Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II, and every corner of the Continent has been touched. Altrincham has played its part, and there are now dozens of Ukrainians living here with hosts having been connected by the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme.
Catherine Harriss, a Bowdon resident, has opened up her house to Lena Furdui, from Kyiv, and her seven-year-old daughter Katya. We spoke to Catherine and Lena to understand more about the experience so far.
ALTRINCHAM TODAY: When and why did you decide to become a host?
CATHERINE HARRISS: I decided to become a host, if I could, within moments of hearing about the scheme. However, I live by myself so I was torn, selfishly, between wanting to help and wanting to ensure that I would get on with whoever came to live with me.
Fate intervened though, as on the day that I was taking a pre planned trip to visit my sister who lives in Brussels, she notified my family that she had taken in a Ukrainian mother and her daughter the night before. My sister is very much part of the international community in Brussels and the weekend I arrived was the first weekend that her community were receiving guests. Some of those people were on route to the UK, some were planning to stop in Brussels. All of their stories were harrowing to hear.
AT: How did the connection with Lena and Katya come about?
CATHERINE: On arrival at my sister’s home, I met Lena and her daughter Katya. I immediately knew that we could live together so that evening, I offered my assistance and I’m glad to say, she accepted!
Over the weekend of my stay in Brussels, we completed the forms. At that stage, the form to sponsor a Ukrainian was all in English so with Lena’s basic English and Google translate, we managed to complete it. Thank goodness it is now in Ukrainian too. It took the best part of two evenings to complete, frustratingly, as it wanted evidence to support certain areas. As Lena had fled, she didn’t have documents with her. We eventually found one document that would support Lena and there was relief all round.
Completing the form for Katya was much easier. I was relieved that they both had Biometric Passports because this, at that stage, would mean that they did not have to visit a visa centre. The nearest one on the form was in Poland! I understand the system has improved since, which is a relief.
The next challenge was waiting for the visas to come through. I had no doubt that they would obtain visas but none of us were prepared for the length of time it took. Katya’s visa came through around three weeks later and then Lena’s took almost another two. I don’t understand why they weren’t processed together but suffice to say, Lena was increasingly anxious during that time whilst waiting for hers.
I did liaise with Sir Graham Brady’s office as I didn’t understand why the “family” were not processed together and Sir Graham’s assistant, Mr Jones, was extremely helpful checking the Home Office system to see how much longer we had to wait.
AT: How challenging has the process been and what have proved to be the biggest problems/obstacles?
CATHERINE: So far, all the arrangements and registrations with various bodies that have been required have gone through very smoothly. There has been a huge variation in help from the high street banks so that battle is still underway. I managed to get a primary school place very quickly and Katya is enjoying school.
Trafford came to check my property and I did challenge their appraisal of it, as they used a housing policy for rentals to judge my home. It seemed at one stage that they would not let Lena and Katya live with me but I stood my ground for common sense and eventually, we reached a truce.
AT: How much help has the community been and what kind of support is out there?
CATHERINE: The support from so many people has been overwhelming. From arranging music lessons to donating clothing to sending a cheque for new shoes. I have been, at times, overwhelmed by people’s generosity. Altrincham Baptist Church has a thriving network of support. Weekly meetings and a free shop consisting of clothing and toiletries for Ukrainians has been invaluable.
They also have English lessons, weekly, as do St Vincents. I know that Ukrainians are swapping numbers and arranging meet-ups so they too are beginning to find their feet.
AT: How have you adjusted to life with your new guests and what kind of daily routine have you established?
CATHERINE: We have quickly and happily adjusted to life under one roof. Katya has her routine of school so that defines the days during the weeks and piano lessons on Saturdays (thank you Aura Music). Lena is currently spending much of her days working on her English which has come on so much. Her plan is to seek work / funding / experience in the film industry as she is an accomplished film producer and full of ideas so her need to learn English is compelling. She is very determined!
AT: What would your advice be to anyone who is thinking of becoming a host?
CATHERINE: Last weekend, someone told me that I was helping a generation, not just a mother and daughter. I hadn’t thought of my assistance in this way but it is a compelling reason to help. If you have space in your home and feel that you can provide that stability that these lovely people need, then please step forward. There is so much assistance available to help you through this process and you will learn so much too.
ALTRINCHAM TODAY: Tell us about your life in Ukraine.
LENA: I live in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. I live in the centre near the central railway station – the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine is located near our house. I live in a house with nine floors. I live with my daughter, husband and grandmother. My parents live in Sevastopol and I was born there. That’s in Crimea, which has been occupied by Russia since 2014.
My daughter is seven years old and she is studying in the second grade at the specialised music school named after Mykola Lysenko (a renowned Ukrainian composer). She’s in the cello class. This is an ordinary school, but with a musical bias. After graduating from this school, students continue their studies at the Conservatory. My husband and I work in the film industry: I produce films, and my husband promotes these films. Over the past four years, we have created and distributed several feature films about the war in the East.
AT: When and why did you decide to leave Ukraine?
LENA: I decided to leave Ukraine after I had lived for seven days in the basement of a country house, hiding from the bombings. Our winter is severely cold, somewhere around minus nine. And it’s even colder in the basement. I was very afraid that my child would get sick, and in such a situation, pharmacies are closed and it is dangerous to get to the hospital under shelling. And of course, it’s a terrible feeling when you sit in a cold little basement, without communication, waiting for death.
When Russian troops began to strike with Grads (rocket launchers) near the house, we decided to go to western Ukraine at our own peril and risk, expecting that it would be calmer there. But when I arrived there, it turned out that bombs were flying there periodically, and I realized that I had to completely leave Ukraine.
AT: What were your first impressions of Altrincham and your new home in Bowdon?
LENA: Altrincham for me is a very cultured, clean, calm and well-mannered area of Manchester. All residents are very smiley. There is everything you need for life and everything is very close within walking distance. My surprise was the park where the deer live a free life, and not in enclosures like in a zoo and you can see them nearby. At first, I was also surprised that there was only one playground in the area, since in Kyiv we have a lot of playgrounds for children. And then I saw that every house has its own private yard, so one playground is enough in this area.
I am lucky to live in a house located in Bowdon. This house has an important historical significance – it was built in 1860 and has a natural Gothic decor. My host, Catherine, has a talent for design, so where I live everything is very stylish and sophisticated. I live like a queen! Catherine is my guardian angel who takes care of me and my daughter as if she is our mother, she does everything to make us comfortable and so that our stress goes away.
She was able to find one of the best schools for Katya. She also has an electronic piano to continue her music lessons, and has found a school for her to study music. I also have everything. She is not only a kind-hearted person and a talented designer, she also cooks incredibly delicious food (I’m already afraid of gaining weight and becoming fat!), especially cakes. She is a very pleasant conversationalist, she reads a lot and knows a lot and she is very educated. She is a true lady and this is seen in all her actions.
AT: Tell us about some of the things you have been doing since arriving in Altrincham.
LENA: As soon as we arrived in Altrincham, the first thing we did was to prepare our documents for living here. And now I study English, every day for three hours, in order to feel more confident and find a job.
AT: What kind of welcome have you had from the community in Altrincham?
LENA: The people from Altrincham are always smiling, very kind to us and help us in any way they can. This is very nice, because, unfortunately, leaving Ukraine in winter, all I could take with me was a suitcase of warm clothes for the child. I could not take anything for myself, because the child is the main thing! Therefore, when completely unfamiliar people give you, for example, eye cream, or some other intimate things (women will understand), then such little things make you happy, because you can feel like just a woman!
AT: How has Katya been enjoying her new school?
LENA: We were incredibly lucky because Katya was accepted by one of the best schools – Bollin Primary school. Katya is now in the second grade and she is very happy in this school, although she does not know English. The teacher is very attentive to Katya and tries to help her understand the school curriculum. The school administration helps Katerina to adapt at school and take care of all organisational issues, including free meals and uniforms. Katya already has many friends at school and mothers of different classes also help us to feel comfortable at school.
Photography: Laura Marie Linck
Altrincham support for Ukrainian refugees
Local support services for Ukrainian refugees and their hosts are provided through the Trafford Response Hub at The Hub on Pownall Road by Manchester Homes for Ukraine and St Vincent’s church.
Some – indicated with an * – are existing services that are available already to the wider community.
- Monday (1pm-3pm) at The Hub on Pownall Road: Drop-in social time, refreshments and creche
- Tuesday (10.30am-12pm) at 28 Hartley Road, WA14 4AY: English conversation classes
- Tuesday (2.30pm) – Food available at The Hub on Pownall Road. Register at breadandbutterthing.org and text your name, Altrincham Hub and postcode to 07984356407. It’s £7.50 for three family bags of food worth £35, or £4 for a single bag.
- Wednesday (10am-12pm) at The Hub on Pownall Road: Citizens advice drop-in*
- Wednesday (10am-12pm) at Altrincham Baptist Church on Hale Road: free clothing and toiletries available for Ukrainian guests
- Wednesday (6pm) at The Hub on Pownall Road: Community meal open to all. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 01619412018 to register before attending.
- Thursday (7.30pm-9pm) at Altrincham Baptist Church on Hale Road: free clothing and toiletries available for Ukrainian guests.
- Thursday (8pm-9.30pm) at Altrincham Baptist Church on Hale Road: gathering for sponsors and guests.
- Friday 10am-12pm at Altrincham Baptist Church on Hale Road: free clothing and toiletries available for Ukrainian guests.
- Friday 10.30am, beginners, and 11.30am, intermediate: English lessons at Altrincham Baptist Church on Hale Road.