The Right Rev Martin Seeley tells the harrowing story of the Ukrainian refugee family he has welcomed into his Ipswich home
Back in March as a family we offered our home for Ukrainian refugees and registered on the Government’s ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme. Last week our guests finally arrived!
The time this has taken has not just been about the process of securing visas for them, which in the end was quite quick, taking just 10 days. The first and longest delay was matching people up with us for whom the accommodation we were offering would be suitable.
With just one, albeit large, bedroom to offer, it turned out we were restricted to a mother with young children or a person on their own. We were finally matched with a mother and two older children, but dividing the family with our near neighbour, the Archdeacon of Ipswich, who has two spare rooms and has taken two of them, leaving one with us.
The second main cause of delay was the challenge of securing transport to travel from Ukraine to England. It had become increasingly difficult to find a transport out of Ukraine, but in the end the family took a coach from Suceava, in Rumania, that brought them to London.
I picked them up from an unprepossessing terminal in north London off the North Circular, just after 6am on Friday and a nearly 40 hour bus ride through six countries.
I arrived 20 minutes after the bus had arrived, and found the three of them standing alone with their suitcases with not another soul in sight. I wished I’d left home just that little bit earlier.
We had already found out a little about our guests, from Zoom calls we had made with them as we dealt with the visa applications and then tried to sort out travel arrangements. We knew the family came from Donetsk originally, the area of eastern Ukraine now under Russian control.
Their home there had been destroyed in 2014.
Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in February and March 2014 and then, in April, Russian separatists in the Donbass region, of which Donetsk is a part, began an insurgency that has continued ever since. It was at the start of the Russian separatist insurgency that our guests’ home was destroyed, long before we were aware of the terror that was to come.
They moved west to Chernivtsi for three months and then to Kiev where they stayed for two years.
The father in the family, who of course has remained in Ukraine, works for a church mission agency and in 2017 the agency provided them with accommodation in a Christian mission in Irpin, just on to the west of Kiev.
On February 24 this year they woke to the terrifying sound of a rocket flying overhead and exploding in Kiev, followed by a second and a third. They quickly gathered their belongings to escape the horror that was being perpetrated on their town. A few weeks later their home, the mission and the apartments they lived in, was destroyed by a Russian missile.
They had lost a second home to war.
They travelled west where their father found voluntary work, and the other three family members travelled on to Poland, and then returned to Chernivtsi.
It was then they recognised they should seek refuge in a different country and eventually through links in Ipswich were connected to us. It is very hard to imagine what they and so many others in Ukraine have been suffering.
They have had two homes destroyed, and living unsettled lives for the past eight years, in uncertainty, danger and fear.
Yet of course they have tried to keep as much normality as possible in this terrible upheaval.
One of the young people finished schooling, and the other has been working in a management role in a business.
Listening to them, their interests and insights overlap with our own children’s. Music and films are obvious points of connection, and just hearing them talk with my children brings home again just how shocking the war in Ukraine is – so much is similar, and yet literally shot through with horror.
This family’s Christian faith has sustained them and continues to give them strength, now with three of them far from their husband and father.
We are all incredibly heartened by the response of individuals, churches, and community groups in this country to those suffering in Ukraine. And most of us realise that this is becoming the shape of the world we are living in.
Six years ago my wife befriended a Syrian family here in Ipswich who had fled the civil war in their homeland. That befriending continues and, as I write this, my wife is taking the youngest, born here, to nursery school because mum is sick.
Other friends have taken in Afghan refugees, although large numbers remain in hotels without proper support.
This is the nature of our world, and that will increase as more and more people are displaced around the world, through conflict and through the devastating impact of the climate crisis.
For Christians the response is simple: love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.
And I might put it this way: when we love God we are bound to love our neighbours, whoever and wherever they are.