WHEN Clare and Valeriia met for the first time in the arrivals lounge at Heathrow Airport they were strangers – brought together by the bombing of Ukraine.

But now – almost two years after that first meeting – Clare, from Hitchin, refers to Valeriia as her “Ukrainian daughter” and Valeriia talks about her “English family”.

Clare Roberts – and husband John – were among the first in Hertfordshire to host a Ukrainian guest, as part of the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Currently there are 373 host families in the county, who are providing homes to 693 Ukrainian guests.

And as the county council continues to match Hertfordshire host families with Ukrainian guests, the Hitchin couple and Valeriia have spoken to the Local Democracy Reporting Service about their experience.

Valeriia Alekseieva was just 21 when the war began in Ukraine, in February 2022 – and was just a few weeks into her first digital marketing job.

Initial disbelief, was replaced by the realisation of how dangerous it would be to stay. And within days she had set off – alone – from her Ukraine home.

It was, she says,  a “tough decision”. But it was a decision, she says, that was backed by her parents, who told her they would feel better if she was out of the country.

And after short stays with friends and relatives in Poland and Germany, Valeriia applied for the UK’s then newly-launched Homes for Ukraine scheme.

She first made contact with Clare and John Roberts, from Hitchin, on an online platform – exchanged emails and chatted online.

Valeriia admits that at first she was a bit sceptical – concerned that it may even be a scam.

“I did not believe in this because there are lots of scams on the internet,” she said.

“How could I come here and live with strangers?

“I didn’t think it was going to work. I didn’t think it was real and that it wasn’t a fake.”

Meanwhile back in the UK, Clare had been horrified by the sight of the bombs falling on Ukraine and was determined to help.

And after talking to Valleriia online – and taking a couple of days to think it over – the couple, who have three grown-up children, agreed to sponsor her.

Just a short while later they met for the first time at Heathrow Airport, where Valeriia says she felt really “shy” and everyone was “a bit tense”.

“When you come to someone else’s house and you are going to live with strangers you don’t know if you are going to get on,” says Valeriia.

“You can’t predict what is going to happen next.

“But Clare and John are really easy going and easy to get on with – accepting and not judgemental.

“Now we are like family and they treat me like a second daughter. They are really amazing and special people.”

Clare  – who also remembers how “really strange” it was at the airport –  says she remembers how shocked Valeriia had been about the start of the war.

But she says that despite that she was struck by how determined Valeriia was to make a life in the UK.

Clare – a leadership development consultant – has helped Valeriia to find work during her time in the UK.

She says it has been an “enriching experience” and that Valeriia is welcome to stay as long as she needs to,

But she also acknowledges the help and support they and Valeriia have had from their network of friends.

“People say it takes a village to bring up a child,” she said.

“I think it has been made easier hosting Valeriia because of a few of our friends  – who for various reasons have helped in various ways.”

That help, says Clare, has included help with transport, being around to help if they’re away or even with English lessons.

For those thinking of being hosts, John says it’s important to be realistic about who you can host in their homes.

By way of example he says, that if you are thinking about hosting a mother and children, you need to think if you have contact with people who have young children.

And he says: “I think we have been lucky with Valeriia because I think she has similar values to us. She’s very respectful and I think that helps.”

Since the start of the war in Ukraine there have been more than 2300 guests matched with 1040 host families in Hertfordshire.

Some arrangements are now coming to an end and the county council is looking for new host accommodation for existing guests.

That search is being backed by chairman of the county council Cllr Terry Douris, who recently attended a vigil to mark the anniversary of the start of the conflict.

He says he’s proud of the way people in the county have welcomed so many Ukrainian guests – and is highlighting the search for more hosts.

“Unfortunately, the battle is not yet won, so once more we must collectively dig deep and keep on keeping on,” he said.

“One of the key ways residents can do that is by becoming a host for an existing guest in the county through our rematch scheme.

“You only need a spare room and you could be making the world of difference to a Ukrainian.

“I have no doubt that Hertfordshire will come together and continue their support of Ukraine.”

Hosts receive a monthly ‘thank you’ payment of £400 – increasing to £550 after the first 12 months.

And anyone interested in hosting can find out more by emailing h4ukraine@hertfordshire.gov.uk or calling 01992 555 153