Open doors, free meals and British borscht – is this the Ukraine-friendliest town in the UK?

On the wall of platform one at Crowborough station is a series of posters encouraging visitors to the East Sussex town. They’re meant to look like vintage railway posters, with steam trains chuffing through chocolate-box countryside. “Visit Crowborough, gateway to Ashdown Forest” reads one. “Come to Crowborough, to Ramble” and “Come to Crowborough, for the Finest Country Outdoor Pursuits”. They might want to commission a new poster, something like “Come to Crowborough, to escape Putin’s bombs”.

That’s what Crowborough’s newest visitors are doing, and there are plenty of them. It’s hard to give an exact number, but 1,130 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in East Sussex since the Home Office finally got around to unbolting the door in March; they are staying in 496 different properties across the county; 325 school places have been allocated to Ukrainian children. The figure will rise to 1,580 when all those expected arrive. Within that, Wealden district – which includes Crowborough, Hailsham and Uckfield – will have close to 600, more than anywhere else in the country.

Crowborough itself, a town of 20,000 that sits on a hill apparently to escape the shadow of its more illustrious neighbour Tunbridge Wells, has … well, no one knows exactly how many Ukrainians. The council says there are 53 in Crowborough as part of the official government scheme, others say it must be more. Their own Telegram group has 33 members, but that obviously doesn’t include young children; Crowborough’s secondary school Beacon Academy has 20 new Ukrainian students; the weekly pop-up Hope Cafe at All Saints Church is always busy. Certainly dozens, then. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call Crowborough one of the most Ukraine-friendly small towns – if not the Ukraine-friendliest town – in Britain.

I’ve come to see how this strange new reality is working out, both for the locals and the new arrivals. First I head to All Saints vicarage, a handsome Georgian mansion dripping with wisteria. The door is opened not by the vicar, but by Inna Honchar, from Kyiv, wearing vyshyvanka, a traditional embroidered blouse. Inna’s husband, Vadym, is wearing his, too – it just happens to be vyshyvanka day. They’re about to have lunch; Inna has made borscht and she’s impressed with English beetroot. The only thing they can’t get here is salo, cured pig’s belly.

Ukranian refugee family Vadym Gonchar, his wife Inna and their two children, outside the home of their host family Steve and Jenny Rees, who live in the vicarage next door to All Saints Church in Crowborough. Crowborough, East Sussex, UK. 19th May 2022.
Danyil leans against his father
A welcome sign at the front door of Steve and Jenny Rees.

Inna and Vadym are here with their children, Sofiia, 13, and Danyil, five. Most men aged from 18 to 60 can’t leave Ukraine in anticipation that they may be called to fight, but Vadym was allowed to because Sofiia has a disability. There was a nervy moment at the border coming out though, when they thought he wasn’t going to be let through. Their story is one shared by millions in Europe’s latest mass migration. They live – lived – in a flat in the northern outskirts of Kyiv, not far from the ravaged cities of Bucha and Irpin. They didn’t think it was going to happen, but early on the morning of 24 February they were woken by the noise of explosions, as the first Russian missiles smashed into the city. The doors and windows of their apartment shook and rattled, so they moved into the block’s underground car park, where they spent the next three days.

“It was very cold,” Inna says. “We were shocked and confused. We didn’t know what to do next.”

“My mouth was dry because of the stress,” Vadym adds. After three days in the basement, they left for western Ukraine. “Leaving home was heartbreaking; the children were crying,” Vadym says. “I grew up in that flat, I was born there, I’ve lived there for 40 years.” He shows me pictures on his phone: Sofiia’s room, Danyil’s toys, his own bookshelves – he likes theological books.

Meanwhile, 1,500 miles west of Ukraine in Crowborough, Jenny Rees, a part-time teacher, and her husband, Steve, the vicar of All Saints, watched the news. Jenny has now joined us in her own kitchen and is prodding, not over-enthusiastically, at a piece of meat in her burgundy-coloured soup. “Hospitality is very much what we’re about as Christians – we open our homes and share lives with people. We saw the horrors of the war on the screen and felt compelled to do something. We had the space; we knew it could be challenging, but thought it was the right thing to do.”

Inna – who, like her husband, speaks good English – discovered the government-backed Homes for Ukraine scheme on Facebook, told the coordinator that ideally they would like to be housed with Christians, and be not too far from a church, and a school, without expecting much. Twenty minutes later, the coordinator put her in touch with Jenny and they started messaging.

That was just the beginning. The problems, hiccups and delays in the process have been well documented. Getting visas sorted was, Jenny says, “unbelievably difficult, like an hour and a half for each application”.

Families were getting visas for some members but not for others; it seemed random and chaotic. All the hosts I meet say it was laborious; one says it feels as if it was designed to be as difficult as possible. But finally, Inna, Sofiia, Danyil and Vadym got their visas, crossed the border into Poland, flew to Stansted airport, navigated the underground with some difficulty, and made it by train to Crowborough. Steve picked them up from the station, and brought them to the grand 18th-century vicarage. “We thought, ‘Wow, we live in a museum!’” Inna says.

Steve and Jenny’s 11-year-old daughter Winnie (their other children are older and have left home) had made a welcome sign in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. The church is a few metres away, the school at the end of the road. There are no sirens or bombs, and the windows don’t shake – though it can get a bit draughty in winter, warns Jenny. “I tell everybody,” Inna says, “here we are like in a paradise among angels. Wonderful place, wonderful people.”

Katie Shearn and Dawn Shearn (left and right), and Ukranian refugee Yehor Petrov who they are hosting at their home in Crowborough. Crowborough, East Sussex, UK. 19th May 2022.

Inna has even made a pudding, vareniki, a kind of Ukrainian dim sum or ravioli, filled with cherries – sweet stuffed parcels of familiarity, memories and home.

Next door, in the church cafe, more of the good people of Crowborough are serving coffee and home-baked cake to their Ukrainian guests. Egor Petrov, 17, came from Kryvyi Rih with his mother. She’s not here, she’s already got a cleaning job. Egor’s been working, too, picking asparagus. It’s tough on the back, he indicates (Egor doesn’t have a lot of English yet, but he’s joined the local language class).

They’re staying with the Shearn family. “We couldn’t have watched the news and not done something,” says Dawn, a piano teacher. She’s moved the piano into the conservatory to make space for their guests.

Vita Chukhno, here with her four-year-old daughter Polina, doesn’t need English lessons. They’re from Kyiv, close to a military airbase that was an early target. Missiles landed near their house; buildings in the neighbourhood were destroyed, civilians killed. “Everything stopped in Ukraine. I didn’t see any possibility for Polina to develop; I came here to have a normal life. It’s strange now. I feel guilty because I’m here, safe, and there are a lot of people in Ukraine who are not safe.”

Vita Chukhno and her daughter Polina

Her husband, Polina’s father, for example. He hasn’t been called up to fight yet, but she knows it could happen any day. Vita is relieved to be here – her host family are lovely, helpful and kind. Their dog is helping Polina settle in. But there’s this big question mark over the future. “Everything is frozen. We are waiting, but we don’t know what we are waiting for.”

Next, Olha Harbuz, 24, and Anastasiia Tyshchenko, 23, who are surprised to find themselves refugees. Friends from before the war, both speak excellent English. Olha ran a language school in Kyiv. “Obviously this collapsed when the war started; all the teachers and students left town.” Anastasiia (Nastia for short) worked in fashion, as a stylist. “Ukraine doesn’t need that now. I’ll be more useful abroad, working somewhere and sending money back.”

Nastia, originally from Bakhmut in the Donetsk region in the east, has watched as her home town is pulverised. It hasn’t fallen at the time of writing, but she fears it’s only a matter of time. Both of them – all of them – are constantly glued to the news, of course; they get it mostly from the government of Ukraine’s official Telegram channel, and from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Instagram posts.

Both have left family behind, and talk to them every day. Nastia’s parents and her younger brother are with her grandparents in Dnipro. “It’s strange when you’re in a safe place, everything’s good, and they’re still in danger.”

Reem and Andy Acason with Anastasiia Tyshchenko and Olha Harbuz, whom they are hosting at their home in Crowborough
A photo of Ukranian refugee Anastasiia and her dog, on the bedside table in her bedroom at the home of Reem and Andy Acason
A photo of Anastasiia and her brother

  • Top: Reem and Andy Acason with Anastasiia Tyshchenko and Olha Harbuz, whom they are hosting at their home in Crowborough. Above: photographs of Anastasiia and her dog and brother on the bedside table in her bedroom at Reem and Andy’s home

Olha’s mother lives in a village in the Chernihiv region, north of the capital. “It’s a small village. We hoped they wouldn’t want to take it because it’s almost nothing. She doesn’t want to move.” But recently the military base only a few kilometres away was destroyed.

Olha and Nastia are staying with Reem and Andy Acason, who are not churchgoers but are here today. “We’re in that position where our kids have grown up, we’ve got the space,” says Andy, who deals in antiques. He thinks that Crowborough’s demographic has made it so open to Ukrainians: “You’ve got a lot of middle-class people, quite big houses, their own kids have grown up, plus they’re relatively news-savvy, up on world affairs.”

“It would feel wrong waking up every morning knowing we have empty bedrooms and not doing something proactive,” says Reem, an artist. Reem accidentally became a leading figure in the town’s effort. “Lots of other towns and villages already had Facebook pages. Crowborough didn’t, so I started one.” Now the group, Crowborough Supports Refugees, has 401 members. There’s lots of information on there about navigating visa applications (initially it’s for six months, after which it can be extended to three years), universal credit, schools, GPs, bus passes, sim cards. There are appeals from families already here looking for sponsors for family and friends left behind. And there are offers, so many offers, of clothes, toys, prams, books, school uniforms, beds, duvets, car seats, lifts. Crowborough Arts has a portrait painting class; they wonder if anyone would like to earn £40 for sitting still on a Monday morning. And so on. Scrolling through is a reassuring experience, restorative of faith in humanity and community. The hostile environment hasn’t spread to every corner of the country – at least not for a certain, more familiar kind of European refugee.

That’s something Reem and Andy are aware of. They did have a Syrian living in Ukraine coming to them, a two-time refugee, but he ended up going to Canada instead. “My heart goes out to the Ukrainians, I feel really emotional about the whole situation,” Reem says. “But equally, when I watch other wars on the news, I feel as passionately and as frustrated. But there’s no system in place to help the Syrians or the Afghans. There’s not that kind of support network.”

She blames the narrative that comes from some of the media. “There was something in the Daily Mail about how they’d raised a million pounds, aren’t we amazing, and then the next day there was a thing about migrants coming in on boats. It made me think that if the narrative had been different about those people fleeing those wars and they had said, ‘Let’s raise money for them’, I think nationally the mood would feel different towards those people.”

Andy thinks it has something to do with proximity. “There is something about it being a war in Europe, in the 21st century, not thousands of miles away, but on our doorstep.”

“People see themselves when they’re watching TV,” Reem adds. “They think, ‘Kyiv, that’s not far from Prague, I went to Prague on a stag do’ or whatever.”

Anyway, Reem and Andy signed up to Homes for Ukraine, Olha and Nastia found them, they had a video call, got on. “And they had two dogs,” Olha says. Dogs, I’m learning, are important.

Looking around the cafe, Olha says, “Our hosts are the coolest, 100%.”

“They’re only saying that because we’re sitting here,” Reem says. Andy offers to leave, so they can say what they really think.

What are their plans, I want to know, what are they going to do? “Marry a lord,” Nastia says.

“Yes, lords, please contact us. Lords or higher.” Olha adds, to clarify. “No, being realistic, we would like to have jobs here. I don’t think it will be easy – we don’t know any of the tips and tricks, but I think we’ll manage.” Reem mentions that she does actually know a lord, but he’s about 88. “That’s perfect!” Olha says, quick as a flash.

It’s easy – with the bag-a-lord gags, the goodwill and cake – to forget that this is about war, displacement, uncertainty and separation. Ira Sych reminds me. When I say I can’t imagine what it’s like to leave everything, husband included, behind, she says, “No, you can’t.” Her husband is in Kyiv, military trained but working rather than fighting, and may be called up at any minute.

Jonnie Ryder Richardson with his daughter Tilly and wife Tracy with Ira Sych and her children Tima and Kristi (on right)
Union jacks at the Ryder Richardson family home.
Tilly Ryder Richardson (on right) playing with Kristi Sych

Ira came with her son Tima, nine, and daughter Kristi, four. “I had to do it, for the kids, to give them access to education. After the war began, they couldn’t attend school, they had all their classes on Zoom.”

Ira is a secondary school teacher in Kyiv; she teaches English, and still does – 17 classes a week on Zoom. Some of her students are still in Ukraine, others scattered across Europe. She doesn’t even know where some are. “It’s hard for them; they show their feelings and emotions. I think they’re doing the best they can.” She would like to find work here, too, but will carry on her Zoom classes. She’s promised her headteacher, and knows her students need her.

Vadym’s children Sofiia and Danyil, who have already started school, are back so we can do some family photos at the vicarage. Danyil was traumatised when he first got here. “Even though they’re living and functioning, they’re not free,” Jenny says. “There’s a shadow – the shadow of war.”

Her husband, Steve the vicar, is also here now, wearing his vyshyvanka, a present from their guests. “We’re starting to relax now,” Steve says. “It’s just about learning to live with another family, in the same house.” Their own daughter Winnie is not a massive fan of Ukrainian food. “They keep the bone on their chicken,” she whispers. And sometimes Danyil jumps on her when she’s asleep, but now she just goes on Google Translate and says: “No! I’m sleeping.” Winnie is worried because they’ve been asked to come to school tomorrow wearing red, white and blue, to celebrate the Queen’s jubilee. She’s concerned it might remind Sofiia and Danyil of the Russian flag.

All the host families and their guests I meet are lovely. And they seem to get on; if they didn’t, they probably wouldn’t have asked us round. Of course, it doesn’t always work out, and I heard about people having issues. I meet Oksana Larionova, Crowborough’s only resident Ukrainian before the recent influx (she came to the UK in 1999 to learn English and stayed; now she’s a maths teacher). She’s become a sort of unofficial ambassador, confidante and counsellor to the new lot, and has a few horror stories. None of them wants to be identifiable because they are still living with their sponsors. But one woman feels restricted, that her hosts are overprotective, that she’s lost her independence. Someone wasn’t given a door key and on a couple of occasions had to wait until their hosts returned home.

Sometimes it’s just about being a refugee. “Their mental state is affected; they need time to cover themselves in a blanket and detox,” Oksana says. She tells me about one woman who “had a good job there, with a title. Here suddenly she feels like nothing and no one, humiliated and belittled. She said, ‘I don’t want to see London, I don’t want to see anything, I just want to go back.’”

And that’s what this person is going to do: she’s going to try to save the money to get the bus back home. Her home town is not safe, but her husband has rented a one-bedroom apartment somewhere that is. That, for her, is better than being a refugee in Crowborough.

I also speak to Wealden councillor Toby Illingworth, not in person but on the phone because he’s in … Lviv. He’s working with a charity called Make a Difference, which provides support to refugees wanting to come to the UK (Illingworth is another reason why Wealden has so many Ukrainians). The charity is particularly concerned with safeguarding, and some of the people matching themselves up not being rigorous enough. “One of the issues that’s come out from the Facebook groups is that a lot of people didn’t really know what they were signing up for, and matches were breaking down quickly. We interview potential hosts before they start a matching process, find out more about them, and give them information about what to expect.”

In one extreme case, a host misrepresented the offer. “He basically wanted these people to work for free. They came to us in desperation, saying, ‘We’ve made a mistake, we want to use an official programme, can you help?” They have now been rehoused locally.

A few weeks later, I’ve returned to the town, to meet some more recent arrivals, and to see how some of the people I met last time are getting on. Cathy Allen, director of music at All Saints, spent 10 years teaching English in South Korea, and has started a free English class at the church every Wednesday. There were seven students to begin with, nine in the next class, today there are 14. It’s hard, she says, as abilities vary a lot, but she splits them up, and gets help when she can. Stupidly, I tell her that once, a long time ago, I taught English; Cathy immediately commandeers me into taking the intermediate group.

Cathy Allen, a volunteer who hosts a weekly English language class for the refugees
Hope Cafe, a weekly event at All Saints Church for refugees, hosts, and locals.
Philippa Pearce and Parisa Herbert, who volunteer at the Hope Cafe

  • Top: Cathy Allen, a volunteer who hosts a weekly English language class for the refugees. Above left: Hope Cafe, a weekly event at All Saints Church for refugees, hosts, and locals. Above right: Philippa Pearce and Parisa Herbert, volunteers at the Hope Cafe

I’m working with three women: Olena, another Olha, and Natalia, who has her three-year-old, Dmitry, with her. All of them have older children, too, who have started at Beacon Academy. Natalia says her daughter is finding it stressful and difficult.

Cathy gives us a worksheet about the present simple and the present continuous tenses, which we sort of use, but mainly as a starting place to talk about ourselves: Olha and Olena live in Kharkiv; right now they are living in Crowborough. They, too, were friends before the war. Olha got here first, asked her sponsor Sharon if she knew anyone who might take in her friend Olena; Sharon’s mum agreed to. It’s good to have a friend within walking distance, they both agree.

Natalia, a history teacher from Kyiv, came with her husband. I’m not sure how he managed to get out as Natalia isn’t quite able to explain in English, but we do manage to shoe-horn him into today’s grammar lesson. Normally, in Ukraine, he works as an electrician, but right now he is working in an English sausage factory. Natalia doesn’t know where; he gets picked up in a bus.

Olha’s and Olena’s husbands are back home in Kharkiv. They’re also not fighting yet, but they are desperately worried they may have to. Both of them work in the furniture business, almost certainly not considered essential enough to keep them from the front. They do Telegram video reports to their wives in East Sussex. Last night it was a missile strike on a supermarket. “Why supermarkets, libraries, kindergartens?” Olena asks. Before, it was a missile strike on Gorky Park, a favourite place for their families.

They’ve been overwhelmed by English hospitality and kindness, though. After we’ve abandoned all attempts at grammar and are just chatting, Olena and Olha tell me a story about going into Tunbridge Wells for a day. At lunchtime they found a pizza place where they got talking to an elderly English couple at the next table, who asked them where they were from, and so on. When it was time to leave, Olha and Olena found that the couple, who had already left, had paid their bill as well.

To Hartfield, a village a few miles outside town, where Jonathan and Estella Lovett have just welcomed Oksana Repyzhynska and her son Arsenii into their lovely house that overlooks the actual 100-acre-wood from Winnie-the-Pooh. Cotchford Farm, where AA Milne lived (and where Rolling Stones founding member Brian Jones died) is across the road. Jonathan is eager to highlight the contrast between “the masses of goodwill from almost everyone who has direct contact with the refugees and the incredibly poor/nonexistent planning by the government. One might almost think the government wanted the scheme to fail.”

Arsenii Repyzhynska and his mother Oksana (on left) with their hosts Estella and Jonathan Lovett

Jonathan thinks that many hosts are helping not just because they care about the suffering of others but because they are fed up with “the nastiness prevalent in the country – culture wars, Priti Patel, corruption etcetera – and they wanted to make a positive gesture to counter that nastiness”.

I don’t know how widespread the sentiment is. Wealden is a safe Conservative seat, but it is certainly true that none of the hosts I meet has a good word to say about the process, the bureaucracy required to get the visas in the first place, and then everything else that follows. Hosts are supposed to be checked out, to ensure their houses are fit for purpose. That hadn’t happened by the time Oksana and Arsenii arrived. Jonathan’s own roots are in Ukraine: both sides of his family fled that part of the Russian empire at the end of the 19th century to escape hostility towards Jews.

Back to the current crisis, and hosts can’t get their £350-a-month thank-you payment from the government until they’ve had property and welfare checks by East Sussex fire and rescue service. It is paid retrospectively, to avoid abuse and fraud. Every refugee gets £200 on arrival, after which they are dependent on their own money or their hosts’, until they get universal credit or find work. “We realised from the outset that we would have to buy food for at least five weeks, maybe longer, but we were able to, so that’s OK,” Jonathan says.

Arsenii, who’s 13, started at Beacon Academy yesterday, but wasn’t well today, so didn’t go in. They have very little English, so communicate with Jonathan and Estella using a voice-translation app called SayHi. Oksana demonstrates. She says something in Ukrainian into her phone. There’s a pause, then the phone says with a hint of antipodean about the accent: “I am very grateful to Jonathan and Estella Lovett to care about us as our own children, very kind people and kind home.”

It’s not ideal for free-flowing conversation but it helps. Via the app, Oksana tells me that her husband may have to serve in the next mobilisation, and his brother is already fighting. She doesn’t mind being here in the sticks – it’s peaceful, and there’s another Ukrainian family not far away they can meet. They’ve been to Pooh Bridge together. Arsenii says he’s worried about Ukraine, his city Chortkiv, and his father. And he really misses his friends, his grandparents and his dog. Almost on cue, the Lovetts’ labradoodle bounces into the room in a very Tigger-like way and is all over Arsenii, who smiles for the first time.

Now Jonathan has to drive Oksana and Arsenii to the jobcentre in Crawley, for a universal credit interview.

I head back to town to check in on a couple of people we met last time. Ira, the English teacher, has finished term in Ukraine, meaning no more Zoom classes to teach until September. She’s looking for work here now. Oh, and she took the art group up on their offer, and on Monday sat still while they painted her in acrylic and got £40 for it. They’re going to do a different Ukrainian each week. Ira is gloomier about the situation at home: the war is going to go on for a long time, she thinks, and the chances of her husband being called up will increase. She worries about that and misses him, misses being a whole family. She chokes up a bit when she talks about it.

But she seems settled, relaxed with her sponsor Tracy Ryder Richardson and her family in their house on the edge of town. Ira, Tima and Kristi are in the annexe. They can be independent, but it seems they spend quite a bit of time with Tracy and her family. At the weekend, they’re all going to London together.

“If I’m being brutally honest, it is a shock, having little kids around again. My youngest is 15,” Tracy says, adding that she finds Ukrainian bedtime quite late. But she likes having them there. Tima enjoys helping in the garden. “My daughter laughed and said, ‘Mum, you’re a granny already.’”

Speaking of the kids, it’s time to collect them. Tima and Kristi are now at Sir Henry Fermor primary school. The kids have settled well. There’s no problem with language – Ira has brought them up bilingual, speaking English to them at home. In fact, Tima’s been very useful, the headteacher tells me, translating and helping the other Ukrainian children settle in. There are six Ukrainians in the school; their parents have been allowed in to begin with, to help them settle. The staff have also been made aware of things that might trigger traumatic memories, such as bells and fire drills.

In many ways, Ira and her children are a success story in this. They’re living in a nice house with a nice family they get on with, and the children are doing well at school. But there is a sadness about Ira, a totally unsurprising sadness that comes from being away from her own home, her partner, from having that war shadow hanging over them. One of the Crowborough Arts members who painted Ira on a Monday morning and has posted their effort on the Facebook group has captured that – it doesn’t look much like her, but the portrait has a melancholy distantness about it.

Anastasiia (left) and Olha

At our final visit, to see Nastia and Olha at Reem and Andy’s house, Olha said a recent thunderstorm made them jump because it sounded like bombs. Nastia and Olha are the friends who came here together and joked about bagging an English aristocrat. They haven’t found work yet, and for Olha it’s going to be difficult to get anything other than casual work. “It’s hard to make plans – proper jobs have contracts – and as soon as the war is over, I would like to go home.”

It’s that uncertainty again. “We’re always thinking about what’s next, but we don’t know what’s next,” Nastia says. “We don’t know whether in a month we’ll be able to go back and see our families, or whether we should start building a new life here. That’s the most difficult part.”

In the meantime, they have started to claim universal credit. And they’ve been swimming a lot, every day – the local gym does good rates for Ukrainians. They’ve got one bicycle, donated on the Facebook group, and are hoping to get another so they’ll be less reliant on Reem to get around.

And, I’ve got to ask – is anything happening on the lord front? “Silence,” says Olha, feigning disgust. “No young ones, no old ones, nothing. I think it will maybe happen when this article comes out. Lords, please contact us.”

The Guardian