AS the war in Ukraine continues to rage, many Ukrainians are still either looking for a host family to stay with, or to move on to their next. Since the initial wave of host families, the flow of people signing up has gradually diminished, but the Ukrainians’ need for help has not.

In a renewed push for hosts in the Homes for Ukraine scheme in Teignbridge, we get a sense of what it’s like for both sides. We talk to two host couples from Moretonhampstead and their Ukrainian guests, to see what life is like in this unusual yet highly rewarding arrangement.

In this first report, we meet Russell Molyneux and Fiona Avis who hosted Maryna Heorhiieva and her children Emilia and Leon from September 2022 to August 2023.

‘I had always wanted to visit England,’ said Maryna Heorhiieva, a mother of two who had worked in marketing and communications in Kyiv before the war.

‘I had learned English at university and thought it was a great country with a lot of culture and history.’

Russell Molyneux and Fiona Avis with Maryna Heoriieva and her two children, Emilia and Leon.
Russell Molyneux and Fiona Avis with Maryna Heoriieva and her two children, Emilia and Leon. (-)

Living with her husband Eugene and her two children, Maryna enjoyed being part of a tight-knit community in her block of apartments on the western bank of the Dnipro River in Kyiv.

In the spring of 2022, Russia shocked the world by invading Ukraine. Within days of the invasion beginning, enemy tanks were just a stone’s throw from the city and just 25 miles away from Maryna’s home.

Maryna said: ‘Nobody knew what to expect. I woke up next to my husband because of explosions maybe a few miles from us. I remember that the rest of the night we spent in the bathroom trying to tell our children it’ll be alright.’

It was soon decided that the family should leave the city for some time and take refuge in the countryside with their parents.

‘We were moving around a lot between my parents and my husband’s parents, it became like a lifestyle. Two weeks here and two weeks there.’

When the family returned to Kyiv in the summer, things had changed. Maryna said: ‘Of course, there were buildings damaged by missiles, but the people had changed.

‘Our home is not just a building, it’s the people that are around you. Many people had left and the heart had disappeared out from the community.’

Realising that the war would not be ending soon, Maryna decided to make the jump and leave Ukraine before the country’s infamous winter started to bite.

Maryna said: ‘It was such a difficult decision because I couldn’t imagine how I’d cope with small kids in a different country without my husband. But now I’m sure it was the right choice.’

Through the Homes for Ukraine programme, Maryna met Russell Molyneux and Fiona Avis from Moretonhampstead.

When the war began, there was an outpouring of support across Chagford and Moretonhampstead as there was in many places. Fiona said: ‘I remember me and Russell went along to the church and it was completely full. People just wanted to help in any way they could.

Russell added: ‘My father had always been a great one for doing things for other people. He had brought me up to do the same. We saw Maryna’s post on one of these Facebook pages. We contacted her and organised some video calls. On one of the later calls, I remember Maryna had just been witnessing missiles flying past her flat.’

At the end of September, the paperwork was sorted and Marina and her two kids set off across Ukraine and into Poland before flying to Bristol.

Russell said: ‘When we met, Maryna came staggering out of the airport with a rucksack with about 50 kilos in it, a pushchair with a grizzling little two-year-old, a suitcase and another child wondering where the hell they were.’

Fiona added: ‘If the roles had been reversed, I feel like I’d have sat in the corner and cried. She was incredibly strong to get through this.’

Soon, the family were settling into life on the moor. The children were picking up the language and slowly realising that everyone here ate baked beans all the time. The heart they had found in their community in Kyiv was reflected in Moretonhampstead. Emilia and Leon joined the local school and everyone in the community helped them to feel welcome.

‘I spent 20 years living in a city so moving to Dartmoor was a strange experience. But I felt like I could trust Fiona and Russell and people were so good to us, helping where they could and taking us out.’

As a sheep farmer, Russell soon got Emi, the eldest daughter, familiar with sheep, ponies, quad-bikes and Wellington boots.

From borscht to baked beans, both sides also had the opportunity to explore the culinary world of each other’s country, culminating in the legendary Christmas dinner.

Maryna left Russell and Fiona in August and got herself a small house in Moretonhampstead to rent. Maryna said: ‘It’s great. But the Homes for Ukraine was a great start because Fiona and Russell gave me so much confidence. They showed me how it all works.’

While Maryna, Emilia and Leon may have left, the memories of the experience endure. Fiona said: ‘I feel like we have an extended family now, it wasn’t just doing something good for someone else, it was a fantastic experience for us as well.’

► If you’d like more information about either linking up with someone in Ukraine or ‘re-matching’ with someone already in England, contact Jane and Ali at Teignbridge Community and Voluntary Services (CVS) at [email protected], who can provide further information.