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UKRAINE

‘Could have been us’: Why British-German couple took in Ukrainian refugees

Two British-German pensioners were asked last week to take in Ukrainian refugees. Here's how it went - and why they are encouraging others to help out too.

Refugees from Ukraine in Munich main station.
Refugees from Ukraine stand in Munich main station. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

British-German pensioner Denise Richardson and her partner, who live in Geilenkirchen near Aachen in western Germany, had already decided that they wanted to do all they could to support refugees after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

So when they were asked by a family friend to take in people fleeing the war they immediately said yes. 

“We had less than a day to prepare for their arrival,” said Richardson, adding that it was a whirlwind of “making beds, cleaning, baking and cooking”.

The refugees – two sisters and their sons, aged five and 15 – managed to get out of Ukraine to Warsaw, Poland. They then travelled to Berlin before arriving in Düsseldorf last Sunday. 

Ukrainian refugees in Berlin's main station.

Refugees from Ukraine in Berlin’s main station. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Paul Zinken

“My daughter and I collected them at Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof with our yellow smiley balloon for recognition,” said Richardson, who is 67.

“The sisters and their boys were obviously shattered, bewildered and trying to present brave faces. On arrival at our house and after they had been shown around, the tears of relief flowed – from all of us.”

Although there are language barriers, the families talk with each other through translation apps. 

“We manage to communicate and have had evenings round our table ‘chatting’,” said Richardson, adding that it’s important to allow their guests to have their own space. 

Richardson said everyone comes together to eat a meal in the evening, whether it’s English stew with dumplings, bolognese or German-style food.

“We’ve also had an Omelette with chips which they absolutely loved,” said Richardson. “I’m pretty sure they would try anything, so that is good.”

READ ALSO: How is Germany supporting refugees from Ukraine?

Community help

Richardson said authorities – and locals – have been “brilliant”.

“My daughter contacted the Rathaus (townhouse) and we had a visit from the Refugee Coordinator, school representative and a translator,” she said.

“Forms were completed, ideas exchanged and their benefits, schooling and more permanent accommodation discussed.”

The 15-year-old has already started classes at a local school, with plans to get the five-year-old into the education system when a place becomes available. 

“Their mothers will be helped to find work,” said Richardson. “They will receive several benefits and payments that have been set aside by the EU/German authorities to fund this huge wave of refugees. There is very little red tape and the whole system is user friendly.”

People who have fled war in Ukraine at a refugees arrival centre in Berlin.

People who have fled war in Ukraine at a refugees arrival centre in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

They have received pink slips allowing them to visit a doctor without health insurance, and there are also plans to organise Covid-19 vaccinations. 

Meanwhile the local Catholic Church has an empty flat that the refugees will move into next week.

Richardson acknowledges how strange it must be for her guests – and for others forced to leave Ukraine.

“One of the hardest things for us to imagine is that you don’t know when you’re going home, if there will be a home and how long your exile will last,” she said.

“Taking you away from everything you own and know and in most cases without a husband or partner at your side. It’s a horrible situation.”

She recommend that other people in Germany open up their homes to refugees if they can. Richardson said it was important to be open-minded to avoid culture clashes. 

“You just have to be open, smile a lot and make them feel welcome,” she said.

It has been a hugely rewarding experience for the couple. 

“For us two oldies used to our quiet retirement this has given us a chance to help,” she said.

When the sisters and their sons leave, Richardson and her partner won’t be able to take in more people straight away because they have other visitors. 

But they will continue to support people in the community and volunteer when they can. 

She said: “You know what? It could be us. And how would we feel?”

There are various ways to support people from Ukraine. If you want to and have the space to offer shelter then check with your local authority and any groups in your area organising this. You can also access this site – Elinor – which is helping to connect refugees with private rooms that can be offered for a duration of at least two weeks. You can read more ways to help in our story below:

How people in Germany can support Ukraine

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POLITICS

Scholz says Germany to become biggest NATO force in Europe

Germany's investments in defence in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine will transform it into the biggest contributor to NATO in Europe, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Tuesday.

Scholz says Germany to become biggest NATO force in Europe

Alongside the United States, Germany is “certainly making the largest contribution” to NATO, Scholz said in an interview with the ARD broadcaster.

Speaking at the close of a summit of leaders from the Group of Seven rich democracies, Scholz said Germany was in the process of creating “the largest conventional army within the NATO framework in Europe”.

Days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Scholz announced a 100-billion-euro ($105-billion) fund to beef up Germany’s military defences and offset decades of chronic underfunding.

READ ALSO: Germany’s Bundestag approves €100 billion fund to beef up defences

He also promised to meet NATO’s target of spending two percent of GDP on defence, answering years of criticism from close allies that Berlin was failing to contribute enough to the alliance.

Russia’s invasion had led to a renewed conviction “that we should spend more money on defence”, Scholz said.

“We will spend an average of around 70 to 80 billion euros a year on defence over the next few years,” he said, meaning “Germany is the country that invests the most in this”.

Scholz’s announcement in February was seen as a major policy shift, upending Germany’s traditionally cautious approach to defence as a result of its post-war guilt.

Germany had steadily reduced the size of its army since the end of the Cold War from around 500,000 at the time of reunification in 1990 to just 200,000.

NATO allies are from Tuesday gathering in Madrid for a summit, where the United States is expected to announce new long-term military deployments across Europe.

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