‘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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Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest Sunday with an infectious hip-hop folk melody, boosting spirits in the embattled nation fighting off a Russian invasion that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people.

Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Riding a huge wave of public support, Kalush Orchestra beat 24 competitors in the finale of the world’s biggest live music event with “Stefania”, a rap lullaby combining Ukrainian folk and modern hip-hop rhythms.

“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azovstal right now,” implored frontman Oleh Psiuk in English from the stage after their performance was met by a cheering audience.

In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the triumph was met with smiles and visible relief.

“It’s a small ray of happiness. It’s very important now for us,” said Iryna Vorobey, a 35-year-old businesswoman, adding that the support from Europe was “incredible”.

Following the win, Psiuk — whose bubblegum-pink bucket hat has made him instantly recognisable — thanked everyone who voted for his country in the contest, which is watched by millions of viewers.

“The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Glory to Ukraine,” Psiuk told journalists.

Music conquers Europe

The win provided a much-needed morale boost for the embattled nation in its third month of battling much-larger Russian forces.

Mahmood & BLANCO  performing for Italy at Eurovision 2022

Mahmood & BLANCO perform on behalf of Italy during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” he wrote on Facebook.

“This win is so very good for our mood,” Andriy Nemkovych, a 28 year-old project manager, told AFP in Kyiv.

The victory drew praise in unlikely corners, as the deputy chief of the NATO military alliance said it showed just how much public support ex-Soviet Ukraine has in fighting off Moscow.

“I would like to congratulate Ukraine for winning the Eurovision contest,” Mircea Geoana said as he arrived in Berlin for talks that will tackle the alliance’s expansion in the wake of the Kremlin’s war.

“And this is not something I’m making in a light way because we have seen yesterday the immense public support all over Europe and Australia for the bravery of” Ukraine, Geoana said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the win “a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom”.

And European Council President Charles Michel said he hoped next year’s contest “can be hosted in Kyiv in a free and united Ukraine”.

‘Ready to fight’
Despite the joyous theatrics that are a hallmark of the song contest, the war in Ukraine hung heavily over the festivities this year.
The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the event, banned Russia on February 25, the day after Moscow invaded its neighbour.
“Stefania”, written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother before the war, mixes traditional Ukrainian folk music played on flute-like instruments with an invigorating hip-hop beat. The band donned richly embroidered ethnic garb
to perform their act.
Nostalgic lyrics such as “I’ll always find my way home even if all the roads are destroyed” resonated all the more as millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by war.

Kalush Orchestra received special authorisation from Ukraine’s government to attend Eurovision, since men of fighting age are prohibited from leaving the country, but that permit expires in two days.

Psiuk said he was not sure what awaited the band as war rages back home.

“Like every Ukrainian, we are ready to fight as much as we can and go until the end.

Britain’s ‘Space Man’

Ukraine beat a host of over-the-top acts at the kitschy, quirky annual musical event, including Norway’s Subwoolfer, who sang about bananas while dressed in yellow wolf masks, and Serbia’s Konstrakta, who questioned national healthcare while meticulously scrubbing her hands onstage.

Coming in second place was Britain with Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” and its stratospheric notes, followed by Spain with the reggaeton “SloMo” from Chanel.

After a quarter-century of being shut out from the top spot, Britain had hoped to have a winner in “Space Man” and its high notes belted by the affable, long-haired Ryder.

Britain had been ahead after votes were counted from the national juries, but a jaw-dropping 439 points awarded to Ukraine from the public pushed it to the top spot.

Eurovision’s winner is chosen by a cast of music industry professionals — and members of the public — from each country, with votes for one’s home nation not allowed.

Eurovision is a hit among fans not only for the music, but for the looks on display and this year was no exception. Lithuania’s Monika Liu generated as much social media buzz for her bowl cut hairdo as her sensual and elegant

Other offerings included Greece’s “Die Together” by Amanda Georgiadi Tenfjord and “Brividi” (Shivers), a duet from Italy’s Mahmood and Blanco.

Italy had hoped the gay-themed love song would bring it a second consecutive Eurovision win after last year’s “Zitti e Buoni” (Shut up and Behave) from high-octane glam rockers Maneskin.