"I saw them standing at the door: she had a small bag, he did too, and this timid young kid with just a tennis racket"

UM employees took refugees from Ukraine in home

07-12-2022 · Background

The one has had a Ukrainian family in their home for six months, the other has already provided a woman from Kharkiv a place to stay for nine months. How did these UM employees experience that? Do they now watch the news with a different view?

Xenia, Sergei and Sergei

Twenty years ago, the dean of Medicine Annemie Schols’ husband was in Ukraine on holiday and that was where he met Xenia and Sergei, was even invited to their wedding that very same holiday. In the years afterwards, there was hardly any contact. Until Russia invaded Ukraine.

“My husband, Hans, was worried and sent an e-mail to take stock,” says Schols. “At first, it wasn’t so bad, they live in an apartment in Kyiv. But a week later, they were in the underground air-raid shelter. When the missiles started to come down close to the nuclear power stations, they fled to Bratislava.”

Shortly afterwards, at the beginning of March, they arrived in Liege by train. Xenia (40), Sergei (40) and Sergei junior (13). “I didn’t know them, opened the door and saw them standing there: she had a small bag, he did too, and this timid young kid with just a tennis racket. One day later, at 10:00hrs we were on the court together, tennis is my passion too."

Firing employees

Schols lives in Scharn, in a detached house with two floors and a garden. Xenia and Sergei moved into Hans’ study in the attic. “Friends and family asked if we also shared the bathroom with them. Yes, of course. It is just like a student house, where you meet your roommates.”

Sergei junior was given a bedroom on the first floor. “He bravely chose his own room, but he did leave the light on and the door open at night. He follows online Ukrainian education. I immediately made him a member of the tennis club; in the beginning, he got a shock when an aeroplane flew low over the Geusselt stadium. We played often and made a special connection. You are away from the house, talk to each other and have fun.” 

Xenia was the most “intense,” says Schols, who could see how differently people react to stress. “Xenia, an entrepreneur, followed everything about the war, was talking about how things would be, talked a lot with Hans about it. She worked at Coffee Lovers on Plein 1992 in spring, where she was at least able to think about something else. Sergei, director of a large company with several branches, didn’t think about that at all, he was the epitome of calm. While he had to fire a lot of employees during that time. He spent days on the telephone.”

Fear

The war was no longer a far-away thing, Schols was experiencing it up close now. “And it already felt so close from the beginning. I was quickly able to imagine what Ukrainians were going through and found it really shocking what they had to endure. I don’t really view the war any differently because of our guests.”

The family has felt very at home in Schols’ house, but after a couple of months, Xenia suffered with homesickness. “She went to Kyiv to see how safe it was there. The two Sergeis went with her as far as Prague, and turned back then. To prevent the father being mobilised once he returned to Ukraine.” 

Xenia returned later on and was all excited, Schols remembers. “The atmosphere had changed in the city. The fear had made way for militancy and solidarity. She felt it was something special and you had to experience it. Although she had also noticed that Ukrainians abroad were viewed differently. Why did they not return? There was work to be done.”

Friendship

In September, half a year later, the family returned to Kyiv, to their old apartment. Schols: “We are in contact almost every day and have become friends for life, a true enrichment. It is so intense, sharing those experiences about the war. But also your own role in it, listening, supporting, thinking with them, advising. How quickly a friendship can then take shape.”

Xenia may well have gone to Kyiv as an explorer, Sergei feasted his eyes in Maastricht. He advised management in Ukraine to set up and open a branch in Maastricht. “The first branch in Europe, for which he has already contacted Ukrainian refugees.”

Julia

The first contact with Julia, in April, was via WhatsApp and on video. Paul Bonfrere (53), head of the department of Information Management at the Student Services Centre (SSC), still becomes emotional.

After the first bombings on Kharkiv, Julia left the city in a panic and found a place to stay in a safer part of Ukraine. “She left everything behind, she only had her passport, diplomas and a small suitcase with clothes, nothing else. She thought she would be able to return within a couple of days.” 

Bonfrere: “And we were worried that out guesthouse wouldn’t be good enough. At the time, we were building a B&B, adjacent to our home in Amby. It hadn’t been completely finished off, but when we saw how Julia was living, we realised that our worries were misplaced.”

Desk clerk

The Bonfrere family – wife Saskia, son Richard (22) still living at home at time and son Bart (21) who lives in digs – wanted to do something for Ukrainian refugees, but they didn’t want to take a lodger into their home. “We once took in a foster child and realised how much of an impact that had. Our B&B is ideal, a 30m2 studio with its own front door. We had three requirements: no more than two people, some knowledge of the English language, and no smoking in the B&B.”

Halfway through May, Julia was on their doorstep. She is 36 years old, single, and worked in the travel industry. Bonfrere: “She was traumatised, burst into tears every now and again, and was angry about what had happened. Her father is Russian and denies everything. Julia spoke a lot about her sorrow with my wife."

Still, not everything is trouble and affliction. According to Bonfrere, Julia is also positive and happy, and that optimism is her power. “After three weeks, she wanted to start working, just do something. She now has a job as a desk clerk at Maastricht Housing. She speaks good English and is taking Dutch lessons.”

Shot to pieces

Since Julia’s arrival, Bonfrere has been watching the news about the war closely. Several times a day, he checks the website of the Belgian newspaper De Morgen, where the most important events are reviewed. “I do that in the hope of finding good news, even if only that Ukraine has given the Russians the umpteenth kick in the butt, but for now I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”

It’s a good feeling, says Bonfrere, to be able to do something for Julia. “We get a lot out of it, not to mention that we have gained a ‘family member’. That is how we see Julia now, and that is the way she feels too.”

Society may have hardened, and maybe it is more self-centred than before, but Bonfrere has mainly received heart-warming reactions. “Neighbours asking if Julia needs anything, whether she would like to go on a walk. A Ukrainian colleague at ICTS went to have coffee with her, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law paid for her shoes, and my son gave her some English lessons.” 

Last Saturday, she flew to a small town near the Polish border. There, she met her mother, who is living there. Her sister was still living with her family in Ukraine. "Her husband - Julia's brother-in -aw - is a construction worker, says Bonfrere, and at the beginning of the war, he tried to repair the buildings that were shot to pieces to keep them habitable for those who stayed behind in Kharkiv. They have now also sought refuge.”

Meanwhile, Julia and her mother are revelling in the Christmas atmosphere in the Polish town. “They enjoy each other’s company and the Borscht, the traditional red beetroot soup that her mother has made.”