I’m taking in a Ukrainian

2 April 2022

9:00 AM

2 April 2022

9:00 AM

Delighted though we all are that Benedict Cumberbatch has decided to allow a Ukrainian family to live in one of his houses, did he have to trumpet this to the entire population of the country? Surely these sorts of decision are best kept to oneself, no? But then, they’re always doing it, the luvvies – proclaiming their saintliness in order to protect and advance the brand, one supposes. Benedict should know that there are more than 100,000 ordinary people in this country, people who have never received a Bafta, who have offered their homes to Ukrainian refugees and they don’t go bragging about it on national media. People such as myself, for example. I have applied to take refugees in, to do my little bit, but it would not occur to me to advertise the fact publicly. It is a private decision and should surely remain so.

My decision to welcome a refugee family was almost entirely occasioned by the enormous compassion, decency and kindliness which regular readers will have recognised week in week out in this column. An abundance of love for humankind, especially the downtrodden and the persecuted. We have all been struck by the bravery of the Ukrainian soldiers and by the plight of their women and children as they struggle westwards in search of safety and security. It is incumbent upon you to do your bit, a voice inside my head announced with great conviction. Those were my reasons, then. The fact that our newly acquired house also needs a little bit of work doing to it did not really factor in my decision. You can call it, if you will, a happy coincidence. And so I went about arranging to take someone in.

The first problem I encountered was that one is supposed to know the names of the Ukrainians you intend to invite to the country. But of course I do not know any Ukrainians at all. However, through my enormous breadth of general knowledge and a familiarity with the work of famous Ukrainians, I was able to hazard a guess. ‘Do you have a Mr and Mrs Prokofiev seeking asylum?’ I asked. ‘I believe they are from the Donetsk region.’

That name didn’t tally, so I tried again. ‘How about the Shevchenkos?’ This time I was told I had to be more specific, as there were 278,000 people called Shevchenko seeking an escape from Ukraine.

If – as happened with me – you don’t know the names of anyone in Ukraine, you get directed to a bunch of charities that have some refugee schemes already in place. I don’t know if you are used to dealing with charities – I am not. I was struck by the intrusiveness of the questions they asked, about if I was a fit person to care for refugees and did I have a criminal record etc. They are annoying, judgmental, self-righteous people and I did not get from any of them a sense of awe at my magnanimity.

They also asked questions about my house. I assured them it was fine save for some minor stuff such as cupboards which need building for the kitchen and a little bit of painting, etc. The charity lady asked what kind of people we were looking to house. ‘Well, you know, we really don’t mind. But perhaps someone with an experience of joinery would be best,’ I said. ‘As a family, we have always had a great deal of respect and admiration for such artisans and craftsmen, you see. I think we would be able to provide a safe, loving and industrious environment for someone who was, say, a joiner, or a carpenter. Do you have any applying for visas?’ (Have you tried to get a joiner recently, by the way? The last chap I approached just laughed when I asked how soon the work could be done and said: ‘You’re looking at September, best case, matey.’)

The charity woman, who was beginning to sound a little surly, said she didn’t think they did have any joiners, so I told her that we would also brook no objection to qualified electricians, plumbers, plasterers and also painters and decorators. The woman went quiet for a bit – I think she was looking through her list. A few moments later she came back and said: ‘We do have the Kovalenko family who are looking to be resettled from Odessa. Mrs Kovalenko, who is 53, comes with her elderly father who worked as a painter and decorator. And there is also Mrs Kovalenko’s daughter, Irina, who is 27 years old and a dancer.’

‘Oooh! A dancer! Do you have any photographs?’ I enquired. Rather curtly, to my mind, the woman said that she did not. I then told her I had a few questions of my own. ‘I believe the government is offering a payment of £350 for people housing refugees. Is that per refugee?’ I asked. Apparently it isn’t, which seems terribly mean. A thousand quid a month would help pay off the mortgage. Then I asked, perfectly reasonably: ‘Are we required to feed these people?’

‘Yes, of course you are required to provide for them. That’s what the £350 is for. These are people who have lost everything – their homes, their incomes, their possessions.’

‘Ah, OK. But only cabbage and sour cream, right?’ The woman sighed, ignored my question and said: ‘There’s one more thing you ought to know. The Kovalenkos come from the south of Ukraine and none of them speak a word of English. Would this be a problem for you?’

‘No, not at all,’ I replied. ‘We have no intention of talking to them.’ I then asked if the Ukrainians were to be permanently confined to the house or if they were allowed out at weekends or on public holidays. At which point the line just went dead. They make it terribly hard for a person to do the right thing, don’t they?

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