University
Albert Koster (r.) with his guests

UG staff take in Ukrainians

‘Suddenly, this war was in my kitchen’

Albert Koster (r.) with his guests
The three UG staff members who are offering a temporary home to Ukrainian refugees all have their own reasons for doing so. But they agree on one thing: ‘The least we can do is give someone a safe place to stay.’
20 April om 11:51 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 20 April 2022
om 11:51 uur.
April 20 at 11:51 AM.
Last modified on April 20, 2022
at 11:51 AM.

Door Yelena Kilina

20 April om 11:51 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 20 April 2022
om 11:51 uur.

By Yelena Kilina

April 20 at 11:51 AM.
Last modified on April 20, 2022
at 11:51 AM.

Yelena Kilina

International editor Volledig bio International editor Full bio

For Albert Koster, it was never a question of whether he could host Ukrainian refugees: ‘Yes, please!’ 

After all, the ACLO front desk employee has been happily married for several years to a Ukrainian woman, Valentina, and has regularly visited her homeland many times. Naturally, the couple encouraged all their friends and relatives to come over the moment they learned about the war. ‘I don’t remember who came when, but we have hosted nine people so far, one at a time.’ 

‘It was like a carefully organised drive-through procedure’, says Valentina, ‘so each of them had a safe place to arrive because they come with a lot of emotions and a story to tell.’ Once their guests get over their shock, Albert and Valentina help them out with practicalities like paperwork and separate housing, so ‘they can be equipped to function here.’ 

Self-reliant

Many Ukrainians whose normal life ended with the war strive to be self-reliant here. Albert and Valentina’s longtime friends are no exception: ‘When you’re forty years old and you realise you suddenly have nothing, it’s…’ pauses Denis, unable to find the words. ‘Our life changed overnight’, his wife Irina continues, ‘but we didn’t come to sit idly by, but to fight on the home front.’ 

Denis and yet another friend, Katerina, agree enthusiastically: ‘We aren’t victims, we’re going to help our country from abroad, too.’ 

Ideas are bubbling up in their kitchen: Denis is a professional chef and Irina has worked as a brand chef for several restaurants, which means they can start by making traditional Ukrainian food for sale, ranging from cherry dumplings to potato pastry. Albert has access to cooking facilities, and Valentina is ‘the engine that powers the whole machine’, says Albert, laughing. 

Humanitarian aid

Jokes aside, the friends have already organised two food markets, all the proceeds from which have been turned into humanitarian aid for Ukrainians, thanks to their own network of volunteers. ‘In a really short period of time we have made an efficient team’, says Valentina energetically. Albert nods: ‘Sometimes it gets very intense and the humanitarian aid fills up our entire house before it is dispatched.’

Ideas, laughter and tears alternate around the table, and although Albert doesn’t always understand the language and what’s being discussed so passionately in his home, he smiles: they’ve helped their home country today. Again. ‘I’m proud of how Ukrainians are fighting for their land.’

Anastasia, Ksenia, and Lera

‘We have our phone at hand at all times’

For associate professor of pedagogy Tina Kretschmer, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany, the invasion of Ukraine touched a nerve. So when she was asked if she knew anyone who could host a family of three Ukrainians, she said, ‘I do: me.’ 

Her house on the coast in the north of Groningen was big enough, she knew, but would she be able to handle it if her future guests were traumatised? And how was she supposed to interact with them without unwittingly asking any confronting questions? But all her concerns melted away the next morning, when Anastasia and her daughters Lera and Ksenia set foot into her house. 

‘Suddenly, this war was there in my kitchen in the form of three human beings’, recalls Kretschmer. ’It became even more real, but at the same time I knew this was going to be okay. I only feel positivity towards them, and anger at what they had to go through.’

Anastasia, Lera and five-year-old Ksenia didn’t worry much about where and with whom they would stay, they say. ‘All our worries are focused on another country.’ 

Adapting to Groningen

The war forced them to flee their town in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine a month ago. ‘Russian aircraft attacked the nearby cities, so we didn’t have much of a choice whether to leave our home or not’, Anastasia says, remarkably calm. ‘We only had a few hours to pack our suitcases. We left without knowing where we’d end up. It was all decided on the road.’

Now, the family is trying to adapt to life in a small Groningen village, where they’re the only Ukrainians. They’re still getting used to the Dutch weather as they attempt to get back to everyday activities. Anastasia is happy to be gardening: ‘Just like at home where I have a garden plot with greenhouses.’ 

School

Little Ksenia will soon be going to the local school, and psychology student Lera is taking online classes at the National University of Kyiv, though ‘almost everyone has left the city and people can leave the lecture when air raid sirens go off.’ She is also on the fence about whether she should be working on her English. ‘I hope that it’ll all be over soon. I want to go back home.’

In the house, they make do with Google Translate. ‘We have our phone at hand at all times’, says Kretschmer. Amazingly enough, the language barrier doesn’t stop them from making jokes and having deep conversations over a glass of wine. ‘These are the most meaningful silent conversations I’ve ever had’, she adds. 

‘It feels like having a friend over’

When associate professor Jessica and her partner lived abroad, they met many welcoming people who helped them feel at home in a foreign country, so they always wanted to pay it forward one day. After the war started, the couple put their address on a website that connects refugees from Ukraine with hosts in the Netherlands. ‘I feel so helpless in this situation. The least we can do is give someone a safe place to stay’, she says.

While Jessica and her partner waited for requests, hundreds of kilometres away, Taras was crossing the border with his ‘wife, relatives and pets.’ Because of his dual citizenship – which is not legal in Ukraine – Taras managed to leave the country. ‘I’m not going to lie to anyone: thanks to my grandparents, I have Romanian citizenship.’ 

Alternative future

After his parents lost their incomes due to the war, Taras decided to move to the Netherlands to find work and ‘provide an alternative future’ for his family. ‘My relatives and I used to have good jobs, we could afford travelling abroad, my wife and I planned to have children, but one day all these dreams went up in smoke’, he says bitterly.

So Taras contacted over twenty-five families around the Netherlands to find a temporary home, while his wife and relatives stayed elsewhere. ‘Not every family is ready to welcome a man into their home, but Jessica and her husband were the first ones who have responded during the four days of my search’, says Taras. ‘I’m so fortunate to have met them’, he adds.

Perfect match

Jessica and her partner are happy to share not only their home, but also their time with Taras. ‘I think this is really a perfect match, because the age difference isn’t too big and we have the same interests: we’re quite spontaneous and like to be active and meet friends, so it feels like having a friend over’, she says.

What Taras also appreciates is that the couple supports him and has helped him find his way around the Dutch labour market. ‘Without them, I would’ve accepted the first – most likely low-paying – job, not realising that with my experience and knowledge, I can find a more promising job’, says Taras, who holds a degree in water engineering and worked as a construction supervisor of large-scale infrastructure projects.

Now he’s actively looking for jobs and improving his English, hoping to be able to bring his family here one day. ‘The family should stick together.’

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