Ukrainian family ‘so grateful’ for warm welcome from UK village

Valeriia Starkova and nine members of her family, aged between 10 and 90, are now living in Caldecote, Cambridgeshire.

31 March 2022

A woman who fled to the UK from Ukraine with her family has praised the “overwhelming” kindness of the Cambridgeshire village where they are now living.

Valeriia Starkova, 37, escaped the war-torn city of Kharkiv and, after a 22-day journey, arrived in Caldecote, eight miles west of Cambridge, last week.

The family of 10, spanning four generations and ranging in age from 10 to 90, are living in a home that businessman Mick Swinhoe, 52, bought next to his own just before the war broke out and that he initially planned to use as a “project house”.

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Property owner Mick Swinhoe (third right) talks to Iryna Starkova and her family as they settle into their new home in Caldecote, near Cambridge (Joe Giddens/PA)

The executive at an industrial automation company changed his plans and, after posting on Facebook groups, he was connected with a family.

Ms Starkova said Mr Swinhoe’s family “helped us a lot”, ordering new beds and mattresses, and putting carpet on the previously bare floors.

She said a local councillor got in touch to say that their neighbours also wanted to help, and within a week everything on their list had been provided.

“They donated some duvets, pillows, all bedding we need, all kitchen appliances, basically everything that we need, even some food,” said Ms Starkova.

She added that one neighbour had offered to give them a car, and there had been offers of bikes for the three children.

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Iryna Starkova enjoys a cup of tea in her new home in Cambridgeshire (Joe Giddens/PA)

“We are so grateful,” she said.

“I feel protected. I feel safe. I’m going to cry. Overwhelming. I didn’t expect that.

“When we first decided to come here I thought it would be much much harder for us but volunteers helped us a lot.”

She said her two children, Alikhan, 10, and 12-year-old Kamila, and her half-sister, Miroslava Starkova, are a “little bit stressed” about starting at a new school.

“They said ‘I’m not going to understand anything’, ‘I will get the bad marks’,” said Ms Starkova.

“I said don’t worry about that, it’s all right, you will learn English very fast.

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Halyna Starkova makes breakfast for her family (Joe Giddens/PA)

“Michael’s kids came here yesterday, my daughter had a birthday, they really did well.

“I thought because of the language barrier they would be bored but the kids played, they translated with a Google translator, and they played some games.

“It was fun. Kids are quite relaxed.

“Not as stressed as we were in Ukraine of course.”

She said the school has offered to help with uniforms and stationery.

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Roman Starkov (right) enjoys breakfast with his family after helping them come to the UK under the Ukraine Family Scheme (Joe Giddens/PA)

Ms Starkova’s brother, Roman Starkov, 38, who is a British citizen, helped his family through the visa process to come to the UK under the Ukraine Family Scheme.

The software developer, who lives in Cambridge, said: “I’m thinking that right now we’re just getting all the people’s charity because there’s nobody else here.

“Everybody wants to help but we’re the only family here. That needs to change.

“So many people want to help, we just need to spread it more fairly among all the other families who need help.”

Noting that his sister is inquiring about an opportunity to work at a local supermarket, he added: “That’s the goal – to become self-sufficient.

“Charity’s nice but really the goal is to be self-sufficient.”

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Roman Starkov plays with his 10-year-old nephew, Alikhan (Joe Giddens/PA)

Mr Swinhoe said it was “a lot of hard work” to get the project house ready, adding: “The family pitched in unbelievably and worked so hard to furnish it.”

He described offers of support as “heart-warming and phenomenal”.

“Everyone’s united,” he said.

“It’s enhanced my feeling of living here – I’d never really realised the depth of support in the village.

“It’s a very tolerant village, a very broad-minded village. It’s made me realise it’s actually such a nice place to live.”

He said his two daughters, aged 11 and 15, could end up being friends with the Ukrainian children “until they are 90”.

Meanwhile, campaigner Rend Platings, who helped connect the family with Mr Swinhoe, has criticised the time taken to apply for a visa under the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme.

She wants to sponsor her friend, Kristina Corniuk, 34, of Kyiv, and said the application was made within minutes of the scheme opening.

But she said she has heard nothing except an acknowledgement.

Ms Platings, of Cambridge, said: “I am really afraid for Kristina, and for all the people who have been forced to flee their homes under such terrible circumstances.

“The delay in issuing visas is adding to an already appalling humanitarian crisis and makes me feel ashamed for Britain.”

Ms Platings has said she will go on hunger strike to highlight the issue, and plans to stop taking all food from 8am on Friday, continuing until Ms Corniuk’s visa is granted.

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