Two years of war in Ukraine: How Greater Manchester is supporting Russia fight – and what more can be done

For the Ukrainian community remembering is not an annual event, but a daily necessity.
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A wave of blue and yellow flags made its way through Manchester on Saturday, with hundreds of Ukrainians and supporters marking the two-year anniversary of Russia’s all-out invasion.

The procession ended at Piccadilly Gardens, where members of the community have been gathering weekly since the war began. For them, remembering is not an annual event, but a daily necessity. Many people in attendance have loved ones back in Ukraine, having fled their homes and found refuge in the UK thanks to the Homes for Ukraine visa scheme. 

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Two years of war have taken their toll on Ukraine. Entire cities like Mariupol. Avdiivka, Bakhmut and Popasna have been reduced to rubble and around 18% of the country’s territory is currently occupied by Russia, according to the Institute for the Study of War. The human cost is equally terrifying. President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on Sunday that 31,000 soldiers have been killed, while the UN estimates the civilian death toll to be at least 10,000. Around 19,000 children have also been kidnapped and taken forcibly to Russia.

Manchester's Ukrainian community march in honour of the war's second anniversary. Manchester's Ukrainian community march in honour of the war's second anniversary.
Manchester's Ukrainian community march in honour of the war's second anniversary.

Despite this wide-scale devastation, Ukraine’s resolve to fight on remains. As Petro Rewko, chairman of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain told Manchester World: “It's still heart breaking, it's still depressing, we just want it to be over, but we've got to soldier on positively because if we sow that first seed of doubt, Ukraine will lose.

“We have to stay positive that Ukraine will win. There are elements of time when you can laugh and smile, but it all comes back that there is a war still going on, but we will get to the end.”

One of the main messages at the anniversary rally was one of thanks. As the march arrived in Piccadilly Gardens on Saturday afternoon, the Ukrainian national anthem was closely followed by God Save the King. The UK was one of the first countries to open its borders to Ukraine and in doing so welcomed around 200,000 refugees fleeing the war.

What has Manchester done for Ukraine?

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To mark the anniversary Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham held a press conference, together with representatives from the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain and charity UK-Med. He pledged Greater Manchester’s support for Ukraine, both home and abroad. 

He said: “My message to [Ukrainians] is we don't forget about you. We see you, we welcome you, we continue to welcome you here and we'll stand with you for as long as it takes. We're never fair weather friends here in Greater Manchester, we will always stick the course.”

In November, Mr Burnham visited Krakow in Poland to meet with his counterpart  from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, Andriy Sadoviy, for what he describes as Greater Manchester’s “biggest undertaking to date” when it comes to support from Ukraine. Together with Liverpool’s Steve Rotheram, he is recruiting mayors from around the world to the Unbroken Cities Network to help provide support to Lviv as it prepares to become Ukraine’s national rehabilitation hub. All the cities involved have some experience with terror attacks and extremist violence. 

Manchester's Ukrainian community out in force for the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine. Manchester's Ukrainian community out in force for the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine.
Manchester's Ukrainian community out in force for the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine.

In another symbolic gesture of solidarity with Ukraine, Mr Burnham also announced that Greater Manchester will recognise as genocide another historic atrocity against Ukraine. Known as the Holodomor in Ukraine, this is when, in 1932-33, between 3.5 and seven million Ukrainians – it’s impossible to confirm precise figures – starved to death as a result of Stalin’s man-made famine. 

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Jackie Snell, director of fundraising and communications for UK-Med, a charity which is working to provide medical support in Ukraine, also gave an update on the organisation’s work. They help by providing first aid training, GP services, life and limb saving surgeries and mental health services – of which she says the needs are “astronomical.”

She said: “The war is pretty unrelenting, there are continuing attacks, continuing casualty numbers - it's about the scale of it. We need to continue to be there to help people. We know people care deeply about Ukraine and many people supported Ukraine two years ago by donating, by supporting – but the situation is still as bad as it was two years ago.”

“No place to return”

There is always more to be done. Someone who knows only too well is Ukrainian journalist Alina Kostrubitska. At the anniversary march, Alina led the way and organised the crowds as a spokesperson for the refugee community in Manchester. She says that many Ukrainians in Manchester are now starting to think long-term about their lives in the UK. 

“It's just sociology,” she said. “When people are pushed to leave the country and when there's a war going on for more than two years. This is just the statistic that usually a third of refugees go back home.

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“Probably in our case it will be a bigger amount, we expect at least half, but half will stay. First of all, it's because a lot of people have no home, no place to return, so what should they do? Of course, they will stay. They will look for ways to settle here and job is the first thing, because you can't rent, you can't get a skilled worker visa.”

Mayor Andy Burnham, Petro Rewko, Alina Kostrubitska, Jackie Snell and Adam Reid, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who has worked with UK-Med in Ukraine. Mayor Andy Burnham, Petro Rewko, Alina Kostrubitska, Jackie Snell and Adam Reid, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who has worked with UK-Med in Ukraine.
Mayor Andy Burnham, Petro Rewko, Alina Kostrubitska, Jackie Snell and Adam Reid, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who has worked with UK-Med in Ukraine.

Alina has been one of the lucky ones in that she has received support to settle in the UK. She has worked with a London-based work coach and had free English lessons from the British Council. Language has been one of the barriers for many Ukrainians arriving in the UK. 

Alina said: “Ukrainians need more support in this area. Yes, we have here United for Ukraine and they help a lot in searching for different kinds of jobs. I talked with them before and they said they had a project for 50 people and they got 300 applications. A lot of Ukrainians are still struggling to find jobs.”

Recent changes to the visa scheme in place for Ukrainians have left some refugees feeling worried. The family visa scheme was scrapped on February 19, meaning Ukrainian nationals can no longer apply to sponsor family members intending to come to the UK. At the same time, the visa extension, which will come into force in 2025, will be decreased to 18 months from three years.

“Putin will never stop”

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For now, the one thing everyone can do to help is keep Ukraine in their mind, Ukrainians say. Two years into the war and media attention is waning, but the threat posed by Russia is global and that even small gestures can go a long way in helping Ukraine overcome it. 

One thing that Alina wants people to know: “We should understand that Putin will never stop and it's a big question about all the repercussions for Europe and the entire world. We should stop him in Ukraine and only together we can do that. Because Ukraine has will power and not enough resources.”

Jackie Snell added: “We say to people: Don't forget about Ukraine, the people of Ukraine still need us, organisations like UK Med and others are out there delivering services and we can continue to do that with their support. We will be there as long as we're needed.”

Petro said: “Readers just need to continue to support Ukraine, as they have been doing to this day. Maybe go and stand at a rally, go to a concert, go to an event. Just continue giving support to Ukraine and telling everybody: Yes, we will stay with Ukraine to the end of it."