Not all blended families get through the festive period in perfect harmony. But a number of extended units whose members did not even know each other two years ago say they are looking forward to bringing in the new year together.
These blended families are composed of Ukrainians who escaped the war in their home country and Britons who have given them shelter in their homes. While not all the relationships between Ukrainian refugees and their British host families have endured, the scheme has had many successful pairings where those from both countries say they have forged friendships for life and where two families have become one.
According to the latest government data, 139,200 Ukrainians have been granted visas to come to the UK under the Homes For Ukraine scheme since it opened in March 2022. An Office for National Statistics snapshot survey between 10 and 21 August 2023 of 14,851 adults involved with the hosting scheme found that about half were currently hosting. About half of those said they intended to host for 18 months or more, with two-thirds citing the fact that they had built a strong relationship with their Ukrainian guests as the reason.
For Liliia Konopelska, a Ukrainian who was working in the UK when the war broke out, it was an epic struggle to bring her two children, Marta, now 14, and Orest, now 12, to safety in the UK. Konopelska had been working in the UK before the war started and her visa subsequently expired, complicating her efforts to bring her children to Britain as part of the Homes For Ukraine scheme.
She had got to know her hosts Yana Valletta and Stefano Rosati and their young daughter, Lily, when she briefly worked with them. The family, who live in west London, immediately offered to help Konopelska when they learned of the difficulties she was having bringing her children to the UK.
“We have chosen each other,” said Valletta. “I consider Liliia to be my friend. As a mother, it’s hard to see another mother separated from her children because of war.”
When the bureaucratic hurdles were finally cleared and the children were allowed to come to the UK, Konopelska was unable to go to Calais to meet them because her own visa had not yet been sorted out. Instead, Valletta went to collect the children and reunite them with their mother in September 2023.
The two families lived happily under one roof, and now Konopelska and her children have found a place to rent a few doors away from their British hosts, who are acting as guarantors for the accommodation.
“I want to thank these good people who made an incredible miracle for me,” said Konopelska.
“They made a lot of efforts so my children could be with me and now I’m the happiest mother in the world. We became one big family and taught my children how to move forward. My children are very happy here and they say that they have two mothers now – Yana and me.”
Another Ukrainian displaced by the war, Olha Korol, also says that the British woman who hosted her from May 2022 until January 2023, Anne Paul, has become part of her family. Paul, who has a background in childcare, was keen to be matched with a family that would complement her own. A grandmother, one of Paul’s grandchildren, Cecilia, is the same age as Korol’s five-year-old daughter Anna, who went on to attend the same nursery as Cecilia.
“Olha and Anna fitted in beautifully. I consider them to be family now. I’m fairly certain that Anna and Cecilia will remain friends as they grow up,” said Paul.
“Both of them were very traumatised when they arrived,” she added. “Anna would wake up screaming.”
Korol said of the Christmas she spent last year with her new family: “I don’t remember ever having such a wonderful Christmas in my life.”
While the trauma of the war that destroyed her home continues to haunt Korol, she says that the support she has received in the UK from Paul and her family has changed everything.
“In Ukraine I lost my house and lost my life. But sometimes you have to lose everything to find so much. Now I have found a new family in a new country.”