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Host of Ukrainian family encourages others to come forward

Published December 12, 2022 9.06am

"People say to me 'she has got your eyes, is she your granddaughter?'"

Ukraine sponsors

From left to right Svitlana, Margaret, Karolina and our refugee resettlement worker Jessica Mason

From the glint in those eyes, it is easy to see the affection retired Margaret Hickson feels for the three-year-old Ukrainian girl she has welcomed into her life in recent months.

Margaret opened her West Rainton home to Karolina Dolyniuk and her mum Svitlana Oliinyk over the summer, after they left behind their family to come to the UK to flee the war in their country.

Now Margaret and Svitlana have joined us in encouraging anyone who feels able to offer refuge to Ukrainians to come forward, with people in the war-torn country facing winter with the conflict continuing and temperatures falling.

For Svitlana, 27, and Karolina, it has been a long and hard road to the sanctuary of Margaret's home. After war broke out, the family took the painful decision that the two of them would leave Svitlana's husband and Karolina's dad at their home in Odessa, with him having to stay behind due to work, and seek safety in the UK.

Through the government's Homes for Ukraine, Svitlana found a 'sponsor' for them to stay with, and the pair arrived on British shores in April.

However, the arrangement broke down, leading to Svitlana and Karolina having to seek temporary accommodation in West Rainton with our help.

We have a list of people who have signed up as 'rematch' sponsors and as Margaret was signed up and living near where Svitlana and Karolina were staying, a meeting was arranged.

Margaret remembers: "We were told to look out for a little one with lovely eyes. I recognised Karolina straightaway - she walked past with Svitlana while I was sat in the car. Not that I knew it was them at the time."

The trio hit if off instantly and arrangements were made for Svitlana and Karolina to move in days later.

The joy was short-lived however with Svitlana catching coronavirus the next day. The young mum has also had to spend four days in hospital with a stomach complaint since. However, Margaret looked after Karolina like a grandmother would, while Svitlana was in hospital, such is the bond that has developed between the three.

"I have a granddaughter and a great granddaughter in York and I would hope somebody would help them in the same situation," Margaret says.

"It has worked out really well. You have to be prepared to support as well as being there for them, and perhaps more so because Svitlana is on her own with a little one.

"The friends and neighbours in the village and the village church have been brilliant. The neighbours knit Karolina jumpers, it makes a huge difference.

"I do feel it is a worthwhile experience and I am pleased I have done it."

Anyone interested in becoming a sponsor can find out more by visiting our support for Ukraine web page. Anyone who could give a home to Ukrainians already in this country but needing new accommodation can also register their interest by emailing:

Reflecting on the situation she has left behind at home, Svitlana said: "It is not good. I miss my husband and my family. My sister is in Kyiv and a bomb fell near her apartment."

Now working in a local restaurant, Svitlana does not want to go back to Ukraine yet as it is "too dangerous" and instead is hoping a sponsor can be found to allow her sister to come to somewhere not too far from West Rainton so they can see each other again.

We have to date helped almost 500 Ukrainians set up home in County Durham, and support both sponsors and guests by assigning staff to visit them and assist them with any queries. We also process government payments to both sponsors and guests under the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Cllr Alan Shield, our Cabinet member for equality and inclusion, said: "It is lovely to hear how well Svitlana, Karolina and Margaret are getting on and it is very clear from Margaret's words just how rewarding an experience she is finding it to have them stay.

"We are incredibly grateful to her and the hundreds of other people across County Durham who have offered a place of refuge to Ukrainians, especially given the difficulties we are all facing in this cost-of-living crisis.

"No-one knows how long the war in Ukraine will last but if anyone else feels able to open their home to people still seeking refuge, we would love to hear from them so we can assure them they would not be alone and talk them through the range of support we provide, financial and other."