[Interview/photos: Natalia Bartkiv; Text: Rostyslava Martyniuk]
My name is Natalya, and I am a Ukrainian who was forced to move to the UK because of the war. Currently, I live in the town of Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk.
I came here with my family. While volunteering in Ukraine, I have already encountered the kindness of the British people — they provide my compatriots with pickup trucks, military equipment, humanitarian cargo with food, personal hygiene products, etc.
One day I accidentally met British volunteers who were engaged in transporting cars for soldiers to the front line. The people who transported these cars were military veterans. I suggested they leave the vehicles at the Polish-Ukrainian border, as this could be a safer option for them.
However, they refused and said they were not going to do everything halfway. They said they would not leave the vehicles, but deliver them to the destination. I was struck by how desperately these people wanted to help, and how brave they were. They did not care about safety or fear for their own lives because they were driven by the desire to help.
There were many such trips, but they often came to help my fellow citizens. During the entire time of communication with the British people, I got the impression that these people were genuine in their desire to help. These are their core values.
Now fate has thrown me to the UK, so I am not just an observer of their kindness, but I also have the opportunity to live among them, communicate, and spend time together.
I talked and recorded a conversation with two British women — Emily Sloman and Niki Richmond. We were speaking about their help to Ukrainians and how it all started in Great Britain, distant from Ukraine but very close to the spirit country.
Niki is the owner of the Bay-tree café located in the town of Bury St. Edmunds.
Emily was looking for various options to help Ukrainians arriving in the town: where they could get a free haircut, treat them to dinner, etc., she turned to multiple businesses and organizations.
“My son used to work at Niki’s café, I came to her, and we talked about how we can unite to help Ukrainians as well as possible. She kindly provided us with the venue where local people who wanted to help were able to gather regularly”
Emily says that she has been following the news from Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion. According to her, the decision to help Ukraine was made immediately :
«As soon as I saw the news about the full-scale war, I immediately wanted to help. Firstly, I participated in donations and helped pack things sent to people affected by the war. Later I realized that this was not enough and began to think about expanding the aid. So, when I got the possibility, I started looking for a Ukrainian family that needed help, so I could invite them to my home»
Niki remembers how she first started helping Ukrainians.
«Together with husband Mark, who works as a chef in our café, we first joined the donations collection for people suffered by the war. Although, frankly talking, when I saw the news about what was happening in Ukraine, I was confused and did not know how to react. Later, we packed and sent all the humanitarian aid we gathered.
I followed the process of Emily’s sponsorship. Her son told us how the visa process was moving and what was happening. Emily’s son explained they were able to send a birthday gift to a Ukrainian family member. The mum and son were temporarily in Germany, waiting for approval to come into the UK.»
Soon the idea of gathering in a café for host families and those who arrived from Ukraine came up. Emily recollects: “At first, there was an idea to gather together in a neutral space. Here we treated Ukrainians with free coffee and breakfast. Communication is essential when you are in a foreign country with no relatives or friends.
The new arrivals and their sponsors could gather, talk, share their experiences, or seek advice in our café. Emily helped organize everything. Later, it became something more than just a meeting place”
«When I began following the process of sponsoring a Ukrainian family, it turned out that there were many things that the new arrivals needed. For example, information on medical services, English courses, clothes and shoes, schools for children, and even emotional support.
I joined forces with other organizations to arrange several online seminars on how to support Ukrainian guests. And then the café became a great place to share information, such as benefits, dentist, or NHS contacts. Also, Ukrainians started coming to us asking for help. I remember once a pregnant woman came to us looking for a pushchair for her unborn child”
Niki shares that she feels the comprehensive support not only of the locals but also of large organizations — everyone strives to help Ukrainians in the ways that are available to them. For example, information, humanitarian aid collection, or advice. Niki says that this is how she understands she is not the only one who wants to help.
“Clients of the café donated money to support Ukrainians. People brought to us various things. We also had incredible support from West Suffolk College and the Refugee Support Center based at Citizens Advice. These meetings in our café and support from everywhere took the burden off Ukrainians and host families — they are less stressed and worried. It also helps them to understand each other’s better”
Emily helped also with information, she created a Facebook group for local people hosting Ukrainian families and Ukrainians arriving in East Anglia.
“It was crucial for me to create a platform where everyone could communicate. This would also help host families to understand their guests too because we all have our own needs and wishes. Not everyone can be emotionally ready for the fact that they will live with someone in the same house. We all grown up in different cultures and circumstances”
To the question of how many Ukrainians, in her opinion, will remain living with sponsors, she answers briefly — everything is individual. Later she explains: “It is hard to generalize because everyone’s situation is different. I know families who can provide houses for their guests for three years. I also know people who find it difficult to live together. Likewise, I do believe that everything is individual.
No one taught us, British people, how to properly treat guests in our homes. But no one taught Ukrainians how to live with British families, either. Therefore, I believe that it is necessary to work a lot on relationships and communication. Communication is crucial. It would also be valuable for host families to support their guests with the next steps, whether renting accommodations or finding work to become independent”
Emily shares what motivated her to start helping Ukrainians: “The full-scale war had just started. I was watching the news on television, and the faces of frightened children struck me. I have been working with children all my life, so I was touched by this. It is sometimes difficult for an adult to cope with moving, so it can be a huge trauma for children.
After all, being separated from home and losing everything a child knows is a huge transition. It gave me strength and made me think I should help in whatever way I could. And indeed, the boy who lives with us with his family brings much joy to our home, he is funny, and I see happiness in his eyes — therefore, it is worth our efforts.
As a mother, I understand how important it is for Ukrainian mothers to hear from someone:
“I can help you and your children. I will take care of you”
I do believe that children’s psychological injuries are aided by an environment of positivity and a good mood. This is what I try to do for my guests, the method I have chosen to help them cope with the trauma they have faced. We wanted them to feel safe and welcome”
As a mother, I appreciate the British people’s support because I know how important it is to help children. I remember that my family and I had just arrived in a new house, and a completely foreign British woman who received us brought bed linen and a blanket. My youngest son Marko reacted and said, “Oh, I’m going to sleep on this” and he dreamed about it. I understand why he reacted like that because such little things create a feeling of home.
All the help provided by the British comes from great love, support, and compassion.
Therefore, I am happy that I can offer the place I have to those who need it at home, in Ukraine. Just as the English family provided to my family. Previously, many British were required to learn where Ukraine was located. Now everyone knows. We are Europeans, we are well-educated, and we work hard.
But most importantly, I want to thank all the British people for the help they offer us. One day, all British people will have the opportunity to visit a liberated Ukraine, and then many people will want to thank or even hug them — I do not doubt that. Speaking about full-filled help, I mean not only British people but government too. Even though the royal family have changed, the desire to help Ukrainians has not changed. It is priceless.
Therefore, I want to thank all the British people from my home for their sincere support, care, and concern.
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