Hiraeth, War and Unexpected Exmoor Refugees

Just when you think things can’t get crazier in this old world of ours, another zinger out of left field clocks you up the side of the head. But unlike with COVID and Brexit woes and drought threatening all the new plants I’ve lovingly placed in our Exmoor garden, this zinger at least comes with a silver lining: The Gemmells are about to make new friends because … wait for it … we’re hosting a Ukrainian refugee family.

Yep, you heard me. The Ukrainians are coming to Exmoor. After all, if I, with all my tales of hiraeth and struggles to find my place in the world, don’t understand the need for home and comfort, who does? My situation was never as dire as what so many are going through right now, but I feel great empathy for these families. I watched the TV coverage when war first broke out: Polish men and women standing on train platforms with signs offering sanctuary: no background checks, no prep time. Just goodhearted souls offering a home away from bombs and bullets and I asked myself: could I do that? Could I take in strangers?

At this point in my life, Hubby and I thought things would be settling down. More time to write, more time to travel. More time to be ‘human beings’ instead of ‘human doings’. I didn’t expect to be sharing my house, or working with the local school to place our seven-year-old soon-to-be housemate, or researching outlets for the very creatively talented mother and adult daughter. It’s all moving fast. From finding an organization to match us with a family to finding a family took three days. The local council has moved impressively fast to set up house inspections and link us to background checks. My head is spinning. Can I do this?

Of course I can, especially as community support has been equally as fast coming forward. It took minutes from posting about the family’s imminent arrival on the local Facebook page (with the family’s permission of course) for me to know Hubby and I wouldn’t be alone in this endeavour. The whole community jumped in with offers of beds, playdates, and school uniforms. The local school had literally just broken up for the summer holidays, yet teachers contacted us to offer help and assure us of a warm welcome. A neighbour offered to purchase sneakers as our little friend has outgrown all his clothes since fleeing Ukraine. Another Exmoor author, Tortie Eveleigh at West Ilkerton Farm, offered a free farm tour, a water sports group offered kayaking sessions, the village outdoor clothing shop offered coats and a local fisherman offered to set up our little buddy with fishing gear. And, thankfully for me, to show him how to use it. We’ve even been offered a teddy bear. Every time I check Facebook, I get something in my eye.

We never dreamed we’d be in this position but it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, not just for us, but for this community too. New friends, new experiences. The chance to move beyond the fundraisers and flying flags kind of support to the boots on the ground kind of support. For me personally, it’s the chance to pay back all the times I’ve been in a foreign place and needed the help of strangers. When I first arrived in the United States, someone fed me for three days when a banking snafu left me without funds. A lone man in a truck picked me up from the side of the freeway in Miami and, without murdering me, took me to safety. (Before the days of mobile phones, if your car broke down you put out your thumb and hoped for the best. It was a risk for both parties.) When a rental fell through, a new friend housed me for weeks. More recently, arriving back in this country during a pandemic, a landlord took a risk and rented a house to me without the usual credit checks because we had no credit history in England. Time and time again, strangers stepped up to help.

Our Ukrainian family is taking great risk in traveling so far to strangers. The stakes are incredibly high for them. I can only imagine, as a mother, how scared I’d be for my children. Will they be safe and loved and welcomed as they embark on a path they couldn’t have imagined this time last year? We’ve all needed someone to take a chance on us at some point in our lives. I have spare bedrooms. I live next door to a school and this little boy hasn’t been in a classroom since the war broke out. I have a garden. And a dog who will snuggle this family to the best of his ability. I will try to relieve the hiraeth and heartache they will surely feel. And I will offer them sanctuary on Exmoor, a place that has always soothed my soul and given me peace.

Wish us all luck.

Image: author’s own of Porlock Bay