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How do you host a Ukrainian refugee? Be kind, but set limits

Offering a home to fleeing refugees is rewarding but a lot goes into making it work

People fleeing war in Ukraine are being given refuge in Irish homes, but offering sanctuary means more than a spare bed. Many hosts are experiencing the challenges and rewards of opening their doors.

John Geraghty welcomed Nataliya and her children Ihor (10) and Zlata (7) to his home on St Patrick’s Day. John and his partner, Uti, live in a four-bed house in Newcastle, Co Wicklow, and his adult daughters come to stay. “I was pretty horrified by what was happening in Ukraine. I thought, this can’t be happening, what can we do to help?”

He pledged accommodation through the Red Cross. Awaiting a response, he heard of a family in need and was moved to act.

When Nataliya and her children arrived, John already had some idea of what hosting would entail. In the week prior he had given temporary refuge to Taisiia, her daughter Camila (3) and Taisiia’s English fiance. “They had met online before the war. When the war started she got out to Poland and flew to Dublin.”

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Leaving a bombed Zaporizhia and her family behind, Taisiia arrived with a small haversack and little spoken English. “They were a lovely family. There was a great feeling of really hands-on being able to help someone,” he says.

Their brief stay was instructive. “You had people using the kitchen, you had people in the sitting room…but we knew it was relatively short term and we were just helping someone.” Once granted their UK visas, the family moved on.

When Nataliya and her children arrived, John was more prepared. “I knew I had to have something rather self-contained and I’d have to split the house, even along imaginary lines.”

He and Uti converted the utility room into a self-contained kitchen, buying an electric hot plate and microwave. The playroom became a dining room with a single bed. Across a shared hall the family uses a double en suite room too.

“What we had learned was that as a family for this to work we maybe had to set limits and have certain rules,” he says. “We knew we had two children arriving, they have been torn away from their home and they need some sort of normality. We can’t leave this to someone else, we’ve got to be proactive.”

The local principal arranged school places and the community rallied to provide for the family. Nataliya, an accountant, speaks some English. Her children are picking it up quickly in school. Their teacher, sheltering in a bunker in Ukraine, sent homework until Ihor and Zlata started school. The hosts and their guests talk every day and have shared meals together.

Medical card

John has helped Nataliya with getting PPS numbers, opening a bank account, getting a medical card and registering with a local doctor. “You are fully supporting them until they get to a point where they are starting to receive social welfare. At that point they are looking after themselves,” he says.

He has asked for a weekly contribution of €20 towards electricity, heat and refuse. “I don’t think that is going to cover it so, yes, there are financial implications. I’m certainly not complaining. I’m really, really happy that I have done this.”

His house insurance provider Zurich updated his policy at no cost.

Having a written agreement is important, he thinks. “Our agreement states I’m offering emergency accommodation; my offer starts on this date and we can review it again at a certain date, what the weekly contribution is, and simple things like what rooms in the house we are offering and that we respect each others’ privacy and keep the property clean.”

This will help his family stay the course, he feels. “If I had gone the way we did with the first family I think both families would be shattered, we would all be using the kitchen together, sitting down together, we’d be in each others’ space. I think the vital thing is kindness. Having some rules doesn’t hinder good relations.”

It’s important the Government lets host families know the bigger picture, says John.

"I'm not happy with Leo Varadkar saying 6,000 refugees are staying with 'friends and family' – I don't want the Government assuming they are staying with us and that they can forget about it. These families are going to be forgotten. There will be few offering accommodation if they think it is going to be a few years with no plan."

Bombed

Nataliya’s husband remains in Ukraine. “We’ve had times when Nataliya came to us and she was quite upset,” says John. “The place was being bombed in Lviv and her mum was sheltering in the bathroom in the apartment block they came from and that was quite distressing for us to hear it live on a Zoom call.”

The psychological reality for many fleeing is that they are bringing the war with them, says psychotherapist Edward Boyne of the Tivoli Institute. Host families must be mindful of the toll of war and not expect too much from them.

“Their minds are over there,” says Boyne. “They will be half here with us, and the other half will be over in Ukraine, maybe even less than half here with us. And that’s alright,” he says.

Accommodation doesn’t solve everything. “If your husband or your partner is over there, the safety over here doesn’t necessarily compensate for the sense of terror and danger he is involved in,” he says. “It is very hard for them to start any kind of healing process when they are very stressed by that.”

Some of the women arriving will have had violence perpetrated on them and their children, he says. “We are getting more facts about that as a weapon of war.”

The Tivoli Institute is seeking private sector funding for a free counselling service for refugees, staffed by Ukrainian therapists who have themselves fled. “We already have seven highly qualified Ukrainian therapists who have contacted us. They want to help,” he says.

The emotions of those arriving may range from guilt at having survived to being on edge, anger, rage, anxiety and depression, says Boyne. Irish hosts can offer psychological space as much as physical space. “Don’t expect too much of them, which is all about them feeling, ‘I’m okay whichever way I am’,”he says. “Our best gift is our patience and our sense that however you are, it’s alright,” says Boyne.

Nataliya and others attend a coffee morning run by Hillside Evangelical Church in Greystones, a hub for the growing refugee population. The team there helps with clothing, school places, job applications and medical needs.

“It just kind of happened organically,” says Deacon Rachel O’Sullivan. “This is what we try to do as a church body, love people in the best way we can, and at the moment that’s in a very practical way with the people of Ukraine. You can’t underestimate the value of saying I’m sorry this is happening to you and I want to help.”

So kind

Archil, his, wife Yulia, daughter Sofia (11) and mother-in-law Halina arrived on March 12th having fled Kiev. They attend the Hillside hub too. Their host, mother-of-two Davina Naughton, is also accommodating another family in her home near Greystones. “I never could imagine that Irish people are so kind, especially what I saw from Davina. It is absolutely unbelievable,” Archil says.

Living in a stranger’s house is different, but being with others has helped him. “When you are getting out of this crazy stress, it is really better with others so you can talk. Otherwise you will sit and think of everything.”

Born in Georgia, the war in Ukraine is the second Archil has experienced. Russia attacked Georgia when he was six. “I remember running to save our lives. It was winter, minus 10, through the mountains for three days without food. After 28 years I have the same situation leaving Ukraine with my family.”

A university graduate who had his own business, the future he envisaged is gone. “All of this because of one person, Putin.”

Being offered a job by Irish company Ecopipe.ie two weeks ago has been a lifeline for Archil. He would like to see Government aid for Ukrainian refugees channelled into jobs. “Give the benefits to a company who will hire a Ukrainian,” he says. “To sit and think about what is happening in your country, who is dying, and to go every week to the post office to collect €200 is more stress. We want jobs.”

Host Davina looked for Ukrainian families whose children matched her children’s ages. She has moved into her 10-year-old daughter’s room with her three year-old son, putting extra beds in the playroom and in her bedroom.

“I was lucky because I had the space. Some people approach it with putting rules in, but I said, look, let’s feel at home and we can sit down in a couple of weeks and see how it’s going. We haven’t needed to do that.”

The families share food. “Everyone makes a dish, they are put on the island and everyone helps themselves. It’s nearly like we are living in a commune,” she says. Bathrooms are loosely assigned.

Good chats

Parenting styles can differ and that can be a challenge. “When you take another family under your roof you are showing your child that. My children are battling me now for a little extra time on the iPad,” she says. “I’ve had good chats with the mums and when we have put the kids to bed we have stayed up and maybe had a glass of wine together.”

It hasn’t been plain sailing, but she didn’t expect it to be. “You need to accept that there will be sacrifice, you are going to have to make a compromise for the greater good.”

There have been laughs too. “The three-year-old and my three-year-old argue. Russian on one side, and English on the other, and the two of them are getting their points across.”

She feels asking her guests for a contribution “changes things” and she hasn’t done so.

“The thing that does concern me a little bit is I normally take in students for a little bit of extra cash…what isn’t great is there is no [Government] support for hosts, even a contribution.”

She thought the situation might last five or six months. “The Red Cross have said 12 months, but I don’t know how possible that is in my situation with no help towards the bills when I am on my own.”