My Ukrainian Friends

Just over a year ago, and much to the surprise of everyone, including his own generals, President Putin gave the order to invade Ukraine. He apparently believed, mistakenly, that his army would swiftly topple the government in Kyiv and that the Ukrainian people would hail their invaders as liberators from a supposedly corrupt Nazi regime. Or, at least that was the justification he gave to the Russian people.

Initially around 18m, nearly all women and children fled the country, terrified for their lives. However the government and the capital did not fall to the Russians and this has emboldened around 10m to return to their homeland. And of those 8m remaining Ukrainian refugees, around 138,000 are here in the UK.

Many of those will have come to join friends or family already living here of which there are around 35,000. This is the story of my two Ukrainian friends, Olena who came as an immigrant 14 years ago, and her cousin Olya who fled Ukraine in March 2022 and who came as a refugee to the UK via Poland..

Olena arrived in the UK on a student visa. To pay her way she worked as a nanny and looked after my grandson Patrick with a neighbour's child. As a besotted new granny, I couldn’t get enough of my darling grandson, so I would join Olena at around 4pm most days and stay until my daughter arrived home about two hours later. I found Olena utterly delightful. She was brilliant with the two toddlers and we struck up a firm friendship with me helping her to integrate and master the language. This involved discussing books that I suggested she read and trips to the cinema and to the Tate gallery.


Olena with Patrick

I thought you might be interested to hear their stories of when, how and why they both left their homeland of Ukraine and their experience of our country.

Olena’s Story.

I arrived in the UK on December 18th 2008 on a student visa. I came from the Ternopil region in a very little town called Kopychyntsi in the west part of Ukraine. I graduated from university with a bachelor (honours) degree in Pedagogical Education (teacher of English) and decidedto come to England to improve my English, to experience a different life, traditions and culture, not even guessing that this country will become my second home. Besides, I always wanted to visit London, it was my dream.

When I entered the UK, I fell in love with this country at first sight. I loved everything about London, the streets, the houses, the shops and mostly people, they were all very friendly, kind and willing to help. It was also a magical period of time as it was December and everybody was getting ready for Christmas. I was amazed by the decorations on the streets and with the music which played in every shop, street, and tube. I still remember that magical spirit and how impressed I was.

The people were very polite and would say ‘ thank you’ and ‘please’ all the time for everything and for nothing which was lovely because that made me feel how people should love and respect each other and those changes happened from my first day being in London.

So I was studying English as a Foreign Language at Kingston College and working part time at Portobello market in Notting Hill, selling vegetarian food. I did like that experience a lot, I have met different people: extraordinary, open minded, with different views and life stories. I worked there for a few months and then started looking after children. My first job was with Tricia’s daughter and her Australian neighbour and then another English family. The people treated me very well and we have built amazing long term relationships as I especially loved looking after the children, and many of them are now teenagers.

I was so busy organising my life in this beautiful city that I didn't even notice that the time passed so quickly! I came to the UK with a plan to improve my English and to experience life, and today I am so happy to say that I am now officially a citizen of this country. The Home Office finally granted me Indefinite Leave to Remain in October 2021.

Today is the most horrible time for my native country and for all Ukrainian people. It’s been one year of horror since Russia invaded Ukraine and brought sorrow, sadness and grief to my country. The horror and pain that people have had to experience will never be forgiven.

Lots of my friends and their relatives are fighting in the war at the moment, as well as some of my cousins. I wholeheartedly believe in our victory. I’m grateful to England for helping the Ukrainian Army to fight the Russians and being kind, generous, and supportive to all those refugees who have fled here from Ukraine. This is why I fell in love with this country, because I was amazed and impressed by people who lived here”’

Olya’s Story

“When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24th February 2022, I was living in my little town Kopychyntsi, Ternopil region which is in the west part of Ukraine. I am 33 years old and at that time I worked in an office for visa applications. I wholeheartedly hoped, right up to the last minute, that the war would not start, that it was just Putin’s threats, but in the morning before going to work, a call from my older brother Bohdan scared me to death as he was saying that the war was raging.

That Thursday 24th of February turned my whole life upside down and with it any hope of continuing to live in my wonderful home country. I told my mother with tears in my eyes about the invasion and everyone started panicking, running to the grocery store with fear, because they didn’t know what would happen next, and at that moment all they could only think about was how to survive.

I had a warm basement at home and my brother’s family came to us with his children and we slept all together in the basement of the house. Above all, I remember the look in the eyes of my nephew and niece, who understood everything, but remained silent.

We thought for a long time whether or not to leave the country. On the fifth day of the war, on Monday evening, I decided to go to Poland to stay with my mother’s cousin. The following day, my brother’s wife decided she would come with me, so, at three o’clock in the afternoon, we said goodbye to my mother and my brother took us to the Polish border. It is difficult for me to convey in words what emotions my brother’s children felt when they realised that their father could not go with them, and that they had to say goodbye.

On Wednesday evening, we were in Poland with our family but not for long because my sister-in-law and her two children were going to Portugal to stay with her parents. I decided to go to Switzerland to stay with my cousin (Olena’s brother) who was visiting his family for a holiday. At that time, we did not know if it would be possible to apply for a visa to the UK. .Every day we hoped that the war would not last long, that someone would stop Russia and we would not have to go anywhere.

After spending two weeks in Poland, I went to Switzerland and spent another two weeks there and then my cousin Olena called us to say that the UK had opened their border to Ukrainian refugees and she immediately offered to help me with a visa application. After five days I got my permission letter to enter the UK and I travelled to London in April.

I was met by my cousin Olena. We hadn’t seen each other for four years and I met her daughter for the first time. It was a warm meeting. We grieved for a long time because of all the circumstances that happened in Ukraine. From the very beginning I was planning to stay with Olena, to find any job to make a living and then to find a room to rent which was very expensive. Then one day we went to the park and met a Ukrainian woman, Alina, who told us about her neighbours, an English couple in their 70s, who were looking to help a Ukrainian refugee in London by offering a free room in their house.

As my cousin’s flat was not big enough for all of us to stay together we agreed to visit this family. To be honest I was feeling a bit nervous as I didn’t know what to expect and my English was very poor... but when we met this lovely English couple, I felt very welcomed which made me feel much calmer. We had a little discussion and agreed that after the Ukrainian Easter I would move in to live with them. It’s been ten months since I‘ve been living with my English family, I’ve become almost like a daughter to them. They took me to a few places in the UK and I met their family which was a great experience to have. I think I’m very lucky with my host family, after 6 months they offered for me to stay with them for as long as I want.


Olya and her host family

I now work as a cleaner in private houses.. I work for extremely kind people who show me understanding and share my pain related to the war in Ukraine. I also know that I’m not the best cleaner, but I do my best and my clients support me. I would really like to improve my language and take a florist course and work in a flower shop. I am also currently studying English at South Thames College and a private tutor who is a friend of my host family comes to teach me once a week.

I am very happy in London at the moment. There are so many opportunities here. Life is busy and vibrant. I made a few new friends and I have also met a very nice guy from Odessa and we spend some time together. My dearest wish right now would be to go to Ukraine for a week to visit my mother and my brother.”

We hear much in some parts of the press about ‘the migrant crisis’ which often feels dehumanising. That rhetoric is surely the worst of us as a country. Thankfully Olena and Olya have a different story to tell of the kindness, generosity and compassion that they have experienced whilst living here. That open-heartedness is surely the best of us.

Slava Ukraini!

Tricia x

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