From Kharkiv to Kent, life with the Ukrainian refugees who now feel like family | Refugees

When Basma Gale invited a family of Ukrainian refugees into her home in Kent a week ago, she felt nervous. Would the couple’s two small children be traumatised by the bombing they had experienced? Would her own children get along with them? She had never done anything like this before: would it all be a little awkward?

A week later, she says Sergei and Oksana Koletvinov feel like family. She is very proud of the way her children, eight year-old Safiya and six-year-old Joshua, have befriended the couple’s eight-year-old daughter Alica and two-year-old son, Cemeh, despite not sharing a language. “Within half an hour of their arrival, all four children were running about the house together, having pillow fights and playing with playdough.”

She and her husband Tom had already spoken to their children at the beginning of the Russian invasion to explain what was happening. “We think it’s really important that our children grow up understanding how privileged they are. How it could easily be us in the same situation, to create that sense of empathy for all humans. So when Sergei and Oksana’s children came to stay with us, they just knew what to do – which was to welcome them and play with them, just as they would with friends or cousins.”

Refugees in the garden of British family
‘It’s not a one-way thing. It’s an exchange. They’ve been cooking us breakfast and making us soups for lunch,’ say the Gales. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

They were introduced to the family through Tom’s father, the Tory MP Sir Roger Gale, who had gone to Calais to see what was happening at the border. “He called us to ask if we would consider giving them a home.”

Basma volunteers with refugees and her husband grew up with refugees being brought into his family home through his father’s work, so it didn’t take them long to say yes. “I think if any human is in need, you just do it if you can – and we’re fortunate we’ve got the space.”

The Koletvinovs arrived at the small village near Canterbury a few hours later. They are staying in the Gales’ spare room, which has an en-suite toilet and shower, and she has also offered them a room downstairs as a private living area. “But it’s not a one-way thing. It’s an exchange. They’ve been cooking us breakfast and making us soups for lunch. They’re really keen to introduce us to their national dishes and what they eat.”

Basma particularly enjoyed borscht, a traditional Ukrainian beetroot soup, and a chicken soup Oksana made her. “It tasted amazing – really fresh and very healthy and nutritious. And then it was just lovely, learning to say ‘thank you’ and ‘this is delicious’ in Ukrainian.”

The Gales have also introduced the Koletvinovs to some English traditions. “Their daughter lost a tooth the other day, so we’ve been teaching them about the tooth fairy.” Sergei spent an evening playing football with Tom, who organises a local kickabout twice a week, and two-year-old Cemeh was delighted to be given his first taste of Coco Pops by Joshua. “He and my little boy just sat themselves down and had breakfast together and it was just the cutest thing to see.”

A hall for refugees in Poland
A primary school in Przemysl, Poland, transformed into temporary accommodation for people fleeing Ukraine. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Living in an area of Kent that is less diverse and multicultural than other parts of the country, Basma – who is of South Asian heritage – is keen for her children to learn about the world. “So it’s wonderful for us to have people actually in our home that they can learn from every day.”

The Kolentvinovs spent two days under bombardment in Kharkiv before making their escape to England via the Polish border. Sergei, who previously spent five years working in London, speaks English and has a permanent right to reside in Britain, said that before they arrived at Basma’s house, his son had become terrified of loud noises.

“He would tell me: ‘Escape! Escape!’ But now, it’s OK. He’s much better now – much, much better. Both my children are very happy here, with Basma’s children. Basma and Tom are very good people. They treat us like family,” Sergei said.

He is an experienced driver and is keen to get a job in the UK. “If war had not started, we would never have come. But I feel at home here in England. And I feel hope.”

Ninjay H Briotyon

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