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‘We took a leap of faith and we’re enjoying it,’ say Kildare couple hosting Ukrainians

Retired GPs describe experience as an ‘enriching reward’

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Joe and Ester Crilly with one of their Ukrainian house guests, Oksana. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Joe and Ester Crilly with one of their Ukrainian house guests, Oksana. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Joe and Ester Crilly with one of their Ukrainian house guests, Oksana. Photo: Steve Humphreys

When retired GPs Joe and Ester Crilly offered to share their home with a refugee Ukrainian couple, they “didn’t know what to expect”.

We had a house with space, there was a tragedy going on in Europe, as a nation we were helping and this is the way we could help,” said Dr Crilly, who met his wife when they were studying medicine in Trinity College Dublin in the 1970s.

“It just didn’t feel right to retain a house for two of us when we could put up two more people – and it has all worked out fine.”

Dr and Mrs Crilly are 72 and 71 respectively. Their house guests, Oksana and Oleksandr, who joined them in September at their home in Athgarvan, Co Kildare, are in their 40s.

While the two couples do not speak each other’s language, the refugees who fled the war in Ukraine are now learning English and Google Translate helps with chat over dinner.

Mrs Crilly, who said she and her husband indulged their love of sailing after they retired from practice in Newbridge, explained: “I said to Joe if we can share a boat with people sailing, we can surely to do this house share.

“I say take life as it comes, and we are delighted to be a support. We took a leap of faith and we are enjoying it. I would definitely say it has enriched our lives and we would encourage people to do similar.”

Since being matched with their house guests through Helping Irish Hosts (HIH), which has placed 1,100 Ukrainians with more than 400 families here, the Crillys have opened their home as well as sharing their circle of friends and a network of support in Newbridge.

“Joe and I honestly don’t feel that we’ve done more than taking that initial leap to agree to share our house with Oksana and Oleksandr. They made it easy for us. Quiet resilience is embedded in them as we get to know them,” Mrs Crilly said.

She introduced Oksana to swimming in the stretch of the Liffey that flows through Newbridge, and her guest also joined her with Tidy Towns work. 

Oksana and Oleksandr attend weekly English lessons in Newbridge Parish Centre that are organised by Sr Eileen and run voluntarily by retired teachers.

Oleksandr does some gardening with Dr Crilly, but the couples also give each other space.

Since getting jobs in a nearby Lidl warehouse, the Ukrainian couple are up at 6.30am and out the door at 8am to cycle across the Curragh.

Mrs Crilly said: “Oksana is a whizz in the kitchen – it has been keeping me on my toes and we enjoy cooking together, and Oksana sang Ukrainian folk songs beside the fire after she helped make Christmas puddings with the family.”

Distressing news followed the couple to Ireland as Oleksandr’s father died after being hit by shrapnel in Ukraine.

HIH, whose website is helpingirishhosts.com, was formed by a group of hosts working with displaced and Irish-based Ukrainians to get people into Irish homes quickly and give them a soft landing while avoiding direct provision and long-term hotel accommodation. 

Mrs Crilly said if people were interested in it, “taking that leap isn’t as big as you might think it’s going to be, and it can work out that everyone is very happy – I actually think of people that were my patients, that are living on their own, that might actually enjoy it”.

Using Google Translate, Oksana explained how they lived in a small town in the Kharkiv region with all their relatives nearby. She worked at a plant that produced dairy products and Oleksandr worked on the railway.

“There is no doubt that what we like most about Ireland is the people,” she said. “They are fantastic – so open, positive, always ready to help. Their activity in the social sphere and sociability is fascinating.”

Having never been outside Ukraine before their town was occupied by Russian troops, Oksana and Oleksandr ended up travelling here separately, and it was nearly two months before “we met in this blessed country”.

“We could take only the most necessary things and documents with us on the road,” Oksana said. “As a reminder of our homeland, we only have photos in our phones.

“We were lucky that a real Irish family hosted us in their cosy home. We spend a lot of time together. I personally like to cook dinner with Ester. Oleksandr likes to watch football matches on TV with Joe.

“Our Irish family really enjoyed my cabbage dishes. There was borscht and beetroot salad with garlic and mayonnaise, and for Christmas I have already promised to prepare cabbage rolls, a traditional Ukrainian dish.”

Oksana is greatly relieved that her daughter, Oltha, is also in Ireland and she and her dog, Thor, will be joining the Crillys for Christmas.

“We hope that the war in Ukraine will end soon,” Oksana said. “We will return to our homes and jobs. Ukraine will need our hands to restore it, so that it becomes even better than it was before the attack.”


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