A group of Ukrainians putting on a dance display

Sanctuary For Ukrainians

Polly Vacher has been many different things during her life: aviator, music teacher, physiotherapist, charity fundraiser and Reading graduate to name a few. But the one constant theme has been helping people and, for the past year, Polly and her village have been hosting Ukrainian refugees.

Polly with a globe
Photo Credit: John Dunbar

When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022 the whole world was shocked. Polly, who had links with Ukraine following a holiday there in 2013 – when she and a group of 25 friends travelled around the country and had “the most amazing time” – instantly knew she had to do something to help.

Polly recalled: “I exchanged emails with a friend, Jonathan, who had organised our trip to Ukraine in 2013. We both agreed we had to do something and Jonathan knew six Ukrainian lawyers in London who had a list of over 400 refugees who needed housing in the UK. So I sent an email round our village asking if anybody would be prepared to host a Ukrainian family.”

Polly shared how the action she and Jonathan instigated grew into a huge effort from across her village of North Moreton, Oxfordshire, to help those in need.

Community spirit

Polly said the response from her village was phenomenal. She shared: “This village is quite small with 157 houses and approximately 350 inhabitants, but we had 18 families offer to host just like that. It was unbelievable. So we went to meet with the lawyers to arrange everything and match up the families.

“Our village is incredibly community-spirited and friendly. For example, one man responded to the call-out for hosts by offering to move in with his father – who lived locally – and giving up his whole house for a family.

“Another family has a converted barn which they usually let out, but they offered the barn as accommodation. However, it was unfurnished so we asked the village for help and within 24 hours the whole place was completely furnished – absolutely everything was provided for. That gives you some idea as to what a great village this is and why it’s very special to live here.”

However, Polly explained that actually getting the refugees into the UK wasn’t that simple as there were Home Office regulations to navigate.

She said: “The sudden influx of refugees took the Home Office by surprise and the whole system was complete shambles. Every Ukrainian needed a visa to come here, but in some instances only the mother was granted one and in other instances only the child was granted one. Luckily the lawyers in London helped us fill in the visa forms – it took us about nine hours in total. I then enlisted the help of our local MP and a member of the House of Lords – whom I’d known as a student – to help get the visas over the line.”

Part of the community

North Moreton has loved welcoming the Ukrainian families who have quickly become a part of the village.

Polly with some of the Ukrainian refugees

Polly said: “The families didn’t know each other before they arrived, but they’ve all made friends and settled in well. We had 50 Ukrainians with us originally – we now have about 42 as some have returned home – and they were very keen to thank us. They threw the most enormous party on our recreation ground, with Ukrainian dancing, singing, food, drink, games and gave us all the most wonderful time and they have arranged many more parties since.

“We were always a friendly village but actually the Ukrainians have brought us even closer together. They join in with village life and support anything that’s going on and have really become part of the community.”

Traumatic experiences

Despite their smiles and energy, Polly emphasises that there isn’t one Ukrainian family in this village who hasn’t experienced trauma. She said:

“It’s distressing to hear what they’ve been through and what they are still going through.

“Our first family had the house next door to them bombed, following which their grandfather died of a heart attack. They couldn’t get to the cemetery because the Russians had blocked the road so they had to bury him in the garden. They then had to drive across fields to escape. The current family living with us are in regular contact with their husband and father – who is still in Ukraine – and a few weeks ago a bomb landed almost in their back garden. It’s very distressing for them and a horrible situation.

“Hearing these tales puts everything into perspective – we’re living in a safe country that has water and warmth, and although times are harder today with the cost of living crisis, it’s nothing compared to what is happening in Ukraine.

“Throughout all of this each of the Ukrainians in our village remains strong. It’s so inspiring – I rarely see any tears, they’re always positive.”

You can always do something

Polly is no stranger to helping others, having dedicated much of her life to fundraising – from raising £52,000 for the MS Society completing a ‘Donkathon’ (where Polly drove her two donkeys from South Oxfordshire to North Wales), to completing sponsored skydives, and flying around the world solo twice to raise money for Flying Scholarships for Disabled People. Polly said:

“My mantra is that you can always do something. Not everyone can save the world, but we can all do a bit, and this is me doing my bit that I’m able to do. There’s no excuse for doing nothing, ever.

“My motivation to help the Ukrainians stems from me putting myself in their shoes. I think what if this was happening to me? What if the house next door was bombed and an aggressor came through my village with tanks. How would I feel? I can’t believe this is happening today, these people are being treated abominably, these are heinous crimes taking place. Children are seeing things they should never experience.

“I just feel so strongly that we’re so lucky – we live in peace with the freedom to do and say what we want without the threat of being jailed or killed for doing so. It’s a horrendous situation and it’s so important to me to do what I can.”

Discover how else the University of Reading community is supporting refugees.