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Industry Focus

From UK to Ukraine, Security to Sanctuary

How International Caring and Compassion Are Helping to Bridge Europe’s Fragile Borders and Fault Lines

In the last ten months, Europe’s hard-won peace secured at the end of World War II has seen fault lines, fissures, and febrile tensions fracture an already fragile geo-political landscape.

Sanctions gave way to sanctuary as Russia’s invasion, or so-called “special military operation,” in Ukraine divided the east and west of Europe with devastating consequences that included the displacement of thousands of families fleeing the fighting, often in just the clothes they were standing up in, as an international rescue programme mobilised at short notice.

Risk professionals are no strangers to international tensions, and in this article two senior loss prevention and security professionals outline their individual responses to the Ukrainian crisis that unfolded on their television screens on 24 February 2022.

Emma Harris, head of technology and transformation for security giant Mitie, sponsored Oksana and her son Sasha from Kyiv to join her and her young family in Sheffield. Her candid account as her time as a host, along with interviews with her guest, provide real insight and highlight some of the emotional and practical challenges faced by families thrown together as a result of adversity.

In the other example Tim Moore, Peloton’s senior manager for global security, shares his story and that of his guest, Irya, who left her home and fiancé in Khmelnytskyi, a city in western Ukraine, to come to Buckinghamshire, UK as Russia began its offensive.

Emma and Oksana's Story

“Watching the war in Ukraine unfold across the news and listening to some of the people felt so close to home. These were ordinary people just like you or I who, through no fault of their own, were running for their lives and hiding in basements. I found it really upsetting and wanted to do something to help,” said Emma in a serialised blog for Mitie’s internal newsletter.

“As soon as the Government introduced the sponsorship scheme, I spoke to my partner and asked, ‘Should we do it?’ If I’m honest, I was expecting a resounding ‘no’ given we both work full time and have a young son, so we’re pretty busy. But straight away, he was on board. Before either of us could change our minds, I opened the laptop and signed up!

“My partner and I spoke about the kind of person we’d be comfortable sponsoring—and I also sat down with my son who’s six. He knew a little bit about the war from school and conversations at home. I explained how sponsorship works, and he was keen for us to get involved.

“We all agreed that we didn’t mind too much about the type of guests we’d welcome—my son’s only stipulation was that he didn’t want any children younger than him as we had two new puppies who he said should be the youngest in the house!”

Real-Time Meeting via FaceTime. Emma and the family agreed that the people they would help would be Oksana, an associate professor at Kyiv University, and her son, Sasha, and set up a FaceTime call. Oksana has spent some previous time in the UK living in and around Brighton and Worthing when she was a student in 2001, so assimilation into UK life would not be too much of a culture shock.

“We seemed to ‘click’ well on the call, which was useful as we were able to see one another, and I was able to show them the house and the living space that would be available to them.

“By the time I put the phone down, my mind was made up. I spoke to my partner, and we decided to offer Oksana and Sasha our home.

“The next step was the visa application—I did it on behalf of Oksana—it was an English website, and I was lucky enough to have a neighbour who worked for the Home Office. We needed some paperwork—a passport, utility bill, et cetera—and despite the valuable help from my neighbour, it was an onerous process! It took us over an hour to complete the application, but we got through it…until I sat bolt upright at midnight, realising that I also needed to complete an application for Oksana’s son, Sasha!

“Once both applications were in, things moved quickly. It took less than a week to get the ‘right to fly’ documents. We were really fortunate as, after reaching out to see if we could get some support with travel arrangements, a charity offered to pay for Oksana’s flights.

“Between the visas arriving and Oksana flying to the UK, she had a week and a half to pack her life up—she was still working online, and Sasha was still receiving online schooling. They took some time off and went back to Kyiv, where her husband was—they wanted to see family—her parents, Sacha’s grandparents, and say their goodbyes. I can only imagine how heart-breaking those conversations must have been.

“In the run up to their arrival date, we talked every day. We also set up a WhatsApp group with my partner involved, so Oksana could start to build up a relationship with us both. Oksana had lots of questions about life in the UK—What does a typical day look like? What’s our hometown like? It gave her a good idea as to what to expect, and I think really helped her to prepare mentally for the huge change ahead.

“As her departure date loomed, I could tell that her state of mind was changing. She appeared to be getting anxious about the travel arrangements and the logistics. I did my best to comfort her and support with the process wherever I could.

“Watching the arrivals from Ukraine was so surreal—everyone that arrived looked nervous, there were people of every age from families to young girls on their own. I watched them meet up with their hosts and have those initial greetings. I was so glad that we’d done the prep work with Oksana and Sasha. I felt like I was waiting for somebody that I knew rather than a stranger.”

Settling In. “It was really important to us that the family had their own space. We had decided that we would make the top floor of our house available to Oksana and Sasha and were keen to make this as comfortable and welcoming as possible. I was conscious that, as well as being their bedrooms, the space had to work for Oksana, who was hoping to work online so [she] needed a quiet space to do so as well as for Sasha, whose bedroom would be a sanctuary. I created an area under his bed with some bean bags and lights—a den.

“Our community selling page on Facebook was a godsend! I reached out and explained that we were about to host a family from Ukraine. We had some amazing support from people offering us the items we needed either free or at a reduced cost. In addition, lots of people asked what they could do to support the family. They offered gifts, made hampers, and asked what Sasha might like for his bedroom.

“Amidst the flurry of cleaning and preparation, the final thing I did was write a card for Oksana. I struggled a little with the sentiment. I didn’t want to say, ‘Welcome to your new home,’ as I was concerned that she may think I was trying to replace what they had in the Ukraine. In the end, I wrote from the heart. I said, ‘We’re glad you’re here. We want you to know how brave we think you are and how big we know the change is. We’ll support you in whatever you need—don’t feel like a visitor—this is your house.’

“When we first got home, we had a cup of tea—very British!

“I’d heard via the forums that when the war started in Ukraine, McDonald’s was shut down. Knowing my own son’s love of a Happy Meal, I suggested that Sasha might like to go there for tea. His face lit up when we told him!

“After breaking the ice over a burger, the boys were firm friends. On our street the kids play out on bikes and scooters. I was delighted to see that the children across the entire estate had decorated the pavement with chalk, welcoming Sasha and drawing Ukrainian flags and writing messages of support.

“I was able to spend some time talking with Oksana. She slowly opened up and over time the conversations have built further. She really valued being able to talk about her experiences with someone who wasn’t personally affected. She’d tried so hard to be strong for her family that she’d held a lot back.

“Over the coming days, we had a lot of logistics to sort out—registering with doctors and dentists, setting up bank accounts, understanding benefits entitlement, registering with the job centre. Oksana was keen to be as independent as possible. I managed to get a bike for her that allowed her to make short trips without having to rely on us. It also gave her the freedom to explore the local area and start to get her bearings.

“With the support of Mitie, she’s also now able to drive my company car, which gives her and Sasha even more independence as a family.

“Sasha has—after a bit of a battle—got into the local school. Our application was initially rejected, and he was placed in an alternative school. Knowing how much more comfortable Oksana would feel with Sasha close by, we appealed and, with some input from our local councillor and some adorable letters of support from local children that knew Sasha, he was offered a place. He’s adjusting to school and is speaking more English every day.

“It isn’t always easy living with others—of course there are cultural differences—we’re both mums of boys, and we both have our ways of doing things! Both boys are also only children, so they have had to adjust—getting used to sharing toys and compromising over things like what to watch on TV!

“Some things I have found harder than I thought. I found it quite difficult emotionally [but] I started this journey because I really wanted to help. The war in Ukraine was still going on and Oksana’s family and friends were still there. It took me a while to accept that you can’t solve the problem—you can simply provide a safe space.

“Personally, I’d definitely do this again, and I’d recommend it to others, but do be realistic and think about what it means to you. It’s important to remember that different people need different things, and you need to find that right match. Some people just want a room—they want to live their own life. But others, like Oksana, want the support and to be part of that family dynamic.”

Our Angels for a Lifetime. Oksana, who made the decision to leave Ukraine on the ninth day of the war, added, “My son was my motivator, and I felt I had to get him away from the constant sirens and shelling that was at that time targeted at Kyiv.

“I owe my son’s life and my life to Emma, Andy, and all their huge family. I know they would help all my family in Ukraine to come here if they decided to.

“I am happy that this family chose me and Sasha in May—they are our angels for a lifetime.

“I call Emma and Andy warriors in the rear, what means that they fight against the Russian war with us, helping me and my son and more Ukrainian families to continue our lives.

“Emma always feels when I am sad or stressed. She proposed psychological support for me though her company—how many times she was hugging me when I was in tears because of the news from Ukraine. Emma’s phrase, ‘There is nothing impossible,’ will stay with me forever. Her infinite strength and confidence make me stronger. Until now Emma doesn’t stop helping me with renting matters, furniture, how everything works here. The list is infinite.”

Oksana’s husband who works for the Ukrainian Government helping to rebuild essential infrastructure, cannot leave and may still be called to the frontline of the conflict. They met up in Germany in October when he attended a conference.

Oksana has now made the decision that she is ready to start looking for a place of her own, but in the meantime wants to find work. She has found academic work teaching students online but is looking at other university teaching opportunities in the UK, preferably in the south Yorkshire area.

Tim and Irya

“Like many others, my wife, Zoe, and I were saddened by the events in Ukraine with the Russian invasion. We just didn’t believe it could happen in this modern world. Watching the news showing the destruction made us realise that we could not stand by without offering to help. Like so many generous people around the world we gave money to the Ukraine charity, but we agreed between us that we must go the extra mile,” said Tim, a seasoned international director of security and environmental, health, and safety, who has worked for luxury global brands like Peloton and Swarovski.

The father of two grown sons who no longer lived at home added, “Before the Ukrainian sponsorship was launched, Zoe and I had already talked about how we could support a family from Ukraine, which was then made so much easier by the Government sponsorship programme.

“We researched the requirements and started to remodel our house and garden by making small adaptions to create a home from home experience.

“We had never done anything like this before. We joined a Facebook Ukraine forum that was amazing and again was just great people helping in the community. So, we learnt a lot about the application process from the forum and Zoe as a teacher is forensic about the detail, so I left the process to her. However, we both agreed that the process was well handled and speedy from start to finish. The Government made the process straightforward with no ‘red tape.’

“We had a house inspection and criminal record check, and it took about six weeks to complete the full process of visa application, verification, the Ukraine right to leave, and the house inspection.”

With everything in place, now came the difficult process of Irya’s actual journey to safety. Irya, who turned 28 in July, comes from Khmelnytskyi, a city in western Ukraine located in the historic region of Podolia on the banks of the Buh River with a population of 274,000.

“Like a lot of Ukrainian people, I have left behind my fiancé, who is not allowed to leave the country because of martial law,” she said.

“At any time, he could be called to the frontline. Also, I leave behind my elderly parents, my dog, and my home. My fiancé and I didn’t believe the war would happen, so as things became worse over a few months, we decided that I would leave for my safety.”

Irya travelled for seventeen hours non-stop to arrive in the UK on 17 June 2022. She had to use transportation along routes that Russia monitored, and often bombed, in order to reach the border safely. She then needed to navigate the Polish border control that took hours to process, and then the bus journey to the airport where she eventually boarded the Kraków to London flight.

Tim said, “We met her at the airport with a sign, a Ukraine teddy bear, and wearing the Ukraine flag—she was never going to miss us!

“Zoe and I have been very proud of Irya, who is the same age as our oldest son, so we treat her like our daughter and ensure we guide her to good decision making.

“Irya is an ambitious, funny, and smart young lady and very keen to be part of the community by learning English and contributing to the country by working and paying UK taxes. Irya is qualified and worked in sports injury reflexology as well as her passion as a beautician, and she has already attended a beautician course in the UK to upgrade her knowledge and qualification. 

“She has also secured a full-time job with a local prestige hotel chain and is enjoying going to work each day.”

Despite assimilating into a comfortable life living close to the Thames, there is a constant reminder of the aggressive war at home. Tim explained, “She was still slightly scared when helicopters flew over, since this was always a bad sign at home with the sirens loudly screaming out over the town as a warning to the locals to take cover. Her city and region had been shelled over 100 times.

“Overall, it feels like she is part of our family, and we are looking forward to when she can reunite with her fiancé, as they will both be part of our family forever.

“The immediate challenge that comes to mind is the language differences, but Irya is learning English quickly, and we sit around a table with our phones using a great app called SayHi. When language challenges us, we speak into our apps and listen to the translation.

“One of the very best things about the UK is how communities can stand together on common topics. I am, firstly, so proud to be British and have a safe place for Irya, and secondly, I am overwhelmed by our local community, who is supportive in too many ways to list. We have had a Ukraine weekend BBQ all paid for by the local community to introduce our families; there has been job offers, support for English lessons and education. The list goes on, but the one thing I know for sure is that the UK is a great place with amazing people and communities.

“Most Ukrainian people I speak with have mixed views about moving home after the war as they consider the war to be a long-term event with even longer-term rebuilding after the devastation of buildings. So currently we have extended the initial six-month entry visa to three years to give Irya time to consider all options,” he added.

Accommodating the Greater Needs of Others

Emma and Tim have been involved in the risk business for many years, but the moral of this story shows that even seasoned practitioners have had to learn to make daily adjustments and conduct their own dynamic risk assessments in their personal lives to accommodate the greater needs of others coming from a challenging and battle-worn environment. Such sacrifices are never straightforward but highlight the overwhelming comfort of strangers in a time of clear and present danger. 

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