‘I’m in a safe place’: Ukrainian refugees’ mixed feelings about Christmas in the UK | Ukraine | Daily News Byte

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Like many Ukrainian refugees, Yulia Kashperenko will spend Christmas away from home this year.

He is uneasy at the thought of being away from his family and friends in Ukraine, but is comforted by the knowledge that he will be spending the holidays with his host and their children in South London.

Kashperenko, 25, arrived in the UK in October, leaving his parents behind in the Kyiv region. “With this family, I feel like I’m with my family,” he says. “I realize it is better to stay here. I am in a safe place with good people.

The Ukrainian government advised refugees not to go home over Christmas, as the country’s energy infrastructure would not be able to cope with the demand, meaning many would spend the holiday without loved ones.

Ukrainians traditionally celebrate Christmas on January 7 according to the Julian calendar, but after Russia’s invasion, the country’s Orthodox Church is allowing its congregations to observe the December 25 date instead of moving west.

Yulia Kasperenko
Yulia Kasperenko. Photograph: Yulia Kashperenko

Kashperenko, who worked in the media and as a copywriter in Ukraine, arrived in London after applying to the Homes for Ukraine scheme. She fled because she was worried about attacks on the capital and was forced to survive the winter without power. “I understood that Russia was going to destroy cities and energy systems,” she says.

She describes her sponsor, who is in her early 60s, as “a really nice woman with a good sense of humor”. “I am lucky to be with him. We spend time together, cook together. We drink wine and talk about the situation in Ukraine, London, relations, politics.

They have spent the run up to the festive season decorating the house and doing Christmas baking. Kashperenko says he tried his first mince pie the other day.

Her sponsor has also helped her set up her life in the UK, accompanying her to appointments at the local job center and council. She also arranged for English lessons for him. “She helped me believe in myself,” she says.

One of Yulia Kasperenko's photos of Christmas decorations in London
One of Yulia Kasperenko’s photos of Christmas decorations in London. Photograph: Yulia Kashperenko

Kasperenko recently started working six days a week as a waitress at a restaurant in central London. She enjoys the bustling atmosphere of the city and says she feels at home there, but stresses that she is not there by choice.

“I want to stay in Ukraine with my friends and parents and help my country,” he says. “Russia [has] Destroyed everything. People are not thinking about how to spend their Christmas, they are thinking about whether they will have power or not.

Like Kasperenko, Irina has started to feel at home in the UK city she moved to with her two children in May. The 48-year-old woman was on her way to her work Christmas party in Frome, Somerset, when she took a moment to reflect on her life there. “I will always have a special place in my heart for this small town that gave us shelter and safety. From is a synonym [to] I want to be safe, another home,” she says.

Irina moved from the Kyiv region with her 21-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son. She had never visited the country before the Russian invasion.

He is impressive about how he welcomes his sponsors, a couple in their 60s: “They are some of the best people I have ever met. I will be forever grateful. They always say ‘you are our family’ and we consider them ours too.

Yulia Kasperenko
Yulia Kasperenko. Photograph: Yulia Kashperenko

Irina and Kashperenko emphasize how well they match their sponsors, but others are not so lucky. Community organizers have said that the breakdown of relations between hosts and refugees has resulted in an increase in the number of Ukrainians becoming homeless.

Irina emphasizes the generosity and warmth of her sponsors, but says that it is different from living at home: “We have a very good relationship but I sometimes feel that we are stealing personal space. We are at someone’s house and at some point we have to leave.

“My husband, my sister, my parents and in-laws are all in Ukraine. It is really difficult for them and us, when we don’t have proper communication, when we don’t have electricity.

Her children also miss their life in Ukraine. “They are very homesick. My son goes to college and has made friends but he misses his friends at home. He is constantly texting,” she says.

“We are lucky to be here, but this move was a forced decision. We took two suitcases and I grabbed our documents and some photos of my family. She says she wanted to go home for Christmas, but her family was concerned for their safety.

Irina, who was an HR manager before she fled, has been working for Frome’s refugee support hub since October. She knows how difficult it was for many Ukrainians to find housing in particular. Rents are “extremely expensive and properties are really hard to find”, she says. “We have no credit history or guarantors in the UK.”

A survey of Ukrainians in the UK by the Office for National Statistics found that 45% experienced barriers to accessing private rented accommodation. The number of Ukrainians seeking emergency accommodation in England has also increased as the six-month mark has passed for many involved in the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Andrey Samusiv, 43, did not come to the UK after the match with the hosts. The Scottish government acted as a “super sponsor” for his family, allowing them to leave Lokvitsia in central Ukraine for Aberdeen in June. Samusiv, his wife Olena and their four children, aged between 11 and 16, have been living in a hotel ever since, something Samusiv says they are very grateful for.

Samusiv family
Samusiv family. Photograph: Andrey Samusiev

Samusiv was able to leave Ukraine under a martial law exemption for men financially supporting three or more children.

He worked in land management in Ukraine and is now studying English at a local college with Olena, 34, and their eldest child. He is concerned about securing the family’s future in the UK.

“I am worried [being able] “To find a decent job to rent a house and educate our children,” he says. “We try to find at least part-time or remote jobs while we study.”

Yet their children are adapting well, says Samusiv. They attended sports camps in the summer and were well supported at school.

“Despite the fact that there is still a language barrier, they quickly made friends because of the youth programs,” he says.

He says he and his wife also volunteer with Aberdeen’s Ukrainian community and participate in local initiatives such as tree planting. “We actively try to integrate into society, to be useful here, and the Scots help us a lot with this. We are very impressed with this.”

With Christmas around the corner, Samusiv and his wife have sent back gifts to their children’s grandparents: warm clothes. “Electricity and heat are constantly cut off,” he says. “We are very worried about him and miss him.” They plan to have a Christmas video-call “if there is electricity in Ukraine at that time”.

He says his children wish they could spend holidays in Ukraine with their friends. “If they believe in Santa, that’s what they’re going to ask for.”

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