Ukrainians and their Irish hosts one year on: There are stark reminders. This is not a cultural exchange

Some Ukrainians have been staying with their Irish hosts for a year. For many it has been a rewarding experience, but figuring out what comes next can be tough

Fylypp Pafnutov is celebrating his seventh birthday with a small party at home in Clondalkin, Dublin. There have been presents, horseplay with his 14-year-old cousin Ivan and a traditional Ukrainian cake called Napoleon, a complex delicacy made of layers and layers of puff pastry, sandwiched with a creamy custard filling.

Almost everyone is here: Kateryna Pafnutova, Fylypp’s mother; his grandmother Liliia Tkachova; his aunt Daria Zhuravel, and cousin Ivan Zhuravel. Frank McShane, their Irish host, has a present for Fylypp, but otherwise gives them space.

Today is a day of mixed emotions. Because, of course, not everyone is here. Birthdays are a big deal in Ukraine and the absences of Fylypp’s father and uncle loom large. They are here in the gaps between the sentences; the occasions when the women in the room have to pause in conversation to gather themselves. Fylypp “is so much missing his home and his father”, Kateryna says. When he sees fathers and sons together outside, he asks his mother why he has no father here.

The last birthday that Fylypp celebrated at home in Kramatorsk was the year he turned five. His sixth birthday was spent in Poland, before he and his mother embarked on the long journey to Ireland, a place about which they knew almost nothing. “I know leprechauns,” she says in the English that is growing more confident. “I know the flag of Ireland. I know Ireland is a beautiful country. But I didn’t know anyone here. When I arrived to Ireland, I could say only, ‘My name is Kateryna. I’m from Ukraine. I need help’.”


One year after the first Ukrainian families began arriving here, the extended family gathered in Frank McShane’s bright sitting room are grappling with similar emotions, uncertainty and life decisions as the thousands of other Ukrainians across Ireland. As of last week, of the 13.5 million Ukrainians displaced by war, 78,000 had sought refuge in Ireland. Around 10,300 are in accommodation provided by 4,791 hosts. That figure is based on the hosts currently in receipt of the Accommodation Recognition Payment (€800 per month per property for those making a pledge of six months). Angie Gough of Helping Irish Hosts (HIH) estimates the real number of Ukrainians living with hosts is probably close to 12,000. “It’s phenomenal. 25,000 people signed up and nearly 5,000 are hosting.”

But as the one-year mark passes, for some, decisions need to be made. Some hosts may want their spare room back or plan to use a pledged house for family holidays. Ukrainian families might be ready to move on, too. But in parts of the country, the housing crisis makes this difficult. Angie is clear that hosting can be a “soft landing”, and is not meant to be forever. The question is what happens after the soft landing. She reassures hosts that there should be no guilt about reaching the end of their journey; her organisation will find another house for the Ukrainian guests, within the same community if they can. But for that, new hosts need to come forward.

In this house, as in many others, bonds have been formed. There is no dilemma for Frank McShane. “I said six months initially, but really it would be seven [until the end of the school year] because I wouldn’t like to do anything that would set Fylypp back.” He recently told Kateryna she can plan to stay to the end of the year. “And then I wouldn’t ask them to go at Christmas”, so really it’ll be the beginning of the year after.

He didn’t immediately sign up to become a host. Recently retired and with plenty of family and friends nearby, he has no need of company. “But it was on my mind that here I am, an auld fella of 70, sitting in a house with three empty bedrooms.” Then, last November, he saw a report on RTÉ’s Prime Time about the Ukrainian families in an Ibis hotel nearby who would soon have to move out. Pafnutova and her little boy were one of those families. In the Ibis, they were safe and the staff were very kind. But Fylypp was sad and “closed”, his mother says, wrapping her arms around herself to demonstrate. “Fylypp had not good mental health.”

The next day, before he could talk himself out of it, Frank sent in his application through HIH. When Kateryna and Fylypp first moved into his home, Fylypp was extremely quiet. “The rewarding thing is to see him running around now.”

“I would not be critical of anyone who did it or didn’t do it, because it’s a very individual decision. Your home is your home.” But in his case, “You couldn’t hope for better people. They’re fantastic.”

The knowledge that you are doing something genuinely meaningful with your life outweighs any niggles. ‘There’s something powerful about standing up to do your part’

Frank’s home, says Kateryna simply, is “the best of the best”. Her health is better here than it was in Ukraine. “Fylypp likes the cold. In Ukraine in summer, it is plus 50 degrees.” One day, she hopes her husband can come and join them in Ireland.

Angie says this is the most common sentiment she hears: “I got so lucky”. In fact, she says, in the vast majority of cases, the hosting relationship seems to work. She thinks it comes down to the human connection. The knowledge that you are doing something genuinely meaningful with your life outweighs any niggles. “There’s something powerful about standing up to do your part.”

For all that, there are practical considerations. HIH provides hosts and their guests with a house agreement form. Frank decided forms weren’t for him. “It’s the recommended route, but it wasn’t suitable for me. Luckily, they’re easy, sensible people.”

A survey published this week by Ukrainian Action Ireland found that 40 per cent of new arrivals plan on staying here for a long time. Although she is happy here, Pafnutova’s sister, Daria Zhuravel, is not one of them.

When the war started, she loaded up her white SUV and drove over 3,000km across the Continent with her son, Ivan, and their English miniature bull terrier, Grenka. They arrived in Ireland on April 4th, knowing little about the country other than that a friend had already settled here. They spent two months with a first host family and are now living with another host in Blackrock, Co Dublin, “an amazing Irish woman, Marie Doyle. She’s lovely. And it’s a very nice house. She has a very nice family who take good care of us.”

While they are safe and content, she misses home. “I hope to return to Ukraine.” Ivan loves being near the sea, the fresh air, his school Blackrock College and his friends – his mother stresses several times how grateful they are to the school and hosts – but for him, too, it’s not home. “I want to return to my home,” Ivan says.

But in February, there was devastating news. Daria takes out her phone to show me. On the first day of the month, their apartment building was shelled. She swipes through photos of a building cleaved in two, doors and windows ripped off. Where her bedroom used to be is now a gaping wound. Her husband recently had a letter telling him that the whole building is condemned for demolition. Amid the birthday cake and chat of English lessons and jobs, it is a stark reminder of the reality. This is not a cultural exchange.

‘You can say it as it is’

Bronwen O’Malley is a midwife, a mother of five, a HIH “matchmaker” and a serial host at her home in Oughterard, Co Galway, on the shores of Lough Corrib. “I like to think of my house like a safe house that people can come to when they’re traumatised.”

Bronwen’s first guests were a young mother, her newborn baby son and the young woman’s mother, who had been sleeping on the floor of the fire station in Monaghan. They stayed for two months before they found jobs and rented accommodation. “It was lovely in a selfish way to know that I made a difference to even one family.”

After that, she has had a succession of longer and short-term guests, sometimes for as little as a week. In all that time, there was only one case where it didn’t ultimately work out: a woman who stayed for a four months but didn’t follow aspects of the house agreement, including not smoking in bedrooms. “There was no one major thing, but it just became uncomfortable. So we just said we weren’t in a position to host her any more.” They secured other accommodation for her through HIH, but the woman was interested in renting privately. “She left with a smile, hugs and presents for the kids.”

Her current guest, Olena Kaivmova, is a much better fit. They discovered a shared love of fishing and Olena spends a lot of time at the lake. “She’s wonderful. She’s so happy here.” Bronwen hopes she will end up staying long-term. “I’d love her to stay forever.”

Ukrainian people have been very blessed by having very low electricity bills. It’s a big shocker when they realise it’s not that way here. One thing we hear is, ‘Oh, they’re using the heat all the time’

—  Bronwen O'Malley, host and a member of Helping Irish Hosts

People considering hosting should be as specific as possible about their lifestyle. Ukrainians are culturally very forthright and appreciate the same in return, she says. “Ukrainian people tend to be much more direct. You just say it as it is and they do not take offence.”

One area that sometimes proves tricky is the question of energy costs. “Ukrainian people have been very blessed by having very low electricity bills. It’s a big shocker when they realise it’s not that way here. One thing we hear is, ‘Oh, they’re using the heat all the time.’”

Everyone stresses that the Accommodation Recognition Payment is a significant help, but no one should do this expecting to make money.

A challenge for HIH is helping Ukrainians to stay in the same community when a hosting arrangement ends. “We’d love to be able to keep kids in schools in the area they’re in, whether that’s Ranelagh, Blackrock or wherever. But unless we get new people to step up in those communities, that can’t happen. City pledges are very hard to come by now,” says Angie.

Ultimately, “everybody’s aim is to go home or get a job and stand on their own two feet. They’re looking to work. They want to be working, they want to be earning, they want to be saving to start rebuilding Ukraine,” Bronwen says.

One of her proudest matches was a group of nine Ukrainians she calls the “Moyard Nine” who met while travelling together and wanted to find accommodation together if they could. Up stepped Niall Murphy, who works in the technology sector and whose family had just invested in a seven bedroom holiday home in Connemara when the war broke out. “We said, well, we’re only going to be using this for a small part of the year.”

He visits once a month and in between visits, stays in touch with his guests on WhatsApp. It has all worked very well, but there are potential pitfalls, he says. You can’t be precious about the configuration of your living space, because they may want to move things around. On the upside, his guests have made lots of improvements to the house, including shelving the kitchen. The other considerations are that “in rural areas particularly, your neighbours have to be on side. The third thing is that you might find you don’t agree with all their political views.”

He has an extended family gathering planned at the house for July this year, at which point the group will move out for a period. That “natural break” will give everyone a chance to take stock. His advice to other people considering hosting or offering accommodation is: “Come on in, the water’s fine. The house is occupied, which is good. They’re quite literally fixing up the place. From a cultural point of view, it has been fascinating to become acquainted with a part of the world I wouldn’t have known about.”

‘The daughter we never had’

Majella Hickey and her husband Eoin – who live near Kilcullen in Kildare with sons Aidan (21) and Colm (17) – both decided immediately after the war broke out that they wanted to offer a room to a Ukrainian; the only thing they struggled with was how to break it to each other. “I was afraid to introduce the idea to him because I didn’t think he would be interested,” says Majella.

They were matched with 25-year-old Khrystyna Sheffer, whose husband and parents have remained in Kyiv. Before she came to live with the Hickeys, Khrystyna had never left Ukraine. “I had a small plan to travel in Ireland. Now I’m here for a different reason – it’s not about travel,” she says sadly. Initially, “I was frightened because it’s a new place. It’s a new country, new people.”

Majella was delighted at the prospect of “additional female energy into the house”, especially as she lives with three sports-mad men. “What has actually happened is that she was converted by my husband into the GAA.”

During my conversations with Majella and Khrystyna separately, the warmth and affection between them is apparent. “We haven’t had any real challenges at all. Sometimes things get lost in translation a little bit,” Majella says. Once, she asked Khrystyna if she would mind taking the dog for a walk “in two hours. She took the dog for a walk for two hours. We had a complete laugh at that.”

When Majella was diagnosed with breast cancer last summer, they worried about whether they would be able to continue hosting. Ultimately, though, Khrystyna became a huge support for her. “Her grandmother had cancer, so she was very clued in. She started opening up more to me about her experience of grasping uncertainty and unpredictability. We had some very open conversations. We have processed all the uncertainty together and we’re just grateful for each other.”

What’s their relationship like now? “She’s part of the family. She’s the daughter my husband and I never had,” Majella says immediately.

Separately, Khrystyna echoes the sentiment. “They are like my parents. They support me in everything I try to do.” It’s her dream that “when Ukraine will win the war, I will meet my Irish family in Ukraine and I will introduce them to my Ukrainian family.”

She becomes emotional as she adds: “I’m so grateful that I got Majella and her family and they supported me in the darkest part of my life. I want to say thank you to all the Irish people who host Ukrainian people in their homes, to help us survive and teach us how to live again.”

Helping Irish Hosts is urgently looking for more Irish homes for short or long-term stays. Visit its website for more details