Until this spring Tracey Sinton, a former primary school teacher, and husband Jim, a retired electronic engineer, shared their Lake District home with three dogs. But now they're hosting a refugee family from Ukraine. Tracey tells Mag North how all their lives have changed.
On March 9 my husband and I were travelling back from spending the winter in Spain. Having spent quality time in the sun we were now heading back to our beautiful home in the equally beautiful Lake District; we felt very fortunate. While we were away the news of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was rife in the news. The devastation of Ukraine and people fleeing their homes looking for safety made us think ‘yes, we were very, very fortunate.’
We had both decided, although neither had mentioned it to each other, that we wanted to help in some way, and it wasn’t until we got back home and began the discussion that we decided we wanted to open our home to a Ukrainian family.
The initial process of finding a family was the easy part. Under the government’s ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme, we had to find a family, get to know them, then submit visa applications for each person and, basically, keep fingers crossed. A Facebook group set up for this purpose helped us find our family; a mum and two teenage daughters living in Kyiv and desperate to leave. Both sides needed to know we were who we said we were, and we Facetimed each other. It was a pivotal moment seeing each other, knowing we were all genuine and that this was truly happening. Overcome with emotion ‘mum’ burst into tears. We all wept that day.
For us the visa process was a nightmare. Having submitted details on the first day possible, we then had to wait five weeks during which time it was near impossible to get any information. Eventually we got all three visas, and the family were booked onto a flight, and were heading for the UK.
It was always going to be an uncertainty; had we made the right decision inviting these strangers into our home and what must they be thinking? Their lack of English could be a barrier, and they were used to city life and apartment living. They were coming to rural Northern England, sharing a house with two complete strangers and three dogs! Also, there was the emotional trauma of leaving their family behind, a husband, father, mother, grandmother. Would we all cope?
Initially there was a mountain of paperwork: bank accounts, national insurance numbers, applying for jobs etc. Cumbria County Council were marvellous in their response in offering support. Mum was putting a brave face on the matter, the eldest daughter acting as surrogate dad, and the younger was subdued, withdrawn. What was needed in the madness of red tape was some quality time for all of us to get to know each other and bond. I think it helped that within a week of each other my husband and ‘mum’ had birthdays. We celebrated together, my husband, having a banner made for him by the girls and ‘mum’ letting us take her kayaking and for pizza (the girls’ choice). Not quite how she expected to spend her 40th birthday!
Language was a bit of a problem initially as mum spoke no English and the girls just a little, so translation apps became our friends and saviours. Our dogs were also a huge help as their craziness created a sense of fun and laughter, with the family wanting to play and walk with them. After a few days of being with us, mum liked to ‘kidnap’ one of our dogs and let him sleep in her room with her. Language was no barrier for a dog knowing when comfort was needed.
Our living arrangements were simple. The middle floor of our three-storey house was to be for the family with plenty of room to relax and ‘escape’. We fell into a routine of sharing lunch/dinner, enjoying sampling each other’s home cooking. For us Borscht and proper Chicken Kiev. For them the delights of takeaway fish and chips and apple crumble! The girls began attending the local school, a welcome routine, and mum began work doing housekeeping at a local hotel. A far cry from her job in Ukraine as a Kindergarten manager.
I cannot lie, it has been a bumpy ride, but something must have made us say yes to this family. We hear online of problems with hosts and their guests, but we all have embraced this new life that we are sharing. Amazingly, we do seem to have the same attitudes and outlook on life. The same sense of humour (although Google Translate doesn’t always work and there have been a few interesting conversations!) and the same love of dogs. We share so much and not just food. We do activities together such as walking, swimming, bike rides and going out for meals. Why wouldn’t we, as they really have become part of our extended family. I celebrated my birthday recently. I was greeted in the morning by a birthday banner, balloons and chocolate cake. In the evening we went out for a meal together. It was certainly a birthday to remember.
Our friends and family have been very supportive offering help in so many ways but mainly just by being there. People have been so kind. The girls were due to get the school bus the other day, but it had broken down. This is the message we got back from the elder one: ‘our bus broke down. We were waiting but our classmates drove up and brought us to school. Thank you very much, you have very kind and good people, it is unlikely that anyone would pick us up in Ukraine if we had school buses. Thanks again’.
For us, we really are the fortunate ones. We are safe in our wonderful home, having only the weather to complain about; they have left their whole life behind. Having this family to stay really has enriched our lives and although we know this placement is only temporary, our friendship with our ‘family’ will be permanent.