KYIV - As thousands of football (soccer) fans have swarmed into Ukraine for the Euro 2012 championships, many have found an unexpected bonus - a free place to stay, and a chance to interact with ordinary Ukrainians. “Rooms for free” is a volunteer movement that has emerged in Ukrainian cities where the tournament's matches are being held. Opening their homes to foreign guests, Ukrainians are trying to improve what they feel is a negative international image of their country.
Ukraine has never seen such a large number of foreign visitors, making the Euro 2012 championship a celebration - as well as a challenge. When it became obvious the visiting football fans would overwhelm the country's limited hotel space, Ukrainian citizens decided to lend a hand - by inviting them to stay in their homes.
One of those fans is Bjarne Luther, a 39-year-old Danish businessman. When Luther found that hotel prices in Ukraine had soared five-fold during the Euro championship, he thought about canceling his plans.
But through an Internet site, he met Maryana and Dmytro Lytovchenko - who volunteered space in their home to help save Ukraine's international reputation.
““On TV, I heard about this initiative “Rooms for free.” They said the prices are too high, Europeans are disappointed," said Maryana Lytovchenko.
“We thought that it was very difficult for many fans to come, because it’s too expensive," said Dmytro Lytovchenko. "And we are ready to give them such an opportunity.”
Bjarne is grateful to his hosts - for the roof over his head and for the opportunity to learn more about Ukraine.
“Everything is overpriced because of the football, so it’s very difficult to find something for reasonable money," said Luther. "That was one reason. And also, I like to travel, to meet people, to hear their life story, to understand the country more, rather than sitting in a hotel room.”
Michael Knight emigrated from Ukraine to the United States more than 40 years ago. He came to the Euro championship to support his favorite Ukrainian team, and is staying with Victoria Denysenko’s family.
“We wanted to make a kind of gesture from Ukraine," said Victoria Denysenko. "We wanted to show that, apart from the ill political side, there is a human, normal side of Ukraine.”
Knight says even though the Ukrainian football team did not do so well, Ukraine is still winning.
“This Euro is success," said knight. "Ukraine wins on a big scale. Ukraine wins on a big scale for one reason - they put it on the map in every village, in every town all over the world!”
And Knight returns the hospitality during his free time between football matches - by teaching English to kids in a local youth camp.
The idea to provide free housing had grassroots origins, says Victoria Svitlova, of the "Friendly Ukraine" organization.
“There was the initiative, which came from people, common people," said Victoria Svitlova.
And project coordinator Maxym Prodan says that - compared to other cities where Euro championships have been held, it is only in Kyiv that more than 1,000 foreign guests have been accommodated for free.
“We wanted to show that we not only have expensive hotels, but also nice and kind people who are ready to host for free," said Maxym Prodan.