Julia Buckley, CNN
On 24 February, as she watched the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Desislava Tosheva was staring at her couch.
“I was in my living room, thinking about all the people about to flee their country, and how the ones with financial opportunities would be at a bigger advantage,” she says.
“I was looking at my couch, thinking I’d really love to offer it to someone in need.”
Tosheva, from Sofia, Bulgaria, thought others would be feeling the same. She decided to set up a Facebook group: “Accommodation, Help & Shelter for Ukraine.”
“I thought we wouldn’t get more than 200 members, but that was enough — to even help one person means the world to that person,” she says.
She thought wrong. At the time of writing, there are 80,000 members. Ukrainians and potential hosts post what they’re looking for and what they can offer respectively, and can match up on their own, or through the admins. Already, Tosheva and her admins have personally arranged housing for around 90 refugees.
Many of the hosts are donating properties that they previously rented out on Airbnb or through other channels.
Now, their vacation homes — including a castle in Ireland — are being used to rehouse people who have lost everything.
They’re not the only ones. While the travel industry was hit hard by the pandemic, many people in it — from those who normally rent out their properties to tourists, to hoteliers — are now donating their accommodation to Ukrainian refugees.
One city is even using its European Capital of Culture status — which normally brings significant numbers of tourists to the year-long hosts — to promote Ukrainian culture. Here are some of their stories.
‘I feel uncomfortable living my life at the moment’
With its thatched cottages, medieval church, and green hills in the distance, including the fabled Glastonbury Tor, the Somerset village of Compton Dundon is a magnet for those seeking a country break in the west of England.
And since she retired as a business manager, Caroline Williams was connecting with would-be visitors, renting out rooms in her pretty farmhouse, plus a barn that had been converted into holiday accommodation, on Airbnb.
But there was something else pressing on her since retirement: “I’d been looking for something a bit more meaningful to do,” she says.
Now, she’s offering up two rooms in her farmhouse plus one half of the barn — a self-contained apartment — to refugees.
“I was wandering around in the garden in the sunshine, and I couldn’t stop thinking about people who weren’t able to do that,” she says.
“I feel uncomfortable living my life at the moment.”
Williams had previously signed up to house British key workers during the pandemic, and this time she turned to Airbnb’s Ukraine refugee program. A week later, the UK — which had previously not been allowing Ukrainian refugees entry — set up a sponsorship scheme, which Williams has also signed up to. She has also registered with local charities in a bid to be matched with refugees.
The vacation cottage, Bracken, will be available for short term stays and emergencies — “It’s my income, I have to keep it open for ordinary booking,” she says. But the two rooms in her house are available long-term. Williams thinks the rural location would suit a family, rather than younger people coming solo.
“I have absolutely no idea of the emotions, insecurity and fear these people are going through, I’ve never been remotely in that situation,” she says. “But I know what it feels like when someone puts out their hand and props you up, or is kind and helps you feel safe. That’s what I want to do.”
‘I said, do you mind if I use your apartment?’
Gordon Cross, a UK citizen who’s lived in Budapest for 20 years, says that “the vast majority of ordinary people” in Hungary are helping the refugees pouring across the border — and that people who normally rent out holiday accommodation are doing the same.
Cross, who has a Budapest property management business for upwards of 100 clients, says that Hungarians are wanting to ensure that “everyone has a bed when they arrive.”
He wanted to be part of that, too. So as soon as the refugees started arriving, he checked his inventory. Eight properties out of 100 were empty — and he immediately contacted the owners, asking if they’d open their apartments up to refugees fleeing the conflict.
All of them said yes.
“I just said, ‘I’ve got involved with this, do you mind if we use your apartment,’ and most of them immediately offered their properties,” he says.
“A few I chatted to and persuaded them, but the owners I knew really well took virtually no persuading at all, especially those with kids. The thought of a mother and children having to leave everything and go to a foreign place — there was no real persuasion needed.”
One apartment was owned by a group, rather than individuals, who’d only just finished an expensive renovation and were planning to sell it on. “A couple of them were like, ‘Oh god, we were going to sell,’ and I said, ‘Watch the news.’ Last week I got a message saying, ‘Go for it.’”
Others are concerned about the situation long term — one has stipulated a limit of six months. But right now, Cross is more concerned about the refugees than his business.
“Being on the ground, [worrying about long stays] isn’t an immediate concern. I have to look after my owners, it’s my business, but right now I want to persuade more of them to open up their flats.”
‘They need them more than holidaymakers’
It was as she watched the footage of people at a Berlin train station holding up placards offering their homes to refugees that Jo Mackay turned to her husband.
“We looked at each other and came to the same point at the same time — we’re lucky enough to have two houses we rent out, but we should be giving them up to someone who needs them more than a holidaymaker.”
Mackay owns Bookings for You, a luxury villa rental company with properties in Italy, France and Monaco. But she also has two properties of her own, on Lake Maggiore, that she rents out through the company.
“We’re lucky to have them and it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “When we bought them, we had to have rental income to pay the mortgage, but we’ve had them over a decade now, and life has become a little easier. I was on maternity leave when we bought them, and now I have a business. So we’re in a position that we can, and it’s the right thing to do.”
She already has reservations for the summer, but is willing to forgo them. She’ll offer guests with reservations a free upgrade to a more luxurious property offered by the company, if refugees need her houses. “I’ll be surprised if people don’t accept that,” she says.
The two neighboring properties, both with three bedrooms, sit in the hills above Luino, on the east coast of Lake Maggiore, near the Swiss border. They’re in a tiny hamlet with just three other properties, with a mountain stream coursing down one side, peacocks strutting their stuff on the other, and a neighbor with donkeys and cows with clonking bells on them. Mackay hopes that the calm will suit families needing to recalibrate. The property managers on the ground have offered to help the newcomers with whatever they need.
And as remote as an idyllic lakeside setting might sound, Mackay says that Lombardy, the region in which the villas are located, is said to have the largest Ukrainian community in Italy — so she hopes they’ll find families to fill them. She’s contacted local charities to offer up both houses, and has registered them with Airbnb’s scheme.
In the meantime, as well as registering her spare room in her UK home, this week she emailed owners of the properties she represents, asking if they’d be prepared to do the same. Already, several have come forward, with some offering their own villas completely free, and others asking for utility bills to be covered. One owner is also readying another property they have in Germany, which can sleep 17.
“This war may show us the very worst of mankind but it also shows us the best, too,” says Mackay.
‘We know the privilege we have in a safe country’
Elisa and David Ngog had been renting out their Budapest apartment for a year when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Clients of Gordon Cross, they’d moved to Hungary in 2018 while David Ngog — a professional footballer, and former striker for Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain — was playing for Budapest Honvéd.
Although they and their two children now live in Greece, they wanted to keep ties with the city — hence the apartment, a short walk from their old home, and a couple of blocks from Hungary’s Parliament.
“Our son was born in Budapest, so it became very important in our lives,” says Elisa.
“It’s a city where apartments don’t usually have a lot of light, but we found a place with a big balcony, and I loved it. It was very important to us to make a place where people will be happy.
“These people who’ve left Ukraine won’t be peaceful, but I hope it’ll be a restful place to live, and that they’ll have a break.”
The couple had been watching the news from the start of the war. “When the first [refugees] were leaving, I thought about it, but didn’t know how to make it official,” says Elisa. But a couple of days later, Cross emailed all his clients, asking if they’d offer their properties.
The Ngogs were walking to a coffee shop when the email came through. By the time they were sitting down with their drinks, they’d told him, yes.
“We didn’t hesitate for a minute,” says David.
“We know the privilege we have, being in a country where it’s safe. It’s obvious to help where you have the ability to do so.”
Since Cross’s email of March 3, the Ngogs have had two families in the apartment, both staying short-term.
“When [Gordon] sent a video of a little girl playing… my heart was full of love,” says Elisa.
“Now there are three kids in there. It makes us feel like we have contributed, even though we’ve done nothing.”
Their Budapest friends have been on hand, too, to welcome the families and bring over food, toys and children’s shoes when needed.
Although some other owners have put time limits on their availability, the Ngogs are offering their apartment indefinitely.
“I feel very grateful for the life I have, and we’re lucky that we don’t need [the rental income] to live,” says Elisa. “We’re happy.”
‘Some influencers are in their own bubble’
Kash Bhattacharya was in Singapore’s Changi airport on a 10-hour layover, returning from a Thailand vacation, as he was reading the news about Ukraine.
The Berlin-based travel blogger, who owns site Budget Traveller, texted his friends Rosie Willan and Charlotte Hall, who run UK hospitality marketing agency, Stay the Night.
In May 2020, they’d launched the “Adopt a Hostel” program, which encouraged travelers to buy vouchers for future stays in youth hostels while the travel industry was suffering.
This time, they thought, they could launch a platform that collated different offers of accommodation to refugees from across the globe. Within 24 hours, their co-worker Chris Richardson had set it up. To date, there are over 225 listings in 19 countries, from individual families offering their homes and rental units, to the Generator Hostel in Berlin’s trendy Prenzlauer Berg district, and 20 properties of European chain Penta Hotels.
“We weren’t sure what to expect but we wanted to see what we could do — and we got such an amazing response it motivated us even further,” says Hall.
Hospitality for Ukraine is just a directory, rather than a booking platform, but Bhattacharya calls the response “overwhelming” with feedback from charities on the ground saying that the platform is helping house refugees — particularly those of color, who have faced difficulties in finding safety.
Hall says they’re now in talks with bigger brands, including Best Western, to add their portfolio to the lists.
“Some people [influencers] seem to be in their own bubble, and carry on talking about their own things as if there’s not a war on, but when we talk about influence and making a difference, I always feel more can be done,” says Bhattacharya, who says he was impressed by how the travel community reacted.
His next goal? To use his influence to show potential travelers that countries near the conflict, like Poland, are not dangerous to visit. “All these countries are supporting refugees, and need the support of tourism more than ever,” he says.
“When you hear about people canceling trips to Poland, it’s sad. The best thing people can do is travel to these places, and to meet refugees.”
‘If you have a company, you have social responsibilities’
As one of Europe’s trendiest destinations, Berlin is full to the gills of sassy hotels. Among them are the eight AMANO properties — which are now open to refugees, who can stay for free.
The group has also been donating things like soap, blankets and other essentials to the Ukraine borders, thanks to a German-Ukrainian designer who was organizing trucks to take supplies there from the start of the crisis, says co-founder Ariel Schiff. Initially, the group housed around 25 of those truck drivers at their hotels. As refugees have started arriving in Berlin, the doors have been opened to them, too.
“There’s no question — it’s natural that you should help,” says Schiff, when talking about why he took the decision. “It’s nothing special — if there are people who need help, there’s no question that you should. And if you have a company, you also have social responsibilities.”
Many refugees have arrived in Berlin already, and the group is trying to help out wherever they have availability.
“Sometimes [volunteers] call at 10 p.m. and say, we have three women and kids on the street — I call my manager and tell them, you have three women and three kids coming. Or managers are asking me, and until no it’s never been a ‘no.’
“Sometimes we’re sold out, but in the end you can always find one or two rooms.”
Schiff says that Berliners have stepped up across the board during the crisis.
“We have a hotel near the central station, and it’s amazing how many people are going there to help. I have a lot of employees who go there after work. There’s suddenly solidarity that I haven’t seen for years. There’s nothing nice about this war, but everybody is concerned and everybody is thinking about what they can do to help. If there’s anything nice, it’s this.”
‘It’s mirroring what we went through in World War II’
As one of 2022’s European Capitals of Culture, Kaunas — Lithuania’s second city — was preparing for the spotlight this year.
Its theme — “From Temporary to Contemporary,” sparked by Kaunas’ status as temporary Lithuanian capital, while Vilnius was claimed by Poland between World Wars I and II — planned to tackle the city’s difficult history. In World War II, Kaunas was occupied by the Nazis, while it was later annexed to the Soviet Union, with the ‘Kaunas Spring’ 1972 uprising brutally put down. A year’s worth of exhibits revolving around occupation and war, with participants from Marina Abramovic to William Kentridge and Yoko Ono, had been drawn up.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was strongly felt because Kaunas had been there before, says Mindaugas Reinikis, head of marketing and communication for the Capital of Culture project.
“What is happening now is, in a very sad way, the right context,” he says. “It’s mirroring what we went through in World War II — the players and characters are changing, and the nations are a little different, but the atrocities are the same — it’s one crazy dictator trying to wipe out other nations. That actualizes [brings to life] our program.”
They have seen a 30% increase in ticket sales to the events since the Russian invasion started. “War is still very raw in Kaunas. Now we are 95% Lithuanians, but before World War II Kaunas was 30% Jews,” says Reinikis.
While the events take on new resonance, the project is putting a new focus on Ukrainian culture with its new project, CulturEUkraine.
The city’s old central post office — a modernist masterpiece, that was already an exhibition venue — has been draped in the colors of the Ukraine flag, with the third floor turned into a space where refugees can create, as well as regroup, and get practical and psychological help. There will also be a space for artists in residence, once refugees feel able to create, so visitors can get closer to Ukrainian culture. They have already had enquiries from theater companies and individual artists.
The city has already held a concert at which three classical musicians from Ukraine played. They have now found work in the Kaunas and Vilnius Philharmonics.
Reinikis’ aim is to use this year’s tourism boom to keep the focus on the situation, and to preserve Ukrainian culture in the rapidly growing diaspora. He hopes the Capital of Culture status will start a public debate of “what platforms we can offer.” He adds: “The center is not a zoo, but we do hope that it’ll become an incubator, and that some arts initiatives or new collectives will emerge, and that we can create a platform where they can create.”
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