The impact of the war has been far-reaching and has divided our lives into before and after February 24, 2022. Nevertheless, it has also brought Ukraine together as a nation, and we express our continued support to all Ukrainians who were compelled to leave the country for the UK due to the conflict. We at OPORA are inspired, moved, and energised by every single Ukrainian choir started, every child that got a safe space to go to school, every pound, dollar, and hryvna raised to support the Army, every picture painted or story told about Ukrainian culture and history, the participation in marches and protests, and support of loved ones who protect Ukraine right now.
We have faith that the narratives presented in this article will provide encouragement and empowerment to persist in our support for Ukraine and its people until victory is achieved.
Olena's story started in 2014 in Donetsk. Russian forces took over and violently persecuted anyone who spoke Ukrainian or supported Ukraine, which forced her family to leave everything and move around Ukraine. Finally, they settled in Kramatorsk, bought an apartment, and worked there for three years. Olena wrote in her letter to us:
“But on February 24, 2022, Russia began bombing peaceful cities in Ukraine, including Kramatorsk. We escaped the shelling for 4 days. My son was able to take me to Lviv. And thanks to the British Homes for Ukraine program, I am in Nottingham. My son joined the defence of Ukraine. In peaceful life, my son was one of the best dancers. Therefore, in the army, he received the call sign "Dancer." It has been almost a year since he has been defending his country. My son did not want war, but he needed to defend his land, and his country. Nine months on the front line. During this time, he and his fellow soldiers from the 125th brigade liberated the Kharkiv region, and fought near Bakhmut against the Russian horde. Many Ukrainian soldiers gave their lives for the freedom and independence of Ukraine, to not be slaves of Moscow. Glory to the heroes.”
Tanya and her children (8 and 13 y.o.) are from Kyiv. They arrived in the village of Llanasa in Northern Wales and have been with their British family since April 21st, 2022. Tanya wants to give her children a normal childhood and continue their education offline while also allowing them to socialize with peers. Her older son is a student council member at his school and has been named student of the week three times. She told us her story:
“After 2 months, we were already living separately in a house in the small town of Prestatyn. Both of my sons have successfully integrated into their schools, participate in extracurricular activities, and have made friends.
As for me, I work as a teacher's assistant in a middle school, go to the gym, and actively engage in volunteer activities with like-minded people, which I would like to tell you more about.
Our group is now called "Spirit of Ukraine". It all started with Elena's initiative, who has been living here for a long time and wanted to support our refugees here and Ukraine as a whole.
We rallied around the idea of raising money and sending it to Ukraine to help the military, while also telling the British about our wonderful country, its traditions, history, musicians, and more. We also wanted to show what life used to be like and what is happening now.
In July 2014, Lyudmila and her daughter were evacuated from the occupied city of Donetsk to Kyiv. Last year this family had to flee danger for the second time. In April, they came to London due to the war and found their peaceful shelter in an English family home.
“Since August 2022, I have been working as a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature at St. Mary's Ukrainian School. I am very happy to have the opportunity to teach children our "nightingale language", our traditions, and culture abroad.
My daughters, Olena and Olha, often participate in marches and protests in support of Ukraine. We also donate to various projects to support our army and animal shelters.
Currently, we have made an agreement with an organization that will help us make banners for the march on February 24, 2023. And we will definitely be there!
Glory to Ukraine!”
Lera is a Ukrainian mom; her daughter Olivia was six years old when the war started. They left their home and family in Ukraine. Before they arrived in the UK, they passed through a lot of bureaucracy to gain permission to enter the country. For Lera, the most important thing is her daughter’s peaceful childhood, despite the many difficulties during her way.
“We waited a long time for a visa, and the BBC even interviewed us about it. I left Ukraine for my daughter, so she could be safe and have a proper childhood. In England, we live in a village, it's cozy and peaceful. We're lucky to have the best hosts, they've become like family to us. And most people I've met here are very pleasant and kind. My daughter's father is in Ukraine, and we miss him and home, but we feel safe here. We go with our hosts to visit their friends, and we go on holidays together. We try to live and enjoy life as much as possible. We're waiting to go back home. We believe in our army and our victory.”
Inna is from Sumy, the region where active fighting between the Ukrainian army and Russian soldiers occurred on the first day of the war. On March 7th, Ukrainian soldiers settled in her family house to protect this territory and avoid advancing Russian soldiers further into Ukrainian territory. Inna is currently in the UK with her two children.
“We only had electric heating and underfloor heating, and all 40 people in the house were using it. I am very happy that our soldiers were warm and comfortable and that it didn't come to any fighting on our street.
But when they left the house, I received a considerable electricity bill warning that legal action would be taken against me if I didn't pay. We lost our jobs in Ukraine, and now I am in the UK with my two children. I found a job here and am trying to pay off this debt somehow.
I am pleased that there was no fighting on our street after all, and I believe in our victory!”
When the war started, Olena’s son was 14 years old, and her daughter was 6. School and movies could not prepare them for the realities of war. The constant fear for loved ones, difficulty accepting reality, and high stakes decision-making were beyond imagination. On February 24th sirens blared, signalling for people to seek shelter from tank shells and gunfire. Olena’s mother-in-law who was undergoing chemotherapy at the time, was discharged from the hospital due to the danger of shelling. The city was surrounded, and they had to search for food and medicine without hope of restocking. Pharmacies had long lines with the uncertain inventory.
Olena and her children feared every siren and froze at the sound of planes flying. Their unsuitable basement led them to hide the children in the bathroom with books, lanterns, and even a hammock in the hallway. Olena held back panic attacks for the sake of her children.
"We decided that the children and I should find a safe place... Looking back on the past year (11 months since I left home), two questions come to mind:
How could I have done this?How was I ABLE to do this?
I have always been good at cultivating feelings of guilt within myself. Therefore, the first question still haunts me and sometimes multiplies and spreads at the speed of light. How could I leave and abandon a part of my family? How can I live in separation without the opportunity to help my loved ones? How can I accept and accept what is happening at home? How do I start sleeping at night and not wake up every hour with anxious thoughts, feverishly checking messages and news?
I have not found answers to these questions yet, and I am not sure they will come soon. However, the answer to the second question came from my experience of the past year. How could I radically change my life and my family's life in an instant? I never suspected I had so much determination and inner strength regarding my children's safety. Now I see all stories about strong and determined women from a completely different perspective. But I know for sure that I would not have dared to take this step without the support of my loved one. It was he who pushed the determination that was sleeping in me. It was the support of my family that inspired me and did not let me give up. My children are my wings, my family is my sky.
Endless five weeks of waiting for a visa passed for me as if in a fog. Now it seems to me that I lived them on autopilot, on one resource for survival. I tried to support my children as much as possible, bring a little normalcy and peace. We visited all possible museums and landmarks so as not to go crazy waiting. My son gave me fantastic support, and I think these five weeks turned him into a real man.
The next stage was moving to another country and immersing ourselves in a different culture and language. When I studied English at school and with my children, I couldn't even imagine how different it would be from real English in Britain. Sometimes my brain just melted from trying to understand and form a response. But even with this, I was able to cope and learn the language to communicate and start learning.
This is not a thank you post, but I cannot help but say how grateful I am to the people who welcomed us, as well as to everyone I have met. We did not expect such enormous support and empathy (not just sympathy, although there was a lot of that).
No words can express all the emotions and feelings.”
Olha is from Irpin, which she had to leave on the first day of the war. From the very first day, she didn't want to leave her home, but the famous Bridge explosion, whose photo went around the world, left her no choice. Olha traveled through Moldova, Romania, Poland, and spent some time on Madeira Island before arriving in the UK, where she has now been for over six months. She told us:
“I was in despair, staying with a friend in Poland, not wanting to go to any of the countries that opened their doors to Ukrainians. I only wanted to go home.
But Irpin was occupied, and I decided that if not at home, then it doesn't matter where. I evaluated my experience and development opportunities and went where I could learn something that would later be useful in Ukraine. Some knowledge, experience, culture, understanding, maybe even a business idea. These searches eventually led me to the UK. Different society, different traditions, way of life, views, movement.
I tried to actively integrate into the local community. Fortunately, my hosts (active retirees) involved me in various events. I saw how society functions here: how volunteering is a driving force of local community activity, how they approach civic responsibility, and how they organize their leisure time.
Inspired by the local culture, I created a choir. Completely amateur and from scratch. I'm not a musician and only sang in a choir in school (and not for long). But I felt that I could create conditions for restoring leisure for Ukrainians, which is much needed here.
Currently, there is a Ukrainian choir "Spivochi" in Maidenhead. We sing in Ukrainian and English, have regular rehearsals, and even small performances. On Fridays, we go to a pub to relax.
Now I firmly understand that everyone should give something back to society in their own way and to the best of their abilities, and we will build a society of the best Ukrainians that our homeland has seen. I believe in this and act on it.
Act on it too!”
On the morning of February 24th, Yulia Kalenyk left her home in the Kyiv region with her husband, daughter, and mother, who lived nearby. For the first month, Yulia’s family stayed near Uzhgorod. She contacted the local cultural center, which assisted refugees. Every day, she helped with sorting clothes and helping refugees who arrived in this region. A woman from Kharkiv asked Yulia if she could work with her to distract herself from her traumatic experiences. This woman had spent two weeks in a basement with her children, barely escaping. They started working together, and more women eventually joined them.
After arriving and settling in Leicester, Yulia did not stop volunteering and supporting Ukrainian refugees there. Yulia’s story:
“I created a group for Ukrainians in our area and added anyone I met to it. Currently, there are over 50 people in the group. We participate in fairs and sell Ukrainian dishes that we make ourselves, raising €250 that we donated to the Sergiy Prytula Foundation. I found a place to rent and organize meetings for Ukrainians once every 1-2 weeks, where we can get together, talk, and let the children spend time with each other. A few weeks ago, I organized a meeting specifically for women refugees who had left their husbands at home and were now alone with their children. It was an art therapy session where we drew, beaded, and knitted. The goal was to relieve some of the heavy thoughts and spend time together. I also had an idea to organize a cinema for Ukrainian families, where they can watch cartoons or movies in Ukrainian language together with their children. I found a venue at the Academy located near us, where people who are eager to help refugees work, so they are providing drinks and snacks for free for this event. We have booked their hall with a large screen for March and April. My husband and I (he had the right to cross the border, as our daughter has a disability) provide information and psychological support to all newly arrived Ukrainian refugees and help them in any way we can. We have given two interviews about the lives of Ukrainian refugees for BBC Radio Leicester. Now I aim to organise the delivery of children's literature for kids in the UK, as it is extremely important for them not to forget their native language and Ukrainian letters, and getting a book in Ukrainian language here is a bit problematic. I am confident that I can gather some books from Ukraine through acquaintances, but the question is how to deliver them here to the UK, as it will be a heavy load, and delivery will have a high cost.”
Alina arrived in Manchester from Kiev on August 5th and within a week had already joined her first ‘Manchester Stands with Ukraine’ rally, which has been taking place every Saturday for over 50 weeks now at Piccadilly Gardens.
"Right now, I am responsible for preparing the script. Usually, it's about preparing news for the week. I am also one of the rally's hosts. In Ukraine, I worked as a journalist and news anchor on television, so this activity at rallies is very close to me. At the same time, I help Metro.co.uk to cover stories about Ukraine. I search for topics and conduct interviews with heroes. At the end of January, I was invited to translate the speech of the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, on the stage of the Ukrainian club Dnipro”.
Andriy shared a story about a charity organization created in Sep 2022. They send camouflage nets and help homeless Ukrainians and military personnel in Zaporizhzhia. The team is small but productive, with Veronika Repina as the leader and co-founders assisting in legal matters and PR management. The Repin family handles item deliveries. To address the issue of under-equipped units in Zaporizhzhia, they connected directly with the units and coordinated with the Volunteer Headquarters. English businesses donate funds for tax benefits and support the initiative. The team is working hard to establish the charity fund in England.
“Sean Curry and Paul Dearing have been a great support for the project and contribute daily to bringing us closer to our great Victory. As Britons, they are a living embodiment of friendship between our peoples and ties between states. They have become great patriots of Ukraine abroad. In a relatively short time, we have raised over 6,000 pounds, purchased 95 sets of thermal underwear, 10 boxes of medicines, generators, charging stations, high-quality thermal suits for soldiers, winter camouflage suits, medicine, clothes for those who have lost their homes and children's homes that have taken in children from occupied cities. Our goal now is to become an official charity organization, expand our team to be able to involve more donors, and help more divisions. Because we see that the amount needed is growing quickly.”
The other activity on the Zaporizhzhia front as part of a volunteer association in Leeds led by Veronika Repina is weaving camouflage nets for soldiers. The team includes men and women, some of whom are defending our country. The aim is to provide a useful opportunity for those who cannot donate financially to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The nets fill specific gaps in existing initiatives and use the best materials to ensure quality camouflage.
“We faced many challenges and difficulties. The main difficulty was rapid logistics. But we found several ways of delivery, and now the soldiers are receiving our work promptly. It was also difficult to find critically important things for the start, such as a frame for weaving or the net itself, which was the basis for weaving. However, through communication, trial, and error, we were able to overcome all this, learn to weave high-quality nets, and, most importantly, weave them quickly!”