is another suggestion Carron makes, adding how getting to escape the house and play the Playstation with another teenager brought Max a temporary “sense of normality.”

The Babchenko family at Bratislava airport en route to Dublin after an arduous journey

A uniform

For Halyna, safe now in Dublin, thoughts of home and her husband who remained in Ukraine to fight, are never far away.

“He sent me a picture. He is in a uniform and training. It’s terrible”, she says sadly. “He can’t tell me any more, his location.”

Halyna and her children’s journey from Ukraine to Dublin was difficult and traumatic. It took them 45 hours to get to the Polish border.

“We started our journey by car,” she explains, but long queues meant they had to abandon their car and continue their journey on foot. The first night of their journey, they slept on the floor of a school. The next day they spent 12 hours on the Ukrainian side of the border.

“Just on the streets. No toilets, nothing,” Halyna says. “Nothing. Twelve hours. The girls who had their periods couldn’t change. It was terrible.”

When the family crossed the border, with just a backpack each, Halyna says very kind Polish people took care of them, and provided them with food, clothing and everything they needed until they left for Ireland.

Halyna is not sleeping very well. Whenever she wakes she checks her phone which notifies her when air sirens go off in Lviv. She calls her husband whenever she sees this and tells him to go to the bomb shelter. She’s trying to care for him from afar as she’s worried that he’s so exhausted, he might not wake to the sound of the sirens.

Clare and her mum Aoibhinn O’Connell.

Halyna is managing to meet with some other Ukrainian families who have also fled to Ireland, including her best friend, which helps a little, she explains. Aside from her husband she has no other family in Ukraine.

"I have some family, but they live in Russia, " she says. "They don't believe. Every time I start a conversation with them, they are like 'let's don't speak about politics'."

While Halyna worries hugely about what the future holds, she says she’s extremely grateful to the people of Ireland.

“Millions of thanks from us . . . Every person is so important to us. It really touches our hearts.”

Bought shopping

Clare O’Connell was supposed to have a new flatmate moving in but when she saw a message shared in her local residents’ whatsapp group, looking for help to house Ukrainian refugees who were coming to Ireland, she instead delayed her new flatmate’s arrival, and moved in with her mother, so as to free her home up for a family.

Clare was away with work at the time and so her mum, Aoibhinn, went to Clare’s home to pick up a bag for Clare and make sure everything was ready for the family arriving.

“She was able to give it a lovely once over, make sure it was clean for them. She went out and bought shopping for them – a bottle of wine even”, just to try and make it as welcoming as possible, Clare explains.

Two sisters, Nataliya and Oskana, and Nataliya’s 14-year-old daughter, Diana, are currently living in Clare’s home. Their parents have remained in Ukraine, Clare explains.

Nataliya, Diana and Oksana in Prague.

“They’re looking after their very elderly grandmother and there’s just no way that they can move.”

As the horrific pictures continue to come from Ukraine, Clare says “it’s so difficult to know what to say. There isn’t anything you can say. There isn’t anything to make it better. Just a smile and a hug, I suppose, can go a long way. We had them over for dinner and you laugh together and you cry together and you eat together.”

The family “are staying up all night watching the news because they are terrified of what’s going to happen overnight and trying to stay in contact with the grandparents. They’re incredibly strong. Myself and my mum are in awe of them”, Clare continues.

From a practical perspective, Clare says that this is something she can do for a few weeks as her flatmate will need to move in and Clare is continuing to pay rent on the property.

“I was in a lucky enough position that I could quickly move back home. And I know how privileged that is and I know that’s not something that a lot of people would be in the position to do.

“Obviously, I would love to be able to spread the word and say ‘gosh it gives you such a great feeling of being able to help’ but if that Government support [financial support] isn’t there, people are struggling enough as it is, I don’t see how that’s sustainable. People want to help. People are desperate to help. They are clawing for ways to make a difference, but I think people need that step in order to be able to help.”

Nataliya Markiv left Kyiv the day after Russia invaded Ukraine. She collected her 14-year-old daughter Diana, who lived with her grandparents in Western Ukraine, close to Lviv, and along with Nataliya's sister, Oskana, the three made their way to Poland. The family had no extended family or friends in any other countries and because Diana studied English in school, they decided to come to Ireland.

Nataliya says she has no idea if her home is okay or if it’s even still standing as all her friends have left Kyiv.

“I don’t have anyone who can tell me about it,” she explains. She checks in with her parents every single day. “Today everything is okay. But all the time there are alarms and sirens and my mum and dad must go downstairs.”

Fourteen-year-old Diana has enrolled in school here and is due to start soon.

“There are two Ukrainian girls there and I think we will be good friends,” she says. Diana finds Ireland very different to Ukraine but says “it is nice and I like it”. People “have done so much for us. I can’t explain how I feel. I think it’s really amazing, it’s awesome. They help us as much as they can. They do everything for us.”

“I just want to say thank you to Irish people, to Ireland”.

But the worries about home continue.

“I’m scared about my grandparents, about my friends, about my city, about my country. I think my country will be rebuilt and I hope that everything will be okay.”