On a particularly cold evening, Oksana Bender was sitting in her garden filled with strawberries watching her children play when she realised that everything was going to change forever.
“February 24 was the worst day in the lives of all Ukrainians,” she said. “Our lives got divided – into a before and an after.”
It was 5am when Oksana’s phone started ringing and she found out that the war had begun.
“We were a happy family with a monthly income and a roof over our heads,” she said. Within four days, Oksana – a schoolteacher – decided that it wasn’t safe for her children and decided to leave her country.
“There was a rocket that fell very close to our house in Odesa, and I remember feeling so terrified,” she said. “I told my husband that we cannot stay at home anymore and that the children are not safe.
“Our friends and family advised us to pack our bags, take essential items and leave because the Russian troops began destroying everything including schools and hospitals.”
Oksana and her children left their home in the early hours of March 1 and travelled to the Moldova border, where they stayed for more than a month.
“I thought about crossing the border again and going home but I saw and read what they did in nearby villages and decided it wasn’t safe at that time,” she said.
“My daughter is 12 years old and she knows about everything that is going on. I explained to her that Moldova is not a safe place.”
Oksana and her family were some of the first people to apply for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, which was launched by the UK government on March 14.
They arrived on April 23 at Liverpool Airport where they were greeted by their hosts, who she described as “angels on earth”.
Oksana is currently living with her hosts in Addingham near Ilkley, West Yorkshire, and her children have been enrolled in a school in Ilkley.
“I think about my beautiful Ukraine all the time,” she said. “But I am grateful to the people who helped me find sponsors in the UK and helped us with the paperwork. We are happy again, but we just want to go back home.”
Just three miles away, sisters Oksana Bosenko and Anna Vasylets are being hosted – along with their children – by two different families in Ilkley.
They arrived at Leeds-Bradford Airport on April 21 after stays in Lviv and then Kraków in Poland. “We were greeted by our sponsors family – Julian, Helen and Evan – and they welcomed us so wholeheartedly that me and my son felt like we were at home,” said Oksana Bosenko.
“My sister Anna arrived a week later”, she added
Anna and her children are being hosted by Marion Hetherington in Ilkley. The siblings had good jobs – Anna a dentist, her sister a pharmacist – and family homes in Sumy, before the Russian invasion.
Oksana said, “We need to learn English so we can find jobs. We have been told that the professions that we are in are in demand and are good – but it is difficult without the language skills.”
Marion, a psychology professor, applied to move to the UK in March but even then, it was not without problems. “t took many weeks to get permission and when we finally had it, we were told we had to find our own Ukrainian family,” she said. “I didn’t know how to do that.”
Fortunately, Marion knew a Ukrainian friend called Yulia who runs a pancake house nearby. She got in touch with her and asked her if she knew anybody who needed a house to stay. And that is how the two sisters managed to find homes close together in Ilkley, just like they how lived close to each other in Sumy.
Oksana and her sister feel extremely grateful towards their hosts and several other people that have helped them feel at home in Ilkley. Anna said, ” They helped us with our visas and fortunately for us, the entire process was relatively quick. They helped us get our kids into school and have provided us with everything that is necessary.”
Marion said, “Even though the process is difficult, it is worth doing. If you have to host, you have to go through a formal process of inspection which some might find off-putting, but it is worth it in the end.”
Ilkley was named as the best place to live in the UK by the Sunday Times earlier this year and more than 40 families showed an interest in hosting from when the scheme began. Resident Christine Neesham started a Facebook group to connect families wishing to host in the area. She is currently hosting as well and is well known in the town for the work that she has been doing.
She said, “The town has several spare rooms in beautiful houses. It was important to have a safe space to link all the hosts and get information in a timely manner.”
The Facebook group has more than 600 members and is regularly updated with information that is crucial to existing and new hosts in the town and surrounding areas.
Oksana said with tears in her eyes to her family, friends and citizens of Ukraine, “Hold on, we are with you and we love you all loads and we will come out stronger.”