What's it like sharing a home with refugees? JENNI MURRAY reveals

Borscht, badger fat and the Ukrainian refugees who’ve filled my little home with love: So many talked about it, JENNI MURRAY’s actually done it. So what’s it really like sharing your space with traumatised strangers?

  • Writer Jenni Murray has put up two Ukrainian refugees in her London cottage
  • She signed up for The Homes for Ukraine scheme, fuelled by compassion
  • This week, she met 38-year-old Zoryana and son Ustym, 17, at Luton Airport
  • Jenni tells The Mail how the three of them are settling in at her two-bed home 
  • Waiting at arrivals at Luton Airport for the 1.45pm flight from Warsaw this week, I found myself shaking with fear. What had I committed myself to? 

    On board were a group of frightened and damaged people, fleeing from the terrible dangers of Russia’s cruel war in Ukraine. 

    And two of them would be coming home with me. 

    I had signed up for the Homes For Ukraine scheme earlier this year, fuelled by compassion for the women and children struggling to reach the country’s Western border, longing to find peace and safety away from the bombs and brutality. 

    At the time, I wrote in my column about my decision to offer my tiny cottage up as a refuge, reckoning there must be an inherited need to help lodged in my DNA.

    After all, my family had taken in a refugee many years ago, too — an evacuee from London’s Blitz during World War II. 

    That young teenage girl stayed with my family for four years, and kept in touch long after. I prayed my experience would be as positive. 

    Daily Mail writer Jenni Murray meets Ukrainian refugee Zoryna, 38, and her son Ustym, 17, for the first time after they arrived at Luton Airport this week

    Daily Mail writer Jenni Murray meets Ukrainian refugee Zoryna, 38, and her son Ustym, 17, for the first time after they arrived at Luton Airport this week

    For my grandmother, though, the decision to take in the girl had been made easy by the efficiently organised plan to move children from the capital to safer parts of the country and match them with willing and suitable families. 

    Why, I wondered, had the Government not made it policy to match British sponsors with refugees from the war zone? I knew no one in Ukraine. 

    How on earth could I find a woman and child who needed me? It was only thanks to a Daily Mail reader that I finally made contact with 38-year-old Zoryana and her son Ustym, 17. 

    A Londoner read my column and emailed to say she knew a Ukrainian woman who lived not very far from me who might be able to help. 

    I called Oksana, who’d been scouring Facebook for needy families, and within a couple of days I was in touch with Zoryana. 

    So, on Wednesday, there I was, waiting for two people I had never met, but who I had agreed to house for at least six months in my small two-bed, one-bathroom cottage. 

    How I wished I had that long-planned loo built under the stairs. And would I now need rotas for everything from bathroom usage to TV watching?  

    Was I mad to commit to this when I work from home? I’ve long been used to peace and quiet, as for many years I’ve lived alone while I’m in London during the week. 

    How could three of us stay sane in such a small space? 

    Today, three days in, you’ll be pleased to know all is well. In fact, as I type, Zoryana has interrupted me with a question. 

    ‘Jenni, where is the vacuum cleaner?’ 

    ‘You don’t need to do anything. The cleaner comes tomorrow, and she’ll take care of it,’ I reply. 

    ‘You don’t need a cleaner! I’ll do it.’ 

    It is only after some quite determined pushback from me that she admits defeat — but she insists that, cleaner or no cleaner, she will still keep the place tidy. 

    After weeks of waiting, Jenni was finally able to meet mother and son and take them to her London home - where they will stay for the next six months

    After weeks of waiting, Jenni was finally able to meet mother and son and take them to her London home – where they will stay for the next six months

    Utterly indefatigable, she has also hunted out beetroot from the local shop, as she makes ‘wonderful soups’. 

    ‘Do you like borscht, Jenni?’ she asked. I adore borscht. This is a match made in heaven. Yet there is no denying that there have also been some cultural surprises. 

    For example, who would have thought that among Zoryana’s essentials in her small suitcase was a jar of badger fat — yes, that’s right, the fat of a badger — intended as a present to cure my post-Covid cough? 

    On a more serious note, far from missing my space, I’ve actually found that I love the company. It’s a wonderful contrast to the past few years, when I’ve endured lonely lockdowns alone. 

    Those worries I had while standing in the Luton arrivals hall have melted away. 

    Before they arrived, I had only seen Zoryana and Ustym’s passport photos and one lovely picture taken in their flat in happier times. Thankfully, I spotted them in the airport straight away. 

    Ustym was a little taller than in the picture, and Zoryana — dark, small and slim — perhaps a little paler than in that happy shot, with signs of stress and anxiety on her face. She recognised me immediately. 

    I guess the glasses on the end of the nose are pretty distinctive. We rushed towards each other, delighted.

    Hugging felt like the most natural thing in the world. Ustym was perhaps a little more shy, but there was no doubt in my mind that an instant connection had been made between the three of us. 

    It helps that Zoryana — who worked in Ukraine as an English teacher with primary school children — speaks such good English. 

    When we piled into my little Mini and encountered a pretty brutal introduction to London traffic, she said: ‘Ah. Traffic jams.’ 

    Top of her agenda now that she is here is finding a job. While Ustym is not so fluent, he has a Ukrainian/ English app on his phone to which he is glued. The first priority for him is finding a school. 

    Had war not come, next month this talented, sporty young man would have been heading for the equivalent of A-Levels, with the intention of going to university to study history and then postgraduate law, before joining the legal profession. 

    But his education has been severely disrupted. As it was unsafe to go to school, lessons had to be done online in their flat in a small town just outside Lviv. 

    While not the most dangerous part of Ukraine, still there were constant air-raid sirens and bombing as Lviv was surrounded by Ukrainian military camps and installations, which were targeted by the Russians. 

    Every night and most days, mother and son sheltered in the basement of their block, only daring to venture out occasionally to buy provisions. 

    As we drive to my home — now their home, too — Zoryana, a divorcee and lone parent, tells me she had spent the past two days weeping. ‘It’s hard to leave your homeland,’ she said. 

    But she felt she had no option. For the sake of her much-adored son, she had to go. In September he turns 18 — and men aged 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine. Ustym would have had to remain, join the army and fight. 

    As a mother of two sons, I fully understand her desperation to save him from such brutality. Both were palpably exhausted after their journey, which had been a stressful and emotional one. 

    Jenni welcomed the pair with opens arms after they endured a harrowing escape from Ukraine via Warsaw and Lviv

    Jenni welcomed the pair with opens arms after they endured a harrowing escape from Ukraine via Warsaw and Lviv

    On Tuesday at 10pm, they left home with just two small suitcases, leaving behind Zoryana’s mother and sister. 

    No wonder she had wept and wept. After seven hours on a bus, they arrived in Warsaw. 

    And several hours later, they were at my little cottage, where I told them to settle in to their room. 

    My home is, of course, also the home of Madge and Frieda, my two chihuahuas, and Soo the cat, who all proved an instant comfort to their new housemates. 

    Because, heartbreakingly, due to quarantine rules they have had to leave their little Yorkshire terrier with a friend in Ukraine. It’s fair to say many tears have been shed over their dog’s abandonment. 

    Thankfully, as much as they love my three animals, the animals love them back — overjoyed to have the attention of three people, not just one. 

    Kettle on, and with spaghetti bolognaise on the hob for dinner — my assumption, based on experience, that it would go down well with a teenage boy proving to be correct — we got to work on their papers. 

    The first part of the visa process had been completed while they were still in Ukraine. Up to now, we had been lucky. 

    Their visas — with a letter from the Home Office confirming they could travel to the UK, work here and stay for six months — had actually come through within three days. 

    Unfortunately, problems now began. In order to stay longer than six months as they wanted to, they would have to have a biometric residence permit (BRP). 

    It would involve making an appointment with the UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services. We started the application then and there. 

    Talk about complex. Page after page of details were required, and booking the appointment, which would take place on the other side of London, for the presentation of documents and fingerprinting was tricky. 

    There were no appointments available until May 8. By 9pm on that first night, both were on their knees. 

    I let them use the bathroom first — the only real adjustment I’d had to make all day. Living alone for so long, use of the bathroom had never had to be postponed. 

    They crashed out and, very soon after, so did I. The next day, I was first to rise, happily ensuring there were no bathroom delays first thing. 

    Then came Zoryana who, like me, loves strong milky coffee at the start of the day. 

    Sitting around my diminutive dining table — far too small for the beautiful, embroidered Ukrainian tablecloth they brought as a present — was as relaxed and easy as if we’d known each other for years. 

    Thankfully, though, the conversation was limited, as I prefer it to be first thing in the morning. We both, I suspect, have a liking for being alone, which bodes well for the future. 

    Next came Ustym — as late to rise as one would expect from a teenage boy. 

    Mum made him toast; then came the badger fat for me. I had mentioned to Zoryana a few weeks previously that I was suffering from a post-Covid cough. 

    I had presumed her suggested badger fat remedy had been lost in translation. Not so. Hunters, she told me, had found that dropping tiny portions of fat from badgers into warm milk was great for calming coughs. 

    Not wishing to be impolite, I tried it. It works! Sorry badgers. 

    While Ustym retired to his bedroom to study and chat to his friends online, Zoryana and I tackled the next bureaucratic nightmare: how to get a national insurance number. 

    Within minutes of looking on the Home Office website, we were tearing out our hair in frustration. 

    The pages of instructions and demands defeated even me. A long telephone helpline wait eventually got me to a real live woman, who was helpful. 

    ‘Why,’ I asked her, ‘is it so difficult to understand and follow the process? If even I couldn’t manage it, how is a refugee with poor English expected to cope?’ 

    ‘Ah,’ she replied. ‘It has to be like that, you see. So many people who don’t have the right to be here try to cheat us, so it has to be difficult.’ 

    Well, that was a revelation. I hope all Ukrainian refugees with a perfect right to be here have someone like me to persist and defeat British bureaucracy. 

    We celebrated with a couple of slices of the most gorgeous cake I’ve ever eaten. 

    Zoryana had brought two traditional Easter cakes — light yellow sponge with a hint of lemon flavouring — that she’d made herself. 

    Many will say Zoryana and Ustym are lucky to be here. However, I think that I am equally lucky to have found them. 

    They are a dream, my new little family. Their enthusiasm for London has made me look on my life with fresh eyes. 

    A walk in the park saw them return full of admiration for the trees, the flowers and the neighbourhood. And I just love the companionship. 

    We cook together — last night I made one of my usual stews, lamb with apricot, while Zoryana did the mashed potatoes — and we watch TV together. And then we take our leave of each other, happy to have enjoyed each other’s company. 

    There are many things to overcome, clearly, and we will get to them in time. 

    Zoryana needs to figure out how to get her Ukrainian bank account transferred to the UK, find a job and more. In the meantime, I am happily stumping up for food and other necessities. 

    Next on my list is to meet the head of sixth form at the nearest and best local school, who has agreed to help us assess what is best for Ustym’s education. 

    So content am I that I know that in June, when the time comes for me to head off on a cruise holiday, I will be absolutely happy to leave them in my home alone. Because I can feel a lifetime friendship developing. 

    The only worry — apart from how we three will manage with one bathroom — is how I can keep Zoryana out of the kitchen. 

    Her cake baking is so spectacular that I can feel myself ceasing to worry about my weight.