During one of their initial getting-to-know-you phone calls, Hannah Debenham recalls telling the Ukrainian refugee who she would soon be welcoming into her home of her hopes that together they could make something positive from the atrocity of war.
‘I told her it was our opportunity to create something lovely,’ she recalls.
Today, that sentiment is laced with bitter irony for Hannah; just three weeks after opening up her home to the 36-year-old Ukrainian woman and her ten-year-old daughter — joining thousands of other kindly Brits who have done the same — she says she found her charity abused in the most unpleasant way imaginable.
Astonishingly, the refugee whom Hannah, 44, and her husband had sponsored under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, to whom she had given money, shared meals and introduced to her friends, reported Hannah to the police — accusing her of modern slavery. It is a charge that, if upheld in court, can carry a life sentence.
The accusation was the start of a three-month nightmare for the married mother of two young sons, aged five and 11, who was only told by police at the end of last month that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.
‘I received one email,’ she says in an exclusive interview with the Mail. ‘Nothing that acknowledged that for three months my whole family had been put through the mill based on nothing but lies.
‘I have had endless sleepless nights, worrying that I would end up behind bars, and my eldest son has been traumatised. It has been horrific.’
Hannah’s story is certainly a pointed illustration of the old saying that no good deed goes unpunished. It also shows the darker side of a scheme which, while a wonderful lifesaver for vast numbers of Ukrainian families, has not been without its problems.
During one of their initial getting-to-know-you phone calls, Hannah Debenham recalls telling the Ukrainian refugee who she would soon be welcoming into her home of her hopes that together they could make something positive from the atrocity of war
While many Brits have forged enriching friendships with those to whom they have thrown open their homes, there are also those who have lived to regret their hospitality.
In July, it emerged that 29-year-old security guard Tony Garnett had left his long term partner Lorna, mother to his two daughters, for 22-year-old Ukrainian Sofiia Karkadym after she moved into the family home.
Others have spoken out about being overwhelmed at the responsibility of taking on often traumatised house guests.
‘I really wanted to help someone, but it is overwhelming the amount of support you have to give,’ one female caller told a morning breakfast radio show this summer.
Hannah admits she was, perhaps naively, unworried by the prospect of hosting a Ukrainian family in her home.
A petite and friendly regular churchgoer, the occupational therapist was raised to embrace charity and has spent her entire working life in the caring professions. So when the Government announced its rehoming scheme earlier this year, Hannah instinctively knew she wanted to take part.
She certainly has the space to do it; 18 months ago Hannah and her husband of 12 years, who also works in healthcare, moved to an eight-bedroom home in Uckfield, East Sussex, which they painstakingly set about renovating.
After approaching a Ukrainian charity, Hannah was initially matched with a woman who had a six-year-old daughter, only for the arrangement to fall through.
‘I backed out as from the start the lady was constantly asking me for money in a slightly aggressive way. It just didn’t feel right,’ Hannah recalls.
Her next port of call was a well-known website that advertises Ukrainian au pairs. ‘I thought this way I could still resettle someone but also give them a small weekly allowance for doing some babysitting,’ she says.
At the end of May, she came across the profile of a 36-year-old who cannot be named, but who we will call Katya.
An English teacher who came from the Vinnytsia region in west-central Ukraine, she responded eag-erly to Hannah’s initial message. ‘We got chatting on WhatsApp and she told me she was an English teacher who was very scared as there were bombings 30 miles away.’
Hannah told Katya she would help her apply for a visa to enter the UK and that she could also pay her to do some babysitting, as well as helping her to apply for work as a teaching assistant if she wished.
At this point, Katya mentioned she had a ten-year-old daughter whom she would like to come to the UK in the future. ‘I told her she must bring her daughter,’ Hannah recalls.
‘She wrote back that she was crying in joy.
‘Overall, she seemed excited and thankful. I was excited, too. I assumed they would become part of the family.’
Once their visa applications had been processed, Katya and her daughter flew into Heathrow on a late-night flight from Poland on June 25, and were picked up by Hannah’s husband. They were given a bedroom and bathroom of their own and had the freedom to come and go as they pleased throughout the house.
Astonishingly, the refugee whom Hannah, 44, and her husband had sponsored under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, to whom she had given money, shared meals and introduced to her friends, reported Hannah to the police
Hannah met her new house-guests for the first time the next morning. ‘She seemed very happy to be here. She gave me a bottle of Polish vodka and some fridge magnets, which I thought was very sweet.’
In those first couple of days, Hannah did everything she could to help her new guests settle in.
‘I took annual leave and helped her apply for a bank account, as well as helping to arrange a school place for her daughter.
‘I also took her shopping for food and school shoes for her daughter and gave her £160 cash — the equivalent of half her airfare — so she had money for sundry items.
‘It was lovely weather, so we had a barbecue most nights sitting in the garden. I also organised lots of play dates. Katya seemed to be making new friends locally — she went out on several evenings while we looked after her daughter.’
Initially, all seemed well, save for what Hannah saw at the time as a few blips. ‘Katya wasn’t great at cleaning up after herself,’ says Hannah. ‘Whenever she came in she would just kick her shoes off in the hall and leave all her shopping bags all over the place — and she never cleaned up after herself in the kitchen.’
Nonetheless, Hannah says she initially tried to give Katya some breathing space. ‘I knew they needed time to settle. Ultimately though I wanted the relationship to be sustainable, so after a week or so I had a quiet word and said it would be helpful if she could just put her shoes away and clean up after herself.
‘Each time she nodded, said yes, then just did it again.’
When, towards the end of Katya’s second week in her house, she continued to leave a trail of crumbs and dirty plates in her wake, Hannah says her polite request to observe some house rules was met with a tantrum.
‘I came back from a day at work to find the house in a mess, but when I said to Katya it wasn’t ideal she threatened to pack her bags and leave,’ Hannah recalls.
‘I told her that it was silly and not fair on her daughter.’
After that, says Hannah, Katya remained moody in her presence. ‘She effectively wasn’t speaking to me unless she had to. It was all rather difficult.’
Events came to a head when, towards the end of Katya’s third week with the family, she had an appointment at the benefits office in Lewes and was dismayed when Hannah could not give her a lift.
‘I was working from home that day but I had meetings so I said she would have to get the bus,’ she says. ‘She slammed the door and when she came back she walked past my room without saying a word.’
Later than evening, Hannah went to Katya’s room to ask how her benefits appointment had gone.
‘She told me they had been approved but she still seemed very unhappy. It was odd,’ says Hannah.
‘At this point I mentioned it wasn’t nice to slam the door and, again, she said she was going to pack her bags.
‘I told her not to be silly, but if she was unhappy in our home, rather than making threats to leave, we should try to work something out for a few weeks in the future to give her time to make other plans. She just shrugged.’
Hannah left her guest to calm down and did not see her again until the following morning, when Katya got up unusually early.
‘She often didn’t get up until 8.15am, so I usually gave her daughter breakfast and got her ready for school, but this time she was up at 6am,’ says Hannah.
‘I thought she might be turning over a new leaf.’ In a rush to leave for work, Hannah said a hurried goodbye assuming she would see Katya back at home that evening.
Far from it. Instead, after a morning of back-to-back meetings, Hannah switched on her phone to see multiple missed calls and voicemails from her husband.
‘He had been trying to reach me all morning to tell me he had been trying to leave for work when the police had arrived. They were still with him and told me I had to ring back urgently,’ Hannah recalls.
Her heart sinking, she called back — only to be passed on to one of the police officers who told her they needed to talk to her on an allegation of modern slavery.
‘It felt like the whole world had fallen in on me. I literally couldn’t believe what I was hearing,’ she says, her eyes filling with tears.
‘I asked what on earth he was talking about.’
A bewildered Hannah could only listen to the list of allegations: Katya had reported her for forced labour, claiming she had been forced to clean the house and provide full-time childcare.
‘It was all complete lies,’ she says. ‘We hadn’t once asked her to clean the house and, in the entire three weeks she was there, she did no more than a few hours’ babysitting because my eldest was in school and my youngest goes to full-time nursery.
‘Even so, the policeman told me it was a very serious allegation that could carry a life sentence and that the next step was a formal interview, possibly under caution.
‘I put the phone down feeling sick to my stomach.’
After stumbling through the rest of her work day, Hannah returned home to find Katya’s room cleared out. ‘My husband and I were both in shock,’ she says. ‘It felt so personal as we had both sponsored her — but she had only accused me.
‘I woke up every day feeling sick to my stomach, praying I would get a message that the investigation would be dropped.
‘I just couldn’t believe I was in this situation.
‘I’ve spent my career looking after vulnerable people — and now that same career was under threat by these false allegations.’
An agonising month passed before Hannah was called in for a follow-up interview by officers attached to the police modern slavery team based in Eastbourne.
‘From the start the tone was confrontational,’ she says.
‘At one point the officer said did I know that au pairs were not meant to bring their children and did I regret that?
‘I pointed out there was a war, and that Katya and her daughter had been rehomed under an official government scheme, but even if they hadn’t I could never regret bringing a ten-year-old girl to safety.’
After a 90-minute grilling, Hannah was told the investigation would take longer than anticipated.
‘Once again, I was left hanging as to whether I was going to be prosecuted. It seemed like madness that this would happen, but then the whole situation was mad so I couldn’t take away the possibility that I might end up behind bars.’
Her elder son, she says — whom she had to tell about the allegation because he could be called as a witness — was also distraught.
‘He asked was I in trouble and was constantly asking about it after that,’ she says, her eyes once again filling with tears.
‘He was incredibly anxious.’
It was another two months until, last month, Hannah received an email from the police telling her there was insufficient evidence to charge her. ‘The relief was immense — but it was quickly replaced by anger.’
That anger is directed at both the police, who she believes were unnecessarily heavy-handed and, of course, at Katya.
‘Her daughter is still attending school here, which suggests she is still in the area,’ she says.
‘Every time I take my youngest to the playground, my heart is in my mouth.’
What on earth could have lain behind her accusation? ‘Whatever her circumstances at home there was no justification for what she did,’ says Hannah.
‘It’s hard not to think she was motivated by malice. How else can I explain it? I think she looked at what I had and was jealous.’
When approached by the Mail, Katya did not respond to a request to comment.
For all that, Hannah insists she refuses to let what happened dent her belief in charity.
‘I think about the new opportunities Katya’s little girl has been given over here, and to have been a part of that is wonderful,’ she says.
‘It’s good to be kind — but I’m not doing it again.’