A woman whose family fled to Britain to escape war has closed her seaside hotel to tourists – so it can give Ukrainian refugees a place to stay instead. Nitsa Michael, 84, is no longer taking guests at the Seaward Hotel – apart from people fleeing the war with Russia.
Her family fled from Cyprus to Britain following a Turkish invasion in 1974 and she said she wanted to do something to help people in the same horror situation. She has shut the doors to tourists at the hotel in Weston-super-Mare to provide a “home from home” for 22 Ukrainians.
Nitsa, a great-grandmother of five, said: “I felt for them – me and my family hope we’re helping them.” Her daughter Michelle Michael, 53, is in charge of running the hotel, which now has 22 refugees staying of a possible 70.
Michelle told how Nitsa, a widow, insisted “lets help, lets help in a big way, this is what I want to do.” She said: “Mum always has and still does listen to the news every day and it was really bothering her.
“She was feeling quite sad about it all, and that’s when she came up with the idea of opening the hotel to refugees. Now we are beginning to get everybody mobilised so they can go out and go into the community themselves.
“Our aim and aspiration is to build a small community of like-minded people that look after the place like it’s their home. They share meals and time together, and basically they heal together. We’ve been brought up to help give people what they want and need.
“Mum can’t do that herself now but her desire to help so many people is commendable and I will do everything I can to make what she wants to happen, happen. She remembers her own family going though this and it’s very important that she feels she has been able to help in some way.
“Our mantra is always that we want to make a difference to people’s lives. Seeing all the people staying here and how happy they now are, it’s all due to her.”
Nitsa left Cyprus for the UK in 1955 to marry Axentis, who had moved to the UK a few years earlier. The couple moved to London where Nitsa worked as a seamstress and Axentis a chef before eventually moving to the South West where they took over the Seaward Hotel. They made it their family home where they raised their four children.
Over the years several of Nitsa’s family also moved across to the UK as well. But in 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus, most of Axentis’ family who remained in Cyprus became refugees and were forced to flee their homes.
Michelle, who was a child at the time, said: “We had no way of knowing if my father’s family were dead or alive because there was no connectivity. Everyone fled their homes with nothing to their names – we sent out chests of supplies, but nobody knew if they had been received.”
Nitsa and Axentis felt a duty to help out – and they took in around 16 refugees, some family and some strangers, who had nowhere else to go. Michelle said: “They did everything they could to help – they were always prepared to open their doors. It wasn’t something they even questioned.”
Eventually, some of Axentis’ family managed to get into the UK to rebuild their lives, while others relocated from the North to the South of Cyprus to do the same. The awful situation back then resonated with Nitsa, now 84, who saw the similarities between what her family faced and what those fleeing Ukraine are facing now.
The hotel shut during the pandemic and had only seen a trickle of local customers staying for work since re-opening. Michelle registered the hotel on the Homes For Ukraine scheme, and before they knew it, they were welcoming their first refugee.
“I know I’m in safety”
Yuliia, 31, now lives in the hotel with her husband and their dog after she left their home in Berdyansk in south eastern Ukraine when the explosions started in February. The city remains under Russian military occupation.
She had to leave behind her parents, and had not spoken to them for a month prior to arriving at the Seaward Hotel on April 29. She said: “This life here is very good, and I’m very glad to be in this country.
“But it is very hard when my parents or friends call from Ukraine and I don’t know what to say, I know I’m in safety.
“Here, I have all I need, I can go to the shop, but I know it is hard for them there. Here we have a hotel, a room, a shower, a kitchen and many other things – we also have the sea.”
Since arriving in the UK she has been provided with a phone to speak to her family back at home and she could finally communicate with her parents and brother again. There is a WhatsApp group set up for the other families who have arrived at the hotel since and Yuliia helps to translate Michelle’s messages for the other refugees.
Michelle said: “Yuliia has been a great help to us, she does anything she can to assist. It speaks volumes on how grateful she is to be here.”
Michelle and the team provide the refugees with welcome packs on their beds with essentials such as shower gels and deodorants. She explained the local council have provided £200 per head to allow each refugee to mobilise themselves, such as getting a National Insurance number and opening a bank account.
Nitsa visits the hotel once a week and makes sure to meet every guest and listen to their stories. She loves to see the children around in the hotel as it reminds her of raising her own four children there – and it has brought the hotel back to life.
Any refugees in need of accommodation can find Seaward Hotel listed on the Government’s Homes For Ukraine scheme. To donate in order to help the hotel keep supporting refugees, visit the website to get in touch http://www.seawardhotel.co.uk/