‘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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Germany to recognise Stalin famine in Ukraine as ‘genocide’

Germany is to declare the 1930s starvation of millions in Ukraine under Joseph Stalin a "genocide", adopting language used by Kyiv, according to a draft text seen by AFP on Friday.

Germany to recognise Stalin famine in Ukraine as 'genocide'

The joint resolution by deputies from Germany’s centre-left-led coalition and the opposition conservatives is also intended as a “warning” to Russia as Ukraine faces a potential hunger crisis this winter due to Moscow’s invasion.

Lawmakers plan to vote on the resolution next Wednesday following Ukraine’s memorial day for the Holodomor, as the famine is known, which falls on the last Saturday in November each year.

The Holodomor belongs on “the list of inhuman crimes by totalitarian systems in which millions of human lives were wiped out” in the first half of the 20th century, the draft text reads, including those committed by Nazi Germany.

“People across Ukraine, not just in grain-producing regions, were impacted by hunger and repression,” an orchestrated policy that “meets the historical-political definition from today’s perspective for genocide”.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock lent their backing to the parliamentary declaration on Friday via their spokespeople.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called Berlin’s move a “milestone” on Twitter. Baerbock later credited Kuleba with prompting Berlin to pass the resolution.

READ ALSO: ‘We just didn’t realise’: What it was like growing up in post-Nazi Dachau

Pope lends backing

The 1932-33 Holodomor — Ukrainian for “death by starvation” — is regarded by Kyiv as a deliberate act of genocide by Stalin’s regime with the intention of wiping out the peasantry.

Stalin’s campaign of forced “collectivisation” seized grain and other foodstuffs and left millions to starve.

The German resolution says that up to 3.5 million people are believed to have died that winter alone but historians put the total death toll as high as 10 million.

The Holodomor has long been a source of hostility between Russia and Ukraine.

Moscow rejects Kyiv’s account, placing the events in the broader context of famines that devastated regions of Central Asia and Russia.

However Pope Francis this week also condemned the historical famine as a “genocide” as he expressed sympathy for the “suffering of the dear Ukrainian people” in the face of the current war.

“We pray for the victims of this genocide (in the 1930s) and for so many Ukrainians — children, women and the elderly, babies — who today suffer the martyrdom of aggression,” he said on Wednesday.

Meanwhile Romanian MPs approved a resolution the same day recognising “the Holodomor as a crime against the Ukrainian people and humanity”.

And the Irish senate on Thursday carried a motion to recognise the Holodomor “as a genocide on the Ukrainian people”.   

The German text noted that Soviet representatives had disputed the Holodomor before the United Nations General Assembly as late as the early 1980s.

“It would take decades before the Soviet leadership under party leader Mikhail Gorbachev as part of the glasnost policy would admit there had been a ‘famine’ in Ukraine,” it said.

“Archives were opened and reports were published.”

READ ALSO: Germany welcomes UN resolution against Holocaust denial

‘Message of warning’

The current conflict has fuelled fears that history may repeat itself.

Russia’s targeting of grain storage facilities and its blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea exports have sparked accusations that Moscow is again using food as a weapon of war.

Robin Wagener of Germany’s Green party, one of the resolution’s initiators, said Russian President Vladimir Putin operated “in the cruel and criminal tradition of Stalin”.

Holodomor memorial Kyiv

Foreign Minister Annalena Bearbock visits a memorial of the Holodomor in Kyiv on February 7th – just days before the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

“Once more, the basis for life in Ukraine is meant to be taken away through violence and terror, and the entire country brought to heel,” he told the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Wagener said calling the Holodomor a genocide was intended as a “message of warning” to Moscow.

The resolution declares that “few people in Germany and the European Union” are familiar with the facts of the Holodomor and its consequences.

It said that Germany had a “particular responsibility” given its wartime guilt to speak out about the “genocide”, a term that was only recognised in international law after World War II.

By Deborah Cole